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Sunday, January 12, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Golf's Not Top Priority As Carner Returns To Course

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI - They come up to her with open arms, like children to their mother, which is perfect because JoAnne Carner has been "Big Momma" on the LPGA Tour for decades. These greetings usually start with a hug. And then the inevitable question: "How's Don?"

Carner always says the same thing: "He's doing OK." But the "OK" always comes out a little softer than the rest, so people get the feeling Don isn't really doing OK. And they suspect maybe JoAnne - who returned to competition in the LPGA's season-opening Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions this weekend at Weston Hills Country Club - isn't either.

Don Carner is 81 years old and suffers from Parkinson's disease and dementia brought on by two strokes.

JoAnne Carner is 57. And she's tired.

"I had to put him in day care in November," said Carner, who grew up in Kirkland, Wash., but has lived in Palm Beach since 1968. "I was just absolutely exhausted trying to do it myself. It was 24 hours a day, no rest, nothing. I started to get sick myself. I had pneumonia. I knew I had to make a change."

So she put her husband of 34 years in day care. It wasn't even a hard decision - "At that point," she said, "I was so exhausted, there was no choice."

She drops him off every morning, picks him up every night. But the past week was different. Instead of returning home to catch up on sleep, she drove south to Weston Hills Country Club.

Carner has been a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame since 1982 and has 42 LPGA victories.

But because of her husband's health problems, this was her first tournament since May. Her layoff showed when she shot 79, eight over par, in the opening round. But her long absence explains why so many players came up to her on the putting green and the practice tee and in the locker room to tell her how good it was to see her again.

"She's just a great lady," said Mary Beth Zimmerman, a 1983 Florida International graduate and current LPGA player. "She's the kind of lady who you hope will always play out here. And she's kept such a great attitude."

They hug her and tell her welcome back, but what they don't know is that Big Momma was up four times with Don the night before, helping him to the bathroom or listening as he tried to tell her what he wanted.

"I slept four hours straight last night," she said with a smile. "For some reason, he didn't wake me up. I can't remember the last time I slept four hours straight."

Before she put him in day care, playing golf was impossible.

"As the week progressed I'd get worn out from lack of sleep," she said. "It was hard emotionally and physically. It's very hard to keep your nerves calm when you lack sleep."

Gave up captain's job

So she all but gave up golf, playing only three official tournaments in 1996 and failing to break par in a single round. She also gave up the one thing in golf that meant the most to her, being captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup team. She watched on television as the United States rallied to win.

So when the time finally came to put Don in day care, one of the first things she did was pick up the clubs again.

"I miss the competition. I miss the exercise. I miss the friendships. I miss having some goals, striving for something," she said. "When you've done something for so many years, it's hard to stop."

Now that she's back, Carner has to learn to walk again.

She hadn't walked 18 holes since the U.S. Women's Open in May (she missed the cut). On Monday, she walked nine practice holes at Weston, chain-smoking all the way, then packed it in. A sore heel made matters worse.

She'll play the Orlando stop this week and hopes for a special invitation into the limited-field Palm Beach National Pro-Am next month. Then she'll try the Nabisco Dinah Shore in California, if Don can handle the flight.

It's hard to know what to expect, but the game is still there. She can still pound it out there with the young players.

"I'm close," she said. "But not having played in so long, I don't know how good my tournament nerves will be. Or my walking. Or how tired I'm going to be. But other than that . . ."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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