PALM HARBOR — Betsy King is a World Golf Hall of Famer, having won seven majors over her three decades on the LPGA Tour.
But Saturday, in the first round of the LPGA Legends Tour Open Championship at Innisbrook, King was as nervous as a rookie, from her first tee shot to her final putt.
"I haven't played competitively in four years," she said. "It's a little different."
King showed little rust, shooting 1-under 71 in her Legends Tour debut, tying for the lead with Sherri Steinhauer and Laura Shanahan Rowe heading into today's final round.
King, 54, put her game on the back burner the past four years as she chased another passion: raising money and awareness to help people in Africa with or affected by HIV/AIDS. King was inspired after a 2006 trip to Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania. She said she was overwhelmed by the conditions and how "15 million children (had) lost one or both parents to AIDS."
She formed an organization, Golf Fore Africa, which has worked with Christian humanitarian group World Vision, Habitat for Humanity and other LPGA players to raise about $700,000 in the past 21/2 years. The groups are building a medical clinic in Rwanda that will open in the spring and serve a community of about 25,000. They hope to build 45 homes for AIDS orphans in the next three years.
"When you go to Africa and see the need there … you have to do something about it," King said.
King got back into competitive golf after a practice round with friend and fellow Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, who told King about the Legends Tour. They said the tour, for players over 45, is competitive and has variety, from Hall of Famers to underdogs, and the leaderboard supported that.
Steinhauer, 46, is one of the younger players on the tour, and she played her first competitive round since August 2008. She has had two hip surgeries in the past 10 months and is playing on the tour to get back into shape, hoping to rejoin the LPGA Tour next season.
"I wanted to make sure (the hip) was healed up before I got going again," Steinhauer said. "There's a little rust in there."
Shanahan Rowe, 50, had to win Thursday's qualifier to earn the final spot in the field. She has never made the LPGA Tour full time but parlayed a successful amateur career into playing several LPGA and Legends Tour events.
Shanahan Rowe is here with her husband and caddie, Earl, whom she calls her guru. The Bedford, N.H., resident decided to play while visiting Florida friends and family.
"Maybe I'll go back with a smile on my face if I end up on top," she said, smiling.