Michaux: Nicole Jeray keeps plugging away at golf career despite obstacles

Journeyman is not the first term any professional athlete wants to describe his or her career. Nobody chases a sporting dream to be defined as "reliable but not outstanding."

 

Women's golfer Nicole Jeray certainly embodies the most tenacious aspects of the journeyman. At age 46, the part-time Augusta resident isn't about to give up her personal journey that grows more unique by the year.

"I love it more now than I probably ever have," said Jeray, who can make a unique claim as the only regular competitor on all three tours that run the gamut of women's professional golf from futures to seniors. "That's probably why I continue to play."

This weekend, Jeray will be a journeyman among legends at the Walgreens Charity Championship in Delray Beach, Fla. And she'll feel right at home in a Legends Tour field that includes LPGA Hall of Famers Amy Alcott, Pat Bradley, Donna Caponi, Beth Daniel, Juli Inkster and Betsy King.

A year ago Jeray finished runner-up to repeat champion Liselotte Neumann in the same event at the same Seagate Country Club course. She shot 66 playing with Michelle McGann in the final round of the 36-hole event to surge past Inkster, Pat Hurst and Rosie Jones to collect $18,000.

"I'm super excited to go back," said Jeray, who last year had to Monday qualify her way into the event. "I love playing on the Legends with those women and I'm honored to be hitting balls next to some of the best women who have ever played the game. Last year I was just trying to qualify. Everybody who plays gets a check and I was so happy to just be in the tournament."

It's a comfortable experience compared to the rest of the year when Jeray is competing against players who typically are less than half her age. She competed in nine Symetra Tour and eight LPGA Tour events in 2016, but the three Legends starts make her feel like a rookie again.

"There are women out there who retired even before I started, and I've been playing for 22 years," Jeray said of the women's equivalent to the Champions Tour which she became eligible for when she turned 45. "Everybody who ever played is out there and I competed against like 80 percent of them. I know more girls on the Legends Tour for sure than I do on the Symetra Tour or LPGA. I feel more comfortable and I feel a lot younger. When I'm competing on the Symetra or LPGA I'm usually the oldest one out there other than Juli Inkster."

Jeray embraces the diversity of events she plays in. She got the last of her three Futures Tour victories in 2000 but still keeps going.

"I do OK on all of them," she said. "I would love to win on the Symetra and would like to finish better on the LPGA but this golf is such an addicting game and you always want to do better and are always working on something."

Jeray has long been challenged more than your average golf professional. Since before she first went out on tour in 1994, Jeray has been suffering from narcolepsy – a chronic sleep-wake disorder that can be debilitating in a sport that requires hours of concentration and focus. With proper medication and years of learning to deal with it, Jeray's energy and enthusiasm for golf has never been higher.

"I feel better now than I did my first 22 years on tour," she said. "I wish I felt this good back then when it was less competitive and I was a lot younger. But I feel so good now. You don't know the difference until you feel better."

She was first diagnosed with narcolepsy when she was 25 in her third season on tour. She spent years going to different doctors trying to figure out why she kept getting drowsy, She was evaluated for depression, thyroid disorder or hormone imbalance and the best most doctors could do was suggest she was "overworked and needed to slow down."

It reached a critical point in 1996 when she developed cataplexy.

"You get excited and your brain goes into REM sleep and you get paralyzed," she said. "I would hit a good shot and drop my club and eyes would start to close and I'd fall to the ground. Then I knew something was seriously wrong with me. I thought I had Lou Gehrig's disease or muscular dystrophy or something.

"When I found out it was narcolepsy I thought that was no big deal. I was just happy that I wasn't dying, so you just got to keep plugging away. I've always looked at the glass as half full so I always thought I could find a way."

The medicines she took to treat her cataplexy caused weight gain and made her drowsy to the point where she couldn't drive a car. "In 1999, my worst year, I couldn't stay awake on the golf course," she said. "I was asleep over the ball hitting shots."

With better medicine, hydration, diet and exercise, she is healthier and more alert than ever. Part of her sustained motivation is to raise awareness and money for narcolepsy through her "Swinging for Sleep" campaign that donates for every birdie she makes in competition.

"I want to be a good role model and let kids know they can follow their dreams and do what they want to do and not let narcolepsy get in the way," she said.

Jeray has been wintering in Augusta ever since she started dating Jody Keepers, who she first met when he caddied for her in the former LPGA event at Mount Vintage. After this week, she'll be back practicing at Jones Creek to prepare for her 23rd trip to LPGA Q school after Thanksgiving.

Jeray has competed in Q school all but one year (1995) since she first got her card in her first attempt in 1993. She's only missed the final stage once (1997), earned full exemption status seven times (the last in 2012) and gained conditional status six other times including last year when she tied for 36th.

"A few years ago I was thinking about quitting and then I do well at Q school and it's like, 'I can play with these girls,'" she said. "I'm planning on going back again just because my game feels really good right now. We'll see what happens next year. I don't anticipate retiring just yet, but when I do I think I'll still be able to play some of the Legends events."

Jeray's journey will continue as far as she can take it.

 

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