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Rankin understands fragile nature of golf game

Reilley Rankin was fine with the idea of doing a phone interview, even in the middle of the second major championship of the LPGA Tour season.

Then, after an impressive 4-under-par back nine Friday at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, she wasn't so sure. She didn't want to talk about how well things were going this week, because she didn't want to get ahead of herself.

See, Rankin knows how fragile success can be.

The Hilton Head High graduate was on top of the college golf world in 1998, when she won NCAA Freshman of the Year and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors. A year later, she wasn't sure whether she would walk again, let alone play golf.

"What a fine line it is in life," she says.

When Rankin broke her lower back, two vertebrae in her lumbar spine and her sternum jumping from a 70-foot cliff into Lake Martin in Alabama after her sophomore year at the University of Georgia, that line was a half-centimeter thick.

Had either of the busted vertebrae in her back moved that far, she wouldn't have survived.

Not only did she survive, but she proved her doctors wrong by climbing right back on top of the women's golf world.

Within two years of her accident, Rankin led Georgia to a national championship, and by 2004 she was on the LPGA Tour, where she quickly found success with 12 top-10 finishes in her first four seasons on tour.

After a career-best season in 2007 -- she finished 34th on the money list with $408,037 in earnings and was second at the Mizuno Classic -- her career turned in the wrong direction.

Rankin made only 12 cuts in 2008 and 11 in 2009. Her earnings dwindled to the point that she couldn't cover her expenses. She was losing money to chase her dream.

Last year, the money literally ran out, and she canceled a trip to play in a British Open qualifier because she didn't have the cash.

What a fine line it is in golf.

The financial cushion Rankin had built in 2007 -- she estimates her annual expenses at around $150,000, including travel and accomodations for tournaments and general living expenses -- was gone by the end of the 2009 season. But her uncle, Hilton Head Island resident Tom Reilley, covered her expenses for the last three events on her schedule.

She made the cut in all three events and earned more than $31,000, nearly doubling her earnings for the season.

That's when she realized that the financial strain had become a burden on her golf game.

"It was just a whole different ball game playing golf and not having to worry about it," she says.

That stress has started to seep back into her subconscious this season -- she had made only three cuts in six events and had earned $28,392 entering this week -- but now she is able to recognize it and attempt to focus her energy elsewhere.

She and her team, which includes agent John DeNovi and coach Gary Gilchrist, are trying to secure enough financial backing to ensure her expenses are covered for at least the next year, if not longer, so she can focus on golf.

And the golf has been as good as it has been in quite a while for Rankin. Her 18th-place finish at the Kia Classic in March was her best showing since 2009, she is tied for 26th going into today's final round and in good shape for her best finish at a major since tying for fourth at the 2007 British Open, and she has qualified to play in the U.S. Open next month.

Despite her past success, Rankin takes pride in those minor accomplishments, because she knows how easily they could have turned into failures.

She likens it to hitting an errant tee shot into the woods. She can slam down her club and be upset, or she can approach the next shot as an opportunity to prove she can overcome adversity, which is something she has become accustomed to doing.

Rankin has always chosen the latter.

"I know I'm very, very fortunate to be where I am," she says. "It could've gone in either direction."

That's a lesson she keeps at the front of her mind. Day after day. Shot after shot.

It can go in either direction.

What a fine line it is in life, as in golf.