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Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Ryann O'Toole gets her biggest break

By Mick Elliott

Hardly anyone in golf seems to know what to make of the selection of LPGA rookie Ryann O'Toole for the U.S. Solheim Cup squad that will take on Europe this week in Ireland.

At the time of U.S. captain Rosie Jones' surprise at-large pick a month ago, O'Toole, a 24-year-old blonde from Southern California with a firecracker personality, had played in a grand total of seven LPGA tournaments.

Now, she will go into Friday's opening day with all of 10 tour events under her belt. In only two of those has she finished in the top 10. Four times -- including the past three outings -- she has missed the cut.

Still, there's something about O'Toole.

"She's got moxie," Jones said.

What O'Toole seems to lack in experience, accomplishment and profile, she counters with old-fashioned fire. She speaks of competition with the same zeal Glenn Beck preaches conservatism. She carries the confidence of a gunslinger and a self-assuredness that cannot be learned.

"Well, the feistiness definitely comes from my background of being Irish and Italian," O'Toole said. "I have to say thanks to my mom for the Italian side of me.

"But I just think it's the athlete that is driven inside. I like a challenge. All I'm doing is believing in myself."

It makes for an almost-unbelievable story.

A year ago in February, after finishing her senior season at UCLA in and out of the starting lineup, O'Toole got her big break -- literally. Chosen by the Golf Channel as a contestant on its popular reality show, O'Toole competed in "The Big Break: Sandals Resort," where aspiring professionals competed for an LPGA tournament exemption and other prizes during a two-week shoot in the Bahamas.

Although O'Toole was eliminated in the fifth episode of the 10-week series, she became one of the most identifiable personalities, with a fascinated following.

"They told all of us to just figure out who you are and play into that part," O'Toole said of the show's taping. "Play into the character you want to be represented by. So I said, 'Well, I'm competitive,' so I took that aspect and ran with it."

After "Big Break," O'Toole went back to grassroots grinding on the Futures Tour, where, until then, she had earned $6,237 in eight events after turning pro in 2009. But then came her big breakout.

"I definitely was a late bloomer," she said. "I started late in junior golf. I was a decent college player, but not the best. It wasn't until I graduated and got on the Futures Tour that I blossomed."

In 2010, she won twice on the Futures circuit and finished seventh on the money list to earn conditional status as a rookie on the LPGA Tour this season. She won again on the Futures Tour to begin 2011, made the cut in May at the Avnet LPGA Classic in Mobile, Ala., and found herself with full-exempt status.

She even qualified for this year's U.S. Women's Open. Shortly after arriving at The Broadmoor in Colorado for tournament week, O'Toole talked her way into playing a practice round with Norway's Suzann Pettersen and American Cristie Kerr, the No. 2- and No. 3-ranked players in the world, respectively, just to make her presence known.

Kerr, no wilting violet herself, was impressed by O'Toole's spunk during the round. She offered encouragement and even told the rookie she would make a great Solheim Cup player.

By the end of the week, Jones also had taken notice.

O'Toole responded with a top-10 finish, spending much of the tournament on the leaderboard.

"At the end of the week, Rosie congratulated me on my play and said I was on her radar, that she'd be watching me the next few events," O'Toole said. "I think the biggest thing she saw in me was that it didn't scare me away. It didn't cause me to run. It made me work harder and step up to the challenge."

After the Women's Open, O'Toole played poorly in France at the Evian but returned a week later to finish in a tie for fifth at the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., the weekend of Jones' captain's picks.

Jones was sold.

"Knowing that I have a very solid foundation with nine returning players from 2009 ... I wanted a player who has been playing well recently showing me they can play under pressure and in big showcase events," Jones said, explaining the pick.

"Having only played seven events did not bother me. ... She hits it a ton, plus she's a good putter, but more important, she has an ease to her demeanor and an air of confidence that I liked while she was playing at the Open. She's not afraid to voice her confidence and spunk. I need that at the Solheim Cup and especially over the pond in Ireland."

O'Toole may not be for everybody, but her passion is sincere. Growing up in Southern Cal, she was a competitor in almost everything. She played team sports -- basketball and softball. She was a surfer girl. Actually, she was a girl for any sport with a board.

"I loved surfing. I grew up snowboarding and wakeboarding, but actually competed in skateboard, had a shoe company endorsement," she said. "I grew up doing extreme sports that for golfers are not usually in the spectrum."

O'Toole hits the golf ball a mile and can grind with the best of them, thanks in part to a workout routine that is also not usually in golf's spectrum.

"Well, I do weightlifting three to four days a week," O'Toole said. "Then two days a week I will do sprint training, meaning 10 to 20 minutes of kind of either uphill sprint training or around the track or in the sand somewhere ... anywhere from 100 yards to 400 yards. I'm just trying to get basically completely out of breath.

"A perfect example is, you know, when you're hitting the shot and having to walk up a huge hill, you get out of breath quickly. How can you recover quickly? Teaching yourself and teaching your body to breathe, you get past it. That way you can hit the shot."

Now, here she is ready to take a deep breath and play in the most prestigious women's team competition in golf ... as a rookie who a month ago seemed as unidentifiable as a range ball.

"Rosie loved her game and her heart," said veteran Juli Inkster, who will play and serve as an assistant captain this week. "She thought Ryann could handle the crowds over there. Why not give her a shot?"

O'Toole says she's ready -- for whatever she needs to be.

"Rosie picked me for my pure competitiveness," she said. "I'm not at the top. I'm not Paula Creamer. I'm not Morgan Pressel or Michelle Wie. I'm a rookie out here. I have so much to learn. But a player can complement the team and bring unity. I think that's what I can provide.

"I think Rosie saw a lot of herself in what she saw in me."

This week promises to produce a lot of looks.