Before completing the 11th grade last year, Courtney Ellenbogen had drawn raves in two professional golf tournaments, cracked the top 10 of the national junior rankings and accepted a full scholarship to Duke.
Her talents flashed at the 2008 Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill, where she shot 69 in a Monday qualifier and 70 in the opening round before missing the cut. So enamored were tournament officials that they granted Ellenbogen, a Blacksburg High senior, a sponsor's exemption for this year's event.
But Ellenbogen, shaken by her first prolonged slump, withdrew from the tournament last Monday.
"She's had a real nice career track," said Bill Ellenbogen, Courtney's father and a former Virginia Tech football player. "But as in life, in sports there are setbacks."
Bill Ellenbogen knows first-hand. All athletes do, regardless of skill level, sport, or age. Declines are inevitable, often pronounced and prolonged.
How an athlete responds can make or break a career.
Five years ago, Michelle Wie came to Kingsmill a 14-year-old wunderkind. She had finished fourth in an LPGA major, missed the cut by a shot in a men's professional tournament and was drawing comparisons to Tiger Woods.
Hounded by injuries and pressure, she's yet to win on the LPGA Tour. Still wrestling with athletic mortality, Wie has played better of late and arrives at Kingsmill 22nd on this season's money list.
Legacy: To be determined.
Nancy Lopez won 17 times in her first two seasons, 1978 and '79, an unprecedented pace that no one could maintain. She added 31 victories over the next 14 years to earn induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Legacy: Among the top 10 all-time.
Hampton Roads native Curtis Strange won the second of his back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1989. He was 34 and in his prime. He never won again.
Legacy: A Hall of Famer who should have won more.
An offensive lineman at Virginia Tech during the early 1970s, Bill Ellenbogen was cut four times by NFL teams before playing 23 games over two seasons with the New York Giants. He's quick to share that history with his daughter.
"I don't want to make it sound like her game is completely in the toilet, because it's not," Bill Ellenbogen said. "But she just doesn't feel that she has a realistic chance to make the cut."
A year ago, Courtney had a very realistic chance. She shot a Thursday 70 that prompted Gov. Tim Kaine to seek her out, only to miss the cut by five after a second-round 77.
Ellenbogen oozed such potential almost from the moment she picked up a golf club as a 5-year-old at Blacksburg Country Club.
"She just flourished," said Steve Prater, her instructor then. "She fell in love with the game and the competition. She practiced the most, had the most concentration and was the most dedicated, and that's what it takes. You can teach them all you want, but they (have to do it)."
Ellenbogen won junior tournaments by the handful and competed against boys at Blacksburg High. She qualified for the 2007 U.S. Open the summer after her sophomore year and missed the cut by a meager stroke, outplaying past Open champions Karrie Webb, Hilary Lunke and Meg Mallon.
But soon after last year's Michelob, Ellenbogen lost her mojo.
Scores in the 80s, even a ghastly 94. Scattered shots and lost confidence. A self-imposed break and a three-month escape to Florida for some fresh instruction.
"I definitely wasn't comfortable with the physical aspects of my swing," Ellenbogen said. "There was a little lack of confidence, too. … But it was more my swing. I was putting (the ball) in places where it was impossible to recover."
Beth Daniel understands. From U.S. Amateur championships as a teen in the 1970s to 33 LPGA victories, she navigated many a peak and valley.
A 2000 Hall of Fame honoree, Daniel said that stepping away from tournament competition is the prudent course.
"I always went back to basics," she said. "I went back to grip, setup and all that kind of stuff with my teacher and basically started from scratch.
"You can't relax, and I think that's true of the high level in any sport. ... When you're on top and slack off, that's when it comes back to haunt you."
Ellenbogen qualified for a second consecutive U.S. Open last summer but didn't sniff the cut with two rounds of 79. She returned to American Junior Golf Association events and continued to struggle. Even less rigorous high school competition in the fall offered no respite.
At the Polo Junior Championships in late November, Ellenbogen shot 84-85 to finish last among the 79 girls vying for a place in the event's match-play phase.
Her opening round included but two pars and embodied bizarre. She triple-bogeyed two par-3s and double-bogeyed three consecutive holes to more than negate five birdies.
Prater, a former pro at Blacksburg Country Club now teaching at Roanoke CC, noticed technical flaws but considered Ellenbogen's issues "more mental than anything. There might have been a little bit of burnout, and she didn't want to admit it. It was a growing-up stage."
Indeed, Ellenbogen took pride in her hectic tournament schedule and daily workout regimen. But during December she took two or three days off per week.
Then she and her parents headed south. Ellenbogen withdrew from Blacksburg High, enrolled in a Naples, Fla., private school and, on a referral, began working with Mark Durland, the lead instructor at the Naples Grande Golf School.
Durland tinkered with Ellenbogen's setup and suggested one swing adjustment. Mostly he tried to ease her mind.
Durland saw a naïve teenager make the transition from the fun of playing for trophies to the work and business of chasing professional goals.
"Her (swing) action was very good," Durland said. "She's got a lot of natural ability. The girl works harder and is more dedicated than any student I've worked with. That's one of those things you can't teach. From there I just tried to stay out of her way."
Durland was scheduled to meet Ellenbogen at Kingsmill, help her map Pete Dye's River Course and work with her on the range. He believes she'll regain her form.
Moreover, he glimpsed that form during their on-course sessions.
"She helped me," Durland said. "She elevated my game. I couldn't let her beat me."
Ellenbogen said Durland "was great for my swing and my game." She's encouraged about "the direction my game is headed" and late last month re-enrolled at Blacksburg High, where she'll graduate with friends in June.
Still planning to compete at Kingsmill, Ellenbogen entered a junior tournament last weekend near Asheville, N.C. She shot 81-77, finished 21 shots behind the winner and withdrew from the Michelob.
"She feels the place to work on her game is junior tournaments and not LPGA tournaments," Bill Ellenbogen said. "But she'll be back."
Her first teacher agrees.
"She's the kind of person who will work her way through this and be better for it," Prater said. "She's right on track. It doesn't seem like it lately, but she is."
Michelob Ultra Open WHEN: Thursday-Sunday.WHERE: Kingsmill Resort and Spa, Williamsburg.Coming Thursday We break down the tournament with a special section.Online Read more tournament coverage at dailypress.com/lpga.
Today's schedule 8 a.m.: Qualifying round.10 a.m.: LPGA practice.4 p.m.: Caddie tournament.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times