What does Sophie Gustafson have in common with Judy Rankin, Tom Watson, Barbara Douglas, Ken Greer, Erik Compton, Denis Watson, Paul Azinger, Robert Allenby, Bruce Edwards, Jeff Julian, Scott Verplank, Jose Maria Olazabel, Casey Martin, Lee Trevino, Ken Venturi, Terri Jo Meyers and Steve Jones? They have all been awarded the GWAA Ben Hogan prize for maintaining an active golf life in the face of extraordinary obstacles.
Very good – so what does Sophie Gustafson have in common with Lewis Carroll, King George VI, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, James Earl Jones, Carly Simon, Mel Tillis and a thousand other historical notables? They have all been afflicted with alalia syllabaris – stuttering.
The range of obstacles encountered by past Hogan winners are, in some cases, potentially lethal (as in Compton’s two heart transplants and Barbara Douglas’s ovarian cancer), but a condition doesn’t need to be life-threatening to be life-paralyzing. Alalia syllabaris, commonly including involuntary repetition and prolongations of sounds, in addition to involuntary, silent pauses (stutterers refer to them as “blocks”) has driven more people inward and indoors than most of us could possibly imagine.
Greeting the world in childhood with a vocal malfunction can be devastating, and we all know how cruelty works in childhood. Sometimes, it doesn’t get much better in adulthood, and the afflicted have good reason not to risk an outward show of communication. Out of pure ignorance mixed with general insensitivity, some link this highly stigmatized anomaly of speech with other qualities that have nothing whatsoever to do with it – stupidity, lack of coordination, etc.
It will come as a surprise to no one that Sophie Gustafson is neither uncoordinated nor stupid. She’s won five LPGA events, has twenty one international wins and has appeared on eight Solheim Cup teams. If you haven’t heard the native Swede speak until now (and you probably haven’t, since she’s kept her speaking voice under lock and key for years), you’ll be taken with her expert command of the English language and the orderliness of her thoughts.
And where would you hear such a thing? Nowhere, until recently. Finally growing tired of watching her Solheim colleagues wax eloquent in interviews, and (as she puts it) “flying under radar – needing to get out of my comfort zone,” she decided to brave it by sitting in front of a camera in her house, answering a list of written questions.
Sophie Gustafson has dealt with other career obstacles, such as deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in a deep vein) that kept her off balance through much of ’04, but overcoming alalia syllabaris was the tough one. The courage it took to face the camera, and the success with which she faced it were both self-evident.
Theories abound as to the origin of stuttering. Some link it with genetics (those with other suffering family members have a higher rate of incidence), others to a complex tic or a speech/language/motor difficulty. A recent theory on the block is based on elevated dopamine levels, and the question of trauma is ever-present.
It sounds as if no one really knows for sure. What is known, however, is that Sophie Gustafson is one heck of a golfer, well-liked and respected by her peers and fans. She’s got quite a personality, complete with a fully functional sense of humor.
It appears as though Ms. Gustafson’s not close to done in her winning ways, either, which will now be conducted with a higher public profile than before, and will offer her numerous added opportunities to grow comfortable with the public.
I watched as much of the interview as I could find, and have to say that all in all, it spoke to me – and very well.