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Life Begins Again at 50 for Fleming September 10, 2017 | PORTLAND, Ore. By Tom Mackin

Former LPGA Tour player Tara Fleming has rediscovered her passion for the game as a senior amateur. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

U.S. Senior Women's Amateur Home

Most people don’t exactly look forward to turning 50. Not Tara Fleming. She was thrilled to celebrate that milestone birthday in January.

“I thought yeah, I’m finally 50 and I can play in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur,” said Fleming, who shot a 4-over par 76 in the first round of stroke play at Waverley Country Club on Saturday. “I feel like this is a tournament where I’m really playing with my peers. It’s tough to play against 25- to 35-year-olds when you’re 45 or 50.”

Her primary goal this week is the same as the one she had as captain of the winning New Jersey team in the 2013 USGA Women’s State Team Championship at NCR Country Club in Dayton, Ohio.

“I remember telling my teammates that week (17-year-olds Alice Chen and Cindy Ha): ‘We’re just going to have fun today. You can control that.’ Normally, the people who have the most fun, win. That’s my focus again this week.”

Four years later, Fleming refers to that win as one of the most amazing moments of her life.

“I never had to stand up after a tournament and give a speech before that,” she said. “That’s a big frigging deal. I still get emotional about it now. I never thought I would be a person who could say, I’m a champion [in a USGA event], which I can say for the rest of my life.”

As a high school senior in Houston, Texas, Fleming had to choose between playing basketball, her preferred sport, or golf.

“My mother told me: ‘Tara, you could play basketball for another four years in college. But if you play golf, you can use it for the rest of your life.’”

Fleming walked on to the golf team at the University of New Mexico, finishing 12th in the NCAA Championship her junior year and qualifying for the 1988 U.S Women’s Open at Baltimore Country Club (she missed the cut there and in three subsequent U.S. Women’s Opens). After graduation, she headed to LPGA Tour Qualifying School in Florida, earning her Tour card in 1991.  

“I’ll never forget my first tournament in Florida, standing on the practice green and here comes Nancy Lopez walking right toward me,” she recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I broke a rule already and I’m in trouble.’ She stuck her hand out and goes: ‘Hi Tara Fleming, I’m Nancy Lopez. Welcome to the LPGA Tour.’”

Fleming played for three years – her best finish was a tie for 10th in the 1992 Corning Classic – before losing her Tour card. She also received the Mary Bea Porter Humanitarian Award in 1994 for performing CPR on a spectator who suffered a heart attack while she was playing in the LPGA Toledo Jamie Farr Classic.

She then regained her Tour card in 1996, but after missing multiple cuts, she walked away from the game.

“You don’t just want to make cuts, you want to be in the middle of the cuts,” she said. “I knew it was time to go and I felt like it was the first time I took a deep breath in seven years.”

Fleming didn’t pick up a club for the next three years, focusing instead on her business career. In 1999, she was reinstated as an amateur, and playing at Bayonne Golf Club in New Jersey, near her home in Jersey City, reignited her passion for the game.

“It lit my soul again,” said Fleming, who works for a consulting firm. “Bayonne was just such a lovely place to play, and I had a caddie who was short as I am tall, and as black as I am white. We just became buddies and he helped bring the love of the game back to me.”

Since then, Fleming has experienced a fair bit of competitive success, winning the New Jersey Mid-Amateur Championship in 2015 and earlier this year. She was also the medalist in U.S Senior Women’s Amateur sectional qualifying last month at Forest Hill Field Club in Bloomfield, N.J.

Fleming celebrated her 50th birthday with a golf trip to Cabot Links in Nova Scotia. That long-ago decision to give up basketball and play golf has never looked better.

“I’m going to work as long as I have to so that I can play golf and drink good red wine for the rest of my life,” she said. “That’s my goal.”

Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.