13-year-old fulfills wish of terminally ill mom

REUNION, Fla. -- Dakoda Dowd watched her golf ball take flight and then walked toward her terminally ill mother.

The 13-year-old gave her a hug and said simply, "Mom, don't cry."

"I don't get how women cry when they are happy," Dakoda said later. "Who cries when they are happy?"

With that, the tears stopped, and a day the family will forever cherish began.

Dakoda, a golf phenom from Palm Harbor, Fla., competed Thursday in the LPGA Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open -- her first women's professional event.

Her mission was not to win but to make a memory for her mother. And on that count, Kelly Jo couldn't have been more pleased.

"Fantabulous," Kelly Jo Dowd said. "I have to make up my own vocabulary to describe it."

Tournament organizers extended the invitation to play after hearing of the family's plight. Dakoda finished the day with a 2-over-par 74, nine shots behind leader Cristie Kerr.

"I didn't have any expectations for this tournament, except to go out there and have a great time and look over and see my mom," said Dakoda, a winner of more than 100 tournaments and ranked among the nation's best 13-year-old players. "It did feel good shooting 74. I'm just really happy to be here."

So is her mom, on a number of different levels.

Kelly Jo Dowd is fighting cancer for the second time in four years. She was given a clean bill of health after doctors believed she beat breast cancer, but she learned last year that she has terminal bone and liver cancer -- and, conceivably, only months to live.

She wept and smiled when the starter announced Dakoda on the tee box as "a remarkable young lady." And the tears stopped when Dakoda hit a perfect drive down the left-center of the fairway to open her round -- setting up her only birdie of the day, one that followed an approach to two feet on the 528-yard par-5.

"She's playing with a heart full of love for her mom," said Mike Dowd, Dakoda's father. "The kid's got this in her, but I think this is more about God doing something for our lives right now. We walk out of our house this morning and see a rainbow. Then a birdie on the first hole. Come on. There's something else going on here."

When Ginn officials learned of Kelly Jo's wish to see her daughter play on the LPGA Tour, they offered a sponsor's exemption into the field. Dakoda was paired with Kate Golden and Tracy Hanson -- both at least 21 years older than the phenom -- and held her own, even outdriving both pros on a couple occasions.

Golden told Kelly Jo before the round not to worry, that "we'll take good care of your girl." And Hanson was particularly touched by Dakoda's story, since cancer claimed her mother nearly eight years ago.

"God knocked me on the head and said, 'Now, wait a minute. You have a purpose and a reason for being in that group,'" said Hanson, who shot 69. "I lost my mom to cancer, so it's very near and dear to my heart, their story. And it was a little emotional there on the first tee."

Dakoda arrived at the driving range 90 minutes before her starting time, looking relaxed. She chewed on her right thumbnail for a few minutes before teeing off and then hugged her mother and exhaled in relief when that first ball hit the fairway.

"She wasn't nervous at all," said Kristi Dowd, Dakoda's 20-year-old half-sister, who was among the flock of family and friends wearing pink-trimmed hats and visors with "KJ" stitched on the side. "I'm more nervous than she is. She's always like that. It's a blessing, for sure. It's a dream come true."

Kelly Jo, who was shuttled from hole to hole in a cart but stood along the rope line to see every one of Dakoda's shots, spent much of the day with her hands clasped in front of her, often bowing her head and closing her eyes before her daughter would hit the ball.

She often shouted, "Good shot, 'Koda." She pumped both fists over her head when things went well. She clapped softly when they didn't.

By the seventh hole, she felt so good that she leaned into a television camera's lens and began singing before announcing she was inviting everyone out for dancing that evening.

"I was pretty overwhelmed," Kelly Jo said. "We've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time."

Through the attention generated here, the Dowd family hopes to raise cancer awareness and encourage women to be diligent in getting checked -- something Kelly Jo acknowledges that she did not do, instead waiting nearly a year before getting the breast lump that turned out to be cancerous examined by doctors.

Kelly Jo said countless strangers have approached her in the past few weeks, offering kind words and encouragement.

"It's just all super surreal," said Dakoda, who is three years older than Beverly Klass was when she made her LPGA debut as a 10-year-old in 1967.

Even with the likes of Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa, Natalie Gulbis, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel -- some of the most popular players -- in the field, Dowd garnered much attention. Cameras have
followed her all week, did again Thursday and will be back Friday.

Laura Diaz, who shot 67, was one group behind Dakoda and came away impressed.

"You know, they are dealing with real-life issues and we're out there trying to get a white ball in the hole," Diaz said. "So it kind of makes you think that a bogey is not that bad. I really feel for them and I'm so proud of Dakoda. ... She's the cutest little girl."

Someday, Dakoda hopes she's a mainstay on LPGA leaderboards. Yet she still isn't expecting a Cinderella-esque run, even after finishing two shots behind world No. 1 Sorenstam and one shot better than Karrie Webb, who won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the season's first major.

"There is no way I'm going to think about that," Dakoda said. "I'm just here to have a great time and whatever happens happens. But this is just an amazing experience, no matter what."