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Women's Golf

Jeray wins tour card again after battling narcolepsy

NIU's Nicole Jeray is headed back to the LPGA Tour after 10 years away.
NIU's Nicole Jeray is headed back to the LPGA Tour after 10 years away.

DeKALB – Nicole Jeray made crisp contact with the golf ball like she had done millions of times. The crowd at the Minnesota Pro-Am roared in approval, but this time something was different.

At the peak of her follow-through Jeray’s body was frozen. The 1998 Northern Illinois Hall of Fame inductee couldn’t move. She’d battled fatigue and sleepiness for years as a member of the NIU women’s golf team and later on the LPGA Tour.

But after the paralyzing moment in 1996, Jeray went to a doctor where she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a chronic neurological disorder caused by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles normally. It led to cataplexy; a sudden loss of muscle tone.

Almost 13 years later, Jeray’s health, wellness and golf game are in peak condition as the 39-year-old earned full-field exemption status again on the 2010 LPGA Tour with a fifth-place finish at the 90-hole qualifying tournament at LPGA International Champions and Legends Course in Daytona Beach, Fla. on Dec. 7.

“I can finally do things I’ve never done before,” Jeray said. “I can celebrate shots on the course. I never used to be able to do that because I could go into REM sleep. It was so hard to fight that. As a golfer you want to enjoy your good moments and relive them, I can do that now.”

After working with world-renowned PGA Instructor – and Northern Illinois graduate – Dr. Jim Suttie, Jeray has rediscovered the form that won eight tournaments during her NIU days and helped her enter the top 30 on the LPGA money list in 1995. She also compete in 1993, 1994 and 1999.

A career odyssey that included stops on the Asian Tour and Futures Tour has come full circle. Despite the trials and tribulations she faced, Jeray never considered giving up golf.

“I kept persevering because I love to play golf,” Jeray said. “I love being a role model and entertaining people. I’ve gotten so much better at the entire package of playing in pro-ams, tournaments and practicing. I just couldn’t stop because I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted.”

THE BARN

The sun is shining on a warm summer afternoon at Cog Hill. Golfers line the large practice range and the sizzling sound of well-struck balls cut through the air.

But Jeray isn’t amongst the khaki-pants wearing crowd. Instead she’s lying down in the large-red barn with a giant Cog Hill logo of a caddy carrying a golf bag painted on its side. While other golfers would hone their swing, Jeray had to take a nap.

This scene repeated itself constantly. After a tournament, she couldn’t go to the range and work out the kinks in her game because she had to go to the hotel for a nap, or even during a practice round she would have to park her cart under a tree for a little shut eye.

She was battling both her body and her golf swing.

“For other players they were trying to win a tournament,” Jeray said. “I was trying to just stay awake.”

But with a new medicine, Xyrem, a firm understanding of how her body works and the support of the Narcolepsy Action Network, Jeray has made strides that Suttie said could pay off on the LPGA Tour this year.

“She has a great work ethic and good physical ability,” Suttie said. “She hits the ball long and I think she will have a good year. It is all about belief. She can win on the tour because she has so much confidence.”

Even though Suttie has been working with Jeray for less than a year, he’s established a lasting connection that has equaled near instantaneous results on the course.

Suttie altered Jeray’s swing plane and fixed her posture. She was back on her heels and was too much on her right side that resulted in inconsistent pulls and cut shots.

“The golf swing is always a work in progress,” Suttie said. “Players are always working to tweak it and make it better.”

“She’s often the last one off the range. She’s has a grueling work ethic and is persistent. She has a great belief in herself and deserves everything she gets. She is hitting more greens now and that has allowed her to score more because she always had a good short game.”

Northern Illinois golf coach Pam Tyska agreed with Suttie and remembers coaching a player that won eight tournaments without the benefits of an indoor hitting facility. The barbaric Northern Illinois winters that often carried into the spring season didn’t stop Jeray, who got off the plane swinging at a warm-climate tournament.

“It didn’t take her long to get ready,” Tyska said. “She helped put NIU on the board with fantastic scores and results. I think she is capable of winning on the LPGA Tour. She even has the ability to win a major.”

She also has the ability to overcome major disappointment. After a rain-delayed third round at Q-School created deplorable conditions, Jeray fired off a 76. Unfazed by the big number, she rebounded with an afternoon score of 67.

She was back in the hunt and posted final round 72 for a minus-5, 355 total that secured her spot on the 2010 LPGA Tour.

“I’ve been there before,” Jeray said. “I’m experienced. I’ve played in lead groups and a ton of LPGA Tour events. I’ve finally got my game together; have a great coach and all my ducks in a row. This is it. I want to take advantage of being on the tour because I feel the best I have felt in years.”

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