Dowds will use exemption to spread message

If Dakoda Dowd suffers from stage fright, it will be understandable. She is just 13, a teenager who will play in her first LPGA Tour event beginning Thursday.

She has been looking forward to this day for months, but nothing can prepare her for that first tee shot -- nothing, of course, but her mom, who will be just outside the ropes, beaming.

And that's what this is all about.

"If I get nervous, I'm going to look over and see my mom smiling," Dakoda said. "Once I look over and see her, all the nerves will go away."

Cameras will click, fans will cheer and a dream will be fulfilled at the Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open near Orlando. Dakoda will be playing in an LPGA event, with her cancer-stricken mom, Kelly Jo, there to witness it.

She has been building toward this day for nearly six months, since the Ginn Company announced it would be giving her a sponsor's exemption to play in the inaugural $2.5 million tournament that will attract just about all the top names in women's golf.

It is a story that has received national attention. Dakoda rolls her eyes when she talks about all the interviews she's done -- somewhere in the range of 100, she figures -- with publications such as People magazine, USA Today and the New York Times among them.

And while some might say it is all too much for a young girl whose mother is ill and whose golf game is still a work in progress, the Dowd family has embraced the attention, seeing it as a way to spread the word about a deadly disease.

"I have a message to put out to the world right now," said Kelly Jo Dowd, 41, during a recent interview at the Westin Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., where Dakoda was competing in a junior tournament. "There's been some doors opened for me. I'm going to walk through the doors the best I can to relay those messages."

What Kelly Jo wants people to know is that she has terminal cancer because, she believes, she failed to take action when there were signs of warning.

In late 2001, Dakoda was already an accomplished junior player with a smattering of trophies to her credit when Kelly Jo noticed she had a lump in her breast. It wasn't until 10 months later that it was diagnosed as breast cancer.

Kelly Jo fought vigorously, through a double mastectomy and intense chemotherapy. Her hair fell out, but she continued to work at Hooters in Palm Harbor, where she had risen from waitress and calendar girl to general manager.

Everything seemed fine until about a year ago, when doctors discovered that the cancer had returned with a vengeance. It had spread to her hip, liver and near her spine.

"I'm in this boat because I waited too long," said Kelly Jo, who recently began another round of chemotherapy. "Like any disease, breast cancer along with it, the sooner you get it, the sooner you can catch it and be done with it. So don't wait."

Dakoda has been playing golf ever since she can remember, and despite numerous junior titles and plenty of promise, her family is the first to admit that the situation involving her mother is the reason for this week's invite.

The Ginn company heard the story and wanted to do something to help make the dream come true. It invited Dakoda to play and then asked the LPGA Tour for a special waiver so she would not take a spot from another deserving player.

"It's an incredible gift," said Mike Dowd, Dakoda's father. "We're very privileged to be on the receiving end of it. It's allowed us to have something else to look at. My wife has been extremely excited about getting to this time. It is something very positive to focus on."

The Dowds have been touched by the outpouring of support from strangers and others in the community. Hooters had a fundraiser for the family and paid for a membership for Dakoda at Innisbrook, where the family lives in a one-bedroom condo.

Their dream about to come true, and attention focused on them, Kelly Jo has used the outlet to try to raise money for various cancer-related groups, including www.makingmemories.org, which grants wishes to people diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

As for the golf, Dakoda had not played competitively for some time before last week's Innisbrook Easter Junior tournament, where she finished fifth.

How that translates to this week is a big mystery.

On Tuesday, she was scheduled to play a practice round with Annika Sorenstam and Paula Creamer, the LPGA Player and Rookie of the Year, respectively, from last season. She was also scheduled to play with Natalie Gulbis in the Wednesday pro-am.

Then it's on to the tournament.

"I know [Dakoda] is going to be scared, nervous, anxious," her father said. "The thing that will get us through it will be her mother's courage and what she is battling. Her attitude has been that if her mom is courageous enough to battle this cancer, then I can handle the crowds and the attention."

"I'm a little nervous for her," Kelly Jo said. "But that's a small percentage of the feeling. I'm off the Richter scale with excitement for her. What an incredible opportunity she's been given. It's very, very special. This does not come along for many people. I'm proud and happy that my daughter will be able to have this experience."

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.