GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Returning to the LPGA Tour for the first time this year has made Dottie Pepper feel like a rookie again.
Not only has there been some anxiety coming back from surgery on her left shoulder, but just getting to the ShopRite Classic on the Bay Course at the Marriott Seaview Resort for Friday's opening round was a new experience for the 36-year-old.
"Obviously it feels strange to be back and one of the strangest things is just packing from scratch again," Pepper said.
Since joining the LPGA Tour in 1988, Pepper admittedly has had her golf bag and luggage always half packed, ready to hit the road.
All that changed after she had two surgical procedures performed on March 1. It left the fiery Pepper with her left arm in a sling and little to do.
Getting to this point has not been easy for the winner of 17 LPGA events, including two majors.
It wasn't until mid-April that Pepper was allowed to putt. She didn't start chipping until 10 days after that and her first swing didn't happen until late May.
Pepper refused to say how she hurt her shoulder other than to say it happened last year. She initially treated it with cortisone injections, but the pain eventually began to feel like a torch and she shut down her game for 10 weeks.
Pepper, who has always pointed to next week's U.S. Women's Open as the event she wanted to play, said she probably could have returned to the tour two or three weeks ago.
"But I would have struggled through it and that is not me," Pepper said. "That is not the way I wanted to come back out. That is not me to come out there and find my way around the golf course."
Pepper doesn't seem to be doing that this week. During the pro-am on Wednesday, her game didn't show the effects of missing the first half of the year.
"I am probably completely up to speed," she said. "My drive is about 2 or 3 yards longer and then my irons are not quite where I would like them to be, but overall no complaints. My short game is pretty darn good right now since that was all I had to do for most of the recovery time."
Pepper, who had 11 top 10 finishes last year, also is happy with the setup of the course this week.
Trying to draw a better field, tournament officials let the rough grow and speeded up the greens to give players a feel for a U.S. Open course.
"The rough is similar in spots to a major championship course in some spots," said Pepper, who won this event in 1996. "It will be premium ball striking and then the greens are small so that means ball striking management.
"Good ball striking is what usually wins here and right now my shoulder feels good I am hitting the ball well and one usually leads to another," she added.
Annika Sorenstam, Juli Inkster and defending champion and three-time winner Betsy King headline the field in this 54-hole event.