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Hockey helps Alena Sharp maintain golf focus

Alena Sharp

Greg Wahl-Stephens

As a professional golfer on the LPGA Tour, Alena Sharp doesn't mind working Sundays. It means she made the cut, will earn a paycheque and could possibly be in the hunt for her first title on the top women's circuit.

Every Sunday is special during the off-season as well. It's hockey day for the Canadian.

Sharp heads to a rink in Chandler, Ariz., where she makes her home now, to play in a recreational league for women. The games not only reconnect the 31-year-old to her Hamilton roots but prepare her body and mind for the coming golf season.

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"Working out everyday is fine," she says, "but going out and playing something is more fun."

Other women on the LPGA Tour have the same attitude. While they aren't necessarily lacing up skates, many of them have other offbeat ways to stay active and healthy during the off-season.

Ryann O'Toole surfs, Dewi Claire Schreefel climbs rocks and Wendy Ward rustles cattle. Suzann Pettersen, a self-described fitness freak, does just about everything but skiing is her passion.

Unlike men on the PGA Tour who have brief off-seasons and usually spend theirs resting, women in the pro game often have a few months off – plenty of time to pursue other interests.

"It's just a good balance for me to get away from golf so I am refreshed when I come back to it," says Sharp, who will make her season debut next week at the tour's first North American stop of the season, the RR Donnelley Founders Cup in Phoenix.

Sharp got into hockey when she was about 8, skating alongside boys on house-league teams, and also played high school hockey. But with her golfing abilities taking off in her teenage years – among other achievements, she was the Ontario Ladies and Canadian Junior champion in 1999 – hockey took a back seat. She put away the blades when she headed to the United States on a golf scholarship at the New Mexico State University.

But a few years ago she heard about the Chandler Polar Ice Women's League in the Phoenix suburb. After rescuing her equipment from her basement in Hamilton, she was back on the ice.

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"My first time back, I remember my back was killing me," Sharp recalls. "You know, you're always bent over and I wasn't used to it. I was like, holy smokes, I'm out of shape."

But she eventually found her skating legs again and now leads her team, a perennial league championship finalist, as its top centre and one of its main goal scorers.

While hockey strengthens her legs, core and back – three areas underrated in importance in the golf swing – it also has helped Sharp between the ears.

"It brings out the drive to win in my personality," says Canada's top female golfer, who's played well enough to keep her LPGA card over the past several years but has admitted to lacking confidence and a killer instinct on occasion. "I need to have that in my golf."

Playing centre, as opposed to wing, where she skated as a youth, also gives her more responsibility, which she welcomes. "I feel like I take on more of a leader role. In golf, it's just yourself."

And if nothing else, her time at the rink is an hour away from the range, an hour less of obsessing about the swing. She and her team recently played in a tournament in Las Vegas and even though she confesses there was too much hockey (five games in three days) and maybe too much drinking (it was Vegas after all), she enjoyed the unique bonding experience of being part of a team.

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"Getting out on the ice and skating is fun," she says. "I missed it [during the years she didn't play] It seems more fun now, I guess. It's the social aspect of it, too, that I like – meeting people in Phoenix that aren't golfers. It's nice to have friends that don't even care if I play golf. They'll come out and watch but they don't ask you all the time, 'How you'd play today?'"

Ryann O'Toole: Surf's up

The 25-year-old American, a long-hitting sophomore on the LPGA Tour, once appeared on Golf Channel's Big Break reality show. But her biggest breaks are in the ocean.

O'Toole has surfed since she was 7 and spends much of her off-season hanging 10, hitting the waves at least twice a week. She rang in the new year with a solid weekend of surfing in San Diego, which is south of her home in San Clemente.

"Golf is very mental and I think surfing really humbles the mind," says O'Toole, whose long blonde hair, lean body and wholesome California looks make her seem perfectly natural on a surfboard. "You're definitely not in control out in the water."

Her favourite breaks are mostly in California – Cottons Beach in San Clemente, San Onofre State Beach, Surf Rider in Los Angeles and Wind and Sea in San Diego. She likes Waikiki in Hawaii, too.

"Paddling strengthens your core, your back and your balance," she says. "Golf is all about that. Surfing is a really good workout, especially when you're trying to handle the waves and stay on the board."

Dewi Claire Schreefel: Because it's there

A leaderboard isn't the only thing the 26-year-old Dutch player likes to climb. She likes to go up rocks, too, both indoors and outdoors.

Schreefel is starting her third year as an LPGA Tour member and is relatively new to rock climbing as well, having started at 23 at the suggestion of her coach. While she might still be a novice, she is making progress.

"At times I know what I'm doing," says Schreefel, who also likes sailing and playing field hockey, "but I do much better with instruction from below."

Now a resident of Costa Mesa, Calif., she does most of her climbing indoors but has also ventured onto a real mountain. "I have only climbed outside once, at Smith Rock in Oregon. Absolutely gorgeous."

While many might be fearful of injury through falling or even just ripping up fingers and hands, Schreefel seems to bear no such anxiety. "Climbing is very relaxing and fun. It's a great workout."

Wendy Ward: Saddle up

The four-time LPGA winner doesn't spend her off-seasons sleeping in. She's up at 5 a.m. to begin her day as a cattle rancher.

Ward, 38, has a 130-acre farm in Edwall, Wash., and tends 130 head of beef cattle and three horses. Her daily chores typically take five or six hours and include feeding the cows. It's hard, physical labour on a piece of land far different than the manicured fairways she strolls during the golf season.

"There is a lot of exercise that goes into daily chores," Ward says. "Lots of walking, lifting and moving pens and panels for the horses. Hauling buckets of water and grain by hand. Bucking small square bales and hay for the horses. Rolling out big round bales of hay for the cows and bulls. There are always fences that need mending so working with your hands and stringing out barbed wire makes for a pretty good workout."

Despite all the cowhand duties, she does find time to slip in some golf practice, though. She hits balls in the pasture and sometimes uses the farm's 15-yard-wide driveway as a range for pitch shots, aiming at old mineral tubs or tires she sets out as targets. Her dogs sometimes shag balls.

"The cows get curious and come watch," she adds, " so they act as simulated gallery. They are very quiet for the most part."

Suzann Pettersen: Fresh powder

The 30-year-old Norwegian is the prototypical modern female player: athletic and powerful. She comes by her physique honestly.

Pettersen is a workout maniac and has recently taken up cycling. She can often be found roaming the roads in and around Orlando, where she lives now, in a peloton with male riders who push her faster.

But her true love is skiing, which perhaps is not surprising given her home country is so immersed in all kinds of skiing, and has produced such champions as cross-country legend Bjorn Daehlie and alpine experts Aksel Lund Svindal and Kjetil Andre Aamodt.

Pettersen first put on skis at 3 and is equally comfortable in cross country and downhill, although she admits the latter is more to her liking – "much more speed and excitement."

While her golf game takes her all over the world – she's ranked No. 3 and has won eight LPGA titles and another five in Europe – she always returns home to Norway when her mind is set on skiing some of the globe's best mountains.

She comes down off the hill refreshed and stronger. "Skiing requires balance, rhythm and strength, all of which are important to golf," she says. "Like all sports, you have to have a focus and hunger to win and to be the best. I guess focus and balance is a fine combination between both skiing and golf."

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