By Ron Sirak
Meaghan Francella won at every level she played golf. As a teenager, she twice was the New York State Junior champion. In college, she earned individual titles in two different conference championships, Conference USA in 2001 while at Memphis and the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2003 after transferring to North Carolina.
In just her fifth start on the LPGA Tour, the 2007 MasterCard Classic in Mexico, Francella birdied the fourth playoff hole against then-Rolex No. 1 Annika Sorenstam to win. That July, she knocked off Lorena Ochoa, who had taken over the top ranking in the meantime, 1 up in the second round of the HSBC Women's World Match Play. Francella was 29th on the money list that year, and for the next four seasons kept her card, always finishing in the top 90.
By the end of 2013, however, Francella's winning ways had worn to distant memories. After never being outside the top 30 in driving accuracy and twice being in the top 10, she got the driver yips and fell to No. 95 in fairways hit. She earned just $7,828 and a return trip to LPGA Q school, where she missed the 72-hole cut by nine strokes.
At 31, when most players are reaching the peak of their game, Francella is now walking away -- although not from golf entirely. At the season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic last month, she popped up as caddie for Heather Bowie Young.
"I was sick of crying myself to sleep Friday nights after I missed the cut," Francella says regarding her decision. "I spent 2 1/2 hours crying in the car driving home from Q school. ... I was in bad shape for a couple days."
Consoled by friends such as Karrie Webb and Alison Walshe, Francella knew she needed a change but wasn't ready to give up tour life, the camaraderie still something she enjoyed. And so she embarked on a new line of work; Francella will loop again for Young at next week's ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open.
"There have been so many great things that have happened to me because of golf," says Francella, who when home in Hobe Sound, Fla., caddies at nearby Old Marsh and tends bar at The Bistro in Jupiter. "I had never been outside the country. Now I have seen the world. I love the LPGA. I just don't want to hit the shots for a living any more."
Frustrated by her 2013 play, Francella traveled to Wisconsin last October to see Steve Stricker on the advice of a mutual friend in a last ditch effort to extend her playing days. "He knows what it's like to be standing over the ball, not knowing where it is going," she says. "Without him, I never would have been able to go to Q school."
Frequently, rowdy family and friends from her working-class hometown of Port Chester, N.Y, followed Meaghan on tour. They embraced her play, and now they embrace her decision to step away. "My mom said, 'We want our kid happy. Whatever you do we will support you,' " Meaghan says. Her coach for 12 years, Tom Patri, said simply: "Happiness in No. 1."
When she has free time, Francella still plays with her buds at The Medalist, where she is a member. "After I made my decision, the guys were shocked how happy I looked," she says, laughing. "They said. 'This is how we remember you.' I may change my mind some day, but I don't see it."
From LPGA champion at 24 to LPGA caddie at 31. As surprising a twist as that seems, it's one Francella is content with. "This," she says, "is a new adventure for me."
One in which Francella still looks and sounds like a winner.
Photo: Hunter Martin/Getty Images