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Karen Stupples goes from waitress to LPGA star

Out-of-work actors aren't the only ones who wait tables to make ends meet. So do would-be golf professionals. Rarely does either lead to a starring role in anything.

Orlando's Skip Kendall used to work at a local Olive Garden, in fact, refilling breadstick baskets and topping off salad bowls. Kendall is now a veteran on the PGA Tour.

Good as he doubtlessly was with a white towel draped over his serving arm, even Kendall never received a full-blown tour sponsorship for a tip in gratitude for his waiter skills.

Blossoming LPGA star Karen Stupples, who lives in Kissimmee, Fla., did way better than the standard 15 percent.

As a result, she's one of the rising players on the LPGA Tour, having won her first career event two weeks ago and setting an all-time scoring record in the process. Two weeks earlier, she finished second to Annika Sorenstam at the ANZ Ladies Masters in Australia.

Still seeking to find her way as an amateur five years ago, the former Florida State standout was back in her native Britain, waiting tables at a public golf course in Folkestone, Kent. An area insurance broker named Keith Rawlings was a steady customer who intimidated the other waitresses because he was so demanding.

His water glass had to be full. The food had to be cooked just so. No croutons in the salad. And Stupples delivered.

"He was quite a tough customer," she said. "The others were basically afraid to serve him. He was very particular about how he wanted things."

He had read about Stupples' amateur results in the newspaper and kept pestering her about possibly turning pro. Stupples explained that she wasn't waiting tables for the exercise: Though she had played on the Curtis Cup team and was an established player, she didn't have the money to take a run at Q-School or to play the LPGA circuit even if she qualified.

Rawlings, dining with his wife, made Stupples a utensil-dropping effort: He offered to sponsor her for three years.

"Write up a budget for me and I'll give you the money to try," Rawlings said.

Stupples laughed, it sounded so ludicrous.

"I went back to the kitchen and brought their dessert out, and his wife said, `You know, we're dead serious,'" Stupples said.

Stupples, now 30, made it through Q-School in 1999 and has been a steady wage-earner for years, though not necessarily a headliner. That changed this year when she began playing with the heavyweights and holding her own.

She played in the final group with Sorenstam at the ANZ Ladies Masters in Australia on Feb. 29 and finished tied for second.

"There is so much to learn from watching her play," Stupples said. "She's so aggressive, she wants to take a big lead and keep making it bigger. Once she's got you beat, she wants to beat you more."

It gave Stupples an educational eyeful of how the tour's top tier lives and breathes.

"I got thrown into the deep end there," she said.

She swam laps around the sharks March 14 when she not only held off any hope of a final-round charge at the LPGA's Welch's/Fry's Championship in Tucson, Ariz., she shot a closing 63. For the week, she finished at 22-under 258, the lowest 72-hole raw score in tour history.

Informed of the feat afterward, Stupples blurted out, "No way." Her caddie had failed to tell her that history was in the offing, even though she had a comfortable lead and won by five. She birdied the 16th and parred the last two holes to break the record by a shot.

"I had no idea it was a record," she said.

This time is was Stupples who got to say, "Cheque, please." She won a career-high $120,000 and it has made her an early favourite as the LPGA plays its first major this week at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Though it took her a while to get to the top, Stupples has a good support group to help keep her there. She receives instruction at Orlando's Faldo Institute and is working out with Kai Fusser, the trainer for Sorenstam and a growing list of prominent LPGA players.

"I think you do feel slightly different about yourself after you win," she said. "You can relax a bit and you know you belong out here. But still, I'd like to win again. I definitely enjoyed the experience."

As they say in the restaurant-serving biz, it was worth the waiting. Even if she saved every cent of her tip money, she likely would not be here if not for Keith Rawlings, her friend and benefactor from Etchinghill Golf Course.

Now they are etching her name on trophies.

"I have asked him many times since, `Why did you do that for me?'" Stupples said. "He just says, `I just wanted to give somebody a head start.'"

Now she's the head waitress, indeed.

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