Nicole Jeray feels like she has reached a career apex.
As the 1992 Northern Illinois graduate and 1998 inductee into NIU Athletics Hall of Fame preps for the 68th U.S. Women's Open at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. on Thursday through Sunday, she's poised to make the cut in a major for the first time.
It is the fourth U.S. Open appearance (1999, 2001, 2010) for the 42-year-old Jeray, who, in 1996, was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a chronic neurological disorder caused by the brain's inability to regulate sleep cycles normally. It led to cataplexy; a sudden loss of muscle tone.
Today, she's a full-time member of the LPGA and missed the cut by a one stroke at the LPGA Walmart Northwest Arkansas Championship after rounds of 69-74 on Friday and Saturday left her at 1-over-par 143. She enters the U.S. Open encouraged by her experience, solid ball striking and an award won on the Symetra Tour last year.
"I really feel the best about my game this year," said Jeray, who also played in the 2006 and 2008 Women's Open Championships and 10 LPGA Championships. "I feel mature and confident. In 2012, I won the Heather Wilbur Award on the Symetra Tour.
"It's a spirit award other players vote on. To see how much they respected me meant a lot to me and gave me a lot of confidence. Confidence is everything in this game. I'm also doing cardio kick boxing and feel like I am moving my body, my core, better than ever."
Even her coach, Jim Suttie, has noticed positive change in Jeray's game. He's worked with Jeray for four years and said he believes she is on the cusp of winning a tournament. The mental and physical changes combined with Jeray having a solid grasp on narcolepsy managment thanks to an efficient combination of medication have paid off.
"In just the last year, I've seen a dramatic change," said Suttie, who also played golf at NIU and earned a master's degree in kinesiology. "There's nothing stopping her from winning. She's swinging as well as anyone on tour and her putting tempo has got immensely better. Confidence comes from outside influences. A parent, coach or peer. She's at the point where she can visualize what she wants to do and is able to internalize the confidence she needs."
To prepare for a U.S. Open, a tournament set up to protect par and offer a thorough examination of not just every club in a player's bag, but her mental state as well, Jeray's confidence will be an asset.
Sebonack is a links-style course. It's an all-star design collaboration between Tom Doak and Jack Nicklaus that opened in 2006 and will host its first USGA event. Seabonack is adjacent to Shinecock Hills and The National Golf Links, a pair of fabled courses whose reputation is etched into golf lore. When Jeray arrived Monday, she walked the course and plotted how she'd like to attack each hole. The fairways are narrow, the rough is deep and the greens are faster than any tournament she'll encounter on the LPGA Tour in 2013.
"I feel good going into the U.S. Open," said Jeray, whose 36-hole 143 total in May at the Elkridge Club in Baltimore qualified her for the National Championship. "I want to remember the good shots I hit last week and just forget about the bad ones. I know I'll have to pace myself. I want to play conservative, not scared. I want to swing aggressive and play conservative. I know it'll be a challenge, but I will have a plan on where I want to go and should be fine."
With a career odyssey that nearly was derailed by narcolepsy, Jeray said she still enjoys the grind of "setting her own schedule, prepping for travel and going out to learn a golf course." The agony associated with missing a cut merely serves as motivation to play better and finish a tournament. If she uses the creative side of her brain, Suttie said he believes she will claim a tournament title this year.
"Nicole just can't be too analytical," Suttie said. "She needs to be a creative, right-brain player that visualizes her shots. When she is an analytical left-brain player, she struggles. She's at her best visualizing shots. She needs to not think too much so doubt doesn't creep into her game. She needs to play with no doubt. I believe she'll win a tournament this year."
The U.S. Open would provide a grand stage for Jeray's first win of 2013.