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Friday, April 6, 2012
Speech recognition

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

What you're about to see is the most agonizing, amazing, emotional, funny and absolutely gripping award speech you've ever watched.

It happened Wednesday night in Augusta, when 38-year-old LPGA star Sophie Gustafson was presented the Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America.

Gustafson, who was divorced from former LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw in 2010, won the award for "overcoming a physical handicap." But the Swedish player's handicap isn't a bad knee or injuries from a car crash. Gustafson has a severe stutter.

When she got up to accept in a room of 350 people, surely everybody in the crowd -- which included Luke Donald, Tom Lehman and Brad Faxon -- wondered how she was possibly going to give a speech. Gustafson's stutter makes ordering pepper an adventure. That's when the writer presenting her the award, Golf World's Ron Sirak, told the audience Gustafson would be accepting by video, even though she was standing 10 feet from the screen.

Gustafson had taped the speech herself, in her Orlando home. It was six minutes, 35 seconds in length. It took eight hours to shoot."I wanted to be in control of it," she says. "I'm a bit of a perfectionist."

The lights went dark. She stood there watching us watch her. She wasn't embarrassed. She was proud. And we, in turn, were blown away by her bravery.

"I truly thank you all for giving me this opportunity through the Ben Hogan award," Gustafson said.

That sentence alone took 28 seconds.

"I hope we can all agree that this [the videotape] is the best way of doing this," she said, "if we all want to get out of this room before the first tee time in the morning."

It was excruciating waiting for the end of her sentences. But exhilarating when she would get to the end because there was always a surprise punch line when you got there.

"I've never seen [my stutter] as a handicap," she tried. "In fact, thinking about it, maybe I should try to get a handicap sticker for my car. The shorter walk would make up for the time I take at the deli counter ordering cheese."

"I was actually approached to do a radio show the other week. Seriously? Radio? Nuh-uh. I don't think that's gonna happen."

She was funny and sentimental and utterly charming. At the table in front of her, LPGA Player of the Year Yani Tseng was crying.

In emails to me, Gustafson said she did it to give kids who stutter a role model. "And I was so proud to win the award," she wrote. "It's cool."

Gustafson had tried all kinds of therapy, acupuncture and even drugs, which sabotaged her golf game, so she gave them up.I asked her how long her speech would've taken if she'd been forced to give it live.

"I would probably faint of exhaustion before I'd finish," she wrote.

Votaw, her ex-husband, was in the crowd. He's now an executive with the PGA Tour. Gustafson once said part of the problem in their marriage was Votaw wanting to help her through awkward speaking situations, finishing her sentences, protecting her. She said it was "paralyzing" and undermined her self-esteem. Was she uncomfortable having him in the crowd?

"No. He came up and congratulated me afterwards, which was nice," she wrote. "He knows all he's done, so nothing comes as a surprise to him."

Gustafson's coach of 20 years, Pia Nilsson, said the speech "makes my heart sing. She's got so many qualities as a human being. I'm so happy she found a way to communicate that more."

Gustafson, who has won 26 pro tournaments, closed with this: "When reporters ask me what advice I have for people who stutter, I tell them, 'Do what you want to do. Granted, phone salesman might not be the job for you.'"

Well said.