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Women's golf: Fluent in the art of winning

Benedicte Toumpsin gets it.

Last week when Annika Sorenstam announced plans to retire at the end of 2008, many in the golf world were stunned. Why had the 37-year-old Swedish superstar and former No. 1 player in the world worked hard to come back from injuries, winning three times this year, only to hang it up?

Toumpsin — the No. 1 player for the South Carolina women’s golf team and the main reason USC, for the first time since 2003, is in the NCAA Championship, starting today in Albuquerque, N.M. — isn’t surprised.

The sophomore from Belgium played for Sorenstam’s sister, Charlotta, on the European Junior Solheim Cup and has followed Annika’s LPGA career for half of her nearly 20 years. She can relate to Sorenstam’s desire to have a life after golf.

“I knew she was preparing for something else,” Toumpsin said. “I’ve been to her golf academy (in Florida), and she’s tried to build toward this. If she feels it’s time to have a woman’s life — children, a husband — she should.”

She laughed then. “Some feminists will scream when I say that,” she said, “but you have to find happiness.”

Toumpsin knows. One of Europe’s top amateurs (a member of the Belgian National team since 13 and twice her country’s age-group player of the year), she left that world behind to come to USC — without being able to speak English — because she could pursue an education and golf in the U.S.

“I was really scared,” she said in her still-pronounced accent. “I prayed no one would ask me anything. I watch a lot of movies, listen a lot.” Golf-wise, “I was nobody here. No status, no respect. You have to prove everything.”

Lately, she’s been doing that — fluently.

At the NCAA East Regional in Athens, Ga., Toumpsin almost single-handedly led the No. 32 Gamecocks to a tie for sixth. And with scores of 68-70-76, 2-under-par, she pulled off a stunning upset by defeating top-ranked Amanda Blumenherst of Duke to win the individual title.

USC first-year coach Kalen Anderson, a former Duke assistant, recognized the magnitude more so than Toumpsin, who didn’t realize she and Blumenherst shared the lead until the 17th hole. The USC player had quadruple-bogeyed the 16th to fall into that tie but birdied 17 and 18 to nip her opponent by a shot.

“She’s been knocking on the door for her first win for a while,” the coach said. “She’s a very talented player who was capable of beating Amanda. But birdie-birdie to win ... I’m sure she’s got a lot more of that.”

In fact, Toumpsin is much more than meets the eye.

She played tennis but quit at 11 to take up golf. “I was sick of tennis,” she said. “In Belgium, it’s really hard; we had the No. 1 (Justine Henin, who recently retired at 25). It is very competitive; they push the children.”

Toumpsin, an only child, rose rapidly in golf. She credits her parents, especially her father, Christian, a 400- and 800-meter track champion as a teen who lost a leg in an auto accident when he was 18.

“He taught me how lucky I am,” she said. “He told me, ‘When you start something, do it great.’ He’s really competitive, believes in hard work and dedication.”

That approach has paid off in her golf, especially her short game and putting. But mostly what makes her good is attitude.

“To leave home, language, country, you have to have maturity and confidence,” Anderson said. “Her mental approach sets her apart; when she starts going low, she’s not afraid to go lower.”

Toumpsin, who as a teen played for a world team championship in South Africa, isn’t concerned about USC’s lackluster NCAA past. “No one expects us to be there,” she said.

Nor does she obsess about her own golf future; even if she makes the LPGA, she doesn’t plan a lifetime in the game.

“This is the time for school and golf,” she said. Later? “After 30, I can still enjoy life. I want a family, not a hotel room with my caddie.”

Sorenstam, no doubt, would get that.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.