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Hardships behind her, Kueny back in form on Symetra Tour

  • Laura Kueny plays a round at Beaver Meadows Golf Course before Friday's start of the Northeast Delta Dental International tournament.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

    Laura Kueny plays a round at Beaver Meadows Golf Course before Friday's start of the Northeast Delta Dental International tournament.

    (JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

  • Laura Kueny plays a round at Beaver Meadows Golf Course before Friday's start of the Northeast Delta Dental International tournament.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

    Laura Kueny plays a round at Beaver Meadows Golf Course before Friday's start of the Northeast Delta Dental International tournament.

    (JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

  • Laura Kueny plays a round at Beaver Meadows Golf Course before Friday's start of the Northeast Delta Dental International tournament.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)
  • Laura Kueny plays a round at Beaver Meadows Golf Course before Friday's start of the Northeast Delta Dental International tournament.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

Golf’s never been the problem for Laura Kueny. The game comes easily to her. She’s always known how to swing a club, approach a shot and play a course.

It’s life that’s been the battle, right from the very beginning, for as long as she can remember.

The Whitehall, Mich., native is playing at the Northeast Delta Dental New Hampshire International, where she mixes in well with the rest of the 143 golfers. Her journey to this point, however, puts her alone. There’s the bout with cancer that threatened her life when she was 4. The wrist injury that jeopardized her career when it was just getting started. The years of frustration afterward, during which flagging scores had her wondering just how much she wanted to play the game that had been the focus of her life.

Those obstacles form the backdrop to what’s been a season of triumph. Kueny is fourth on the Symetra Tour money list, with two top-10s, a win and serious LPGA Tour aspirations as she tees off today at Beaver Meadow Golf Course.

“This kind of year is what I’ve been looking for for the past two years,” the 25-year-old said. “It’s just a matter of I’m making more putts this year than I did in previous years. … I’ve had my good rounds and my bad rounds, but the weeks that I have good finishes I’m having three solid, good rounds. And that’s something I’ve been struggling to do in the past.”

She’s been playing since she was 4, since shortly after being diagnosed with leukemia. She only has snapshots in her mind from those days as she battled the disease, but the images that stand out are harrowing. She remembers the spinal taps, when she was held down on a table by nurses to undergo shots that left scars that are still there today. And she remembers being placed by herself in a room to breathe in medicine, and banging on the door and crying while her parents, Jim and Karen, resolved to find another way to get their child well.

“I blame that for being claustrophobic today,” she said.

Jim, a golf club pro, organized a benefit tournament for his recovering daughter, and Kueny picked up a club and began swinging it. In the first example of a philosophy that she’s taken to heart, Kueny turned a setback into an opportunity. She liked swinging the club and didn’t put it down, embarking on a golf career that eventually netted her two Michigan high school championships and had her bound for a college career at Michigan State University.

“(My dad) didn’t force me to play or work on my swing,” Kueny said. “Golf always came naturally. I kind of just developed a swing on my own.”

That swing took her all the way to the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open – and the doorstep to another setback. Kueny was warming up for a practice round when she swung a 5-wood and felt immediate pain in her left wrist. She fought through it for the remainder of the tournament and two others before the pain forced her to stop. She had torn the TFCC, a structure of ligaments and cartilage, in her wrist, and she also had a cyst in the area that needed to be removed. Weeks in a cast followed with the season playing on without her, all while doctors estimated she had approximately a 50-percent chance of returning to form.

Kueny came back, but she wasn’t the same. With the injury still fresh in her mind, she meandered through the next two seasons, finishing 75th on the money list in 2011 and 55th in 2012, never even nearing contention for a top-10 spot necessary to earn an LPGA Tour card for the next season.

“When I first came back, I was still very tentative and scared I was going to hurt it again,” she said. “That kind of messed with my shots a little bit, and I was very inconsistent.”

As the year wound down, Kueny wondered if she’d had enough. She thought about leaving the tour and, as she did after her injury, when she returned to Michigan State and got her degree in geography, set out focusing on other aspects of her life. She took a winter job at UPS, relaxed with friends and got away from the daily grind that is competitive golf.

That grind kept calling, however, and Kueny could only ignore it for so long.

“I eventually got bored,” she said. “There’s only so many things you can do. I love to travel and I love to compete. I’ve met so many great people out here.”

She gave the game another chance, and it’s paying off. She made the cut in two of the first three events, then captured her first win in May at the Symetra Classic. She celebrated by bringing the trophy back to the hospital, to the place where her journey to this point began.

“It was just a feeling (that) I had to go back,” she said, “and thank the people that gave me a second chance to pursue my dream.”

That dream’s looking good now. Her wrist is healed completely, and she’s back attacking shots on the course, recording a runner-up finish at the Decatur-Forsyth Classic a week after her win. She’s playing with a patience that had eroded and a confidence that had disappeared, and she has a high spot on the money list to show for it.

Once again, setbacks have led to opportunities.

“Since junior golf, I’ve always kind of known that I can win at this level,” she said. “A lot of consistent golf, good finishes, and a win is definitely what I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been so close, and to finally capture that is a great feeling.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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