Stress Tested

Kim Williams should have realized things were going too well. The golfer was pleased as she drove out of the gates of Orlando’s Grand Cypress Resort last Jan. 12 after shooting an opening-round 72 in the LPGA’s first event of the year. Her bad back, which had required surgery and forced her to miss the 1999 season, felt good. Williams was almost, well, optimistic. Then suddenly an oncoming car veered into her lane and hit her head-on. The next thing she remembers is waking up in Orlando Regional Medical Center. “I would say I came pretty close to being killed,” Williams says. “I remember the police officer came to the hospital and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re alive.’ ”

Indeed, it’s something of a miracle that Williams, and her career, are still ticking. During her 15 years as a professional golfer, the 38-year-old Bethesda, Md., native—who made her return to competition May 4 at the Chik-fil-A Charity Championship in Stockbridge, Ga.—has seen more trouble than the average soap opera heroine. First came the freakish 1994 incident in which a stray bullet fired by a target shooter a half mile away struck her in the neck as she walked into an Ohio drugstore. (It missed all major arteries, and she was back on the LPGA tour in eight days.) Later came an operation to remove the slug, followed by a ruptured disk and surgery for that. Williams was finally getting her career back on track when the car accident occurred. Her injuries included a broken collarbone and a knee that required surgery. “She’s kind of like a cat with nine lives,” says her father, Doug, 75. “I told her she’d better stop using them up.”

Luck like this might have sent another athlete into a funk, but it seems to have made Williams—who failed to make the cut at the first two tournaments since her return—all the more determined. “I’ve seen people really suffer. What’s happened to me is small by comparison,” she says, mentioning fellow golfer Heather Farr, who died of breast cancer in 1993. “I’m doing what I love to do, and whatever problems I’ve had, I’m recovering.” LPGA tour leader Annika Sorenstam says of her colleague’s many hard knocks, “It doesn’t seem to faze Kim. She comes back. She’s a fighting machine.”

Family and friends credit Williams’s spirit for the speed of her most recent recovery. Though doctors told her after the crash that it would be eight weeks before she could play again, she was back putting in four (before unrelated abdominal surgery sent her to the hospital for another three days). By week six, Williams—who stayed with her father and step-mother near Orlando while recuperating—was logging four hours of physical therapy daily, followed by another four to six hours of golf. “I’m very focused and very intense,” says the golfer, who plans to compete regularly during the remaining six months of LPGA play but will have to make approximately $95,000 if she is to maintain her exempt status next year (meaning that she does not need to qualify for the top tournaments). “You can’t make any money lying on the floor,” she observes.

Even as a child Williams was “an all-around good athlete,” remembers her father, a retired car-dealership owner who was divorced from Kim’s mother, Merrill, when his daughter was 6. “She was always trying to keep up with her two older brothers. They were always competing, whether it was jumping off the roof of the house, chasing the dog or playing baseball.” Though the 6’1″ Williams felt her aggressiveness was best suited for basketball, “my dad pointed out there weren’t too many career options [at the time] for women basketball players.”

Since dropping out of Mississippi State in her junior year to join the LPGA, Williams’s disciplined game and powerful drives have enabled her to earn a living, if not get rich. (Last year, one of her best, she made $113,000 but spent $50,000 on tour costs.) About the only beef she has is the 300 days a year, on average, that touring keeps her away from her home in Nashville. Williams, who is single, misses her friends, her condo, her rose garden and her prized 1976 black Cadillac Eldorado convertible, which she likes to drive around town with the top down and Donna Summer blasting. “People will look at me,” says Williams, “and wonder, ‘Which country music star is that?’ ”

In the not-too-distant future, Williams says, she would like to have a husband and family. But for now the priority for the “definitely rusty” golfer is regaining her game. “One thing about being in a bad accident,” she says, “you realize you’ve got to do things now. Life really is short. You’ve got to get cracking.”

Pam Lambert

Lori Rozsa in Orlando and Don Sider in Stockbridge

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