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The 15th Club Is Key One for Sherri Turner

When Sherri Turner steps on the tee at a golf tournament, she, like all golfers, first riffles through her bag. She wants to check to see if she has the requisite number of clubs. Yep, two woods, eight irons, three wedges and a putter.

Now, Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus might hawk their bags to make sure they put the 1-iron in. But what Sherri Turner is making sure about is a 15th stick, a little fountain-pen shaped implement that is more important to her than the putter. For one thing, it is designed to keep her from getting the shakes.

Lots of people get the shakes over four-foot putts. Sam Snead had them so bad, he coined a name for them--the “yips.”

But it’s not nerves that will make Sherri’s fingers tremble, her mouth go dry, her head get dizzy. It’s not fear of failure, it’s fear of falling.

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Par is not the biggest challenge Sherri faces on the golf course each day. Turner’s hazard is not water-on-the-right, sand in front of the green, trees behind. It’s the kind you can’t hit over or around.

The most important thing most golfers do before a round is hit some shots. Sherri takes some. She is a diabetic.

Golf is a tough enough game to play when your blood sugar is normal, your pulse rate steady, temperature 98 and blood pressure perfect. Sherri can’t totally rely on any one of these.

Guys in golf have been known to think they should be given shots if they had a head cold during the week, if their pinky finger got caught in a door or if their shoes are too tight. Turner plays the field even, but she’s spotting all of them. Sherri should probably be getting two-a-side.

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She doesn’t want them. Or need them. It would be remarkable enough if Sherri could just play golf with this infirmity. But to be the best borders on the incredulous.

A case could be made that Sherri is the best player on the women’s tour right now. It’s for sure she’s one of them. She won the most money--$350,851--last year. She won two tournaments. She was in a playoff for two others. Golf Magazine and Golf World and Golf Illustrated chose her player-of-the-year. She already has won a tournament this year.

It’s difficult to imagine what she might do if she didn’t have to stop whatever she was doing twice a day and inject herself with insulin. The 15th club she carries in her bag is a little vial of insulin. She also totes an instrument to measure blood sugar. If the level gets too high, she gets sick to her stomach, and her head and sinuses ache. If it gets too low, she gets too weak to draw the club back.

It’s a balancing act. You don’t cure diabetes. The best you can get is a draw. Every day is a knife fight. Too much insulin and you go into shock. Too little insulin and you might go into a coma.

It is an affliction Turner shares with a lot of people, some say as much as 1% of the population.

It was a depressing discovery. Sherri was 15 at the time, and she was already an accomplished golfer in her native Greenville, S.C., when she found herself plagued with an unquenchable thirst. She found herself drinking water by the gallon, a classic symptom of diabetes. The word, in Greek, means “fountain.” She had unexplained headaches. She was hungry all the time, but lost weight steadily. She lived in the sun, but never got a tan. It was not a tough diagnosis for the doctors, just for Sherri. Her blood sugar count was over 600.

The doctors gave her the obligatory pep talks. They reminded her of the Scottish doctor’s prescription for long life--get a chronic ailment and take care of it. It was easy for them to say. They didn’t hanker to be a world-famous golfer. How do you play golf with a syringe?

Diabetes is incurable, but not unconquerable. It’s like playing an Open. You have to have all the shots, but you have to have a plan, too. Sherri has two tournaments going. The one on the fairway is easy. The one in the endocrine system requires some delicate shot-making, too.

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There are times when her normally too-high blood sugar gets too-low. She carries candy, sweet rolls and sweet soft drinks in her bag, along with the rest of her clubs and the injection stick.

“I eat almost constantly,” she says ruefully. “You can’t skip a meal. It’s not always easy to find the food you have to have in this business. You’re traveling so much. You never are sure how long a round will take. You don’t always know when your next meal will be. Or what it will be. Occasionally, I wolf down a hamburger, but I try to stick to chicken and vegetables.”

She also tries to stick to birdies and par. Last year, she had the second-most birdies on the LPGA tour, 324.

Athletes have contended with the dreaded diabetes mellitus successfully. Ron Santo, perennial All-Star third baseman of the Chicago Cubs, kept it at bay for a 15-year, homer-filled (342) career in the big leagues. Ham Richardson and Billy Talbert were Davis Cup tennis players who kept the disease at the baseline.

Turner doesn’t need strokes from her competition, either. In fact, her play is so good, there must be days when the rest of the tour would begin to wonder where they might go to catch whatever is wrong with her.

It took her five years to get her LPGA card. It took her four to get her first victory. But friends say that may be more due to her nature than her ability. She was shy, almost diffident. She is still as soft-spoken as a nun, but her golf is getting louder and louder. She not only was a double winner and the money leader last year, but she led in eagles, was second, one back, in birdies and had 17 top 10 finishes (in 29 events).

She may be the longest, straightest driver in the field at the Nabisco Dinah Shore down here this week. But her triumph has shown she can birdie a longer, tougher course than Mission Hills.

Diabetes is no drive and an 8-iron. Diabetes is not used to having a whole bunch of 63’s, 66’s and 67’s thrown at it. Sherri is playing in a major, all right. Whatever she does on the golf course this week, she already has won her major. Just being in this tournament is a Hall of Fame performance. She should not only win the Hogan Award, but whatever other admiration is laying around if she just makes the cut.

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