The year was 2001 when a middle schooler from Boca Raton, Fla., made golf history. After medaling at a tournament at Bear Lakes Country Club, 12-year-old Morgan Pressel catapulted herself into the game’s spotlight, earning a place in the U.S. Open at Pine Needles in North Carolina to become the youngest to qualify for the women’s national championship at the time.
Though she missed the cut at the Open, the moment was surely the most surprising and significant of Pressel’s budding career—but not the most crucial in her young life.
Only a year before her breakout, when Pressel was just 11 years old, her mother, Kathryn, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39. Pressel’s father, Mike, did his best to explain Kathryn’s illness to Morgan and her two siblings, but it was still difficult for them to understand exactly what was happening.
As Kathryn was beginning the fight of her life, Morgan’s golf career was starting to flourish. Just two years after her record-breaking moment, Pressel qualified for the U.S. Open again in 2003, competing at the age of 15 at Pumpkin Ridge. Following an opening round 70, Pressel found herself tied for fourth place. She eventually finished 52nd overall in the tournament; it would end up being the final major championship her mom would see her play. Just four years after her diagnosis, Kathryn Krickstein Pressel lost her battle with breast cancer in September 2003. She was just 43 years old.
“She was a wonderful mother who always believed in my brother, sister and [I],” says Pressel. “I’ve always wanted to be the best golfer. That’s a lesson that I've always taken from her and what she always taught me, even when she was sick.”
Following her mom’s passing, Pressel dove headfirst into the game that her mother adored watching her play. She won three Florida state high school golf titles and in 2005, she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open for a third time. She nearly won the event, tying for second place as a 17-year-old amateur.
Since then, Pressel has established herself as a mainstay in professional golf for more than a decade. She became the youngest player to win an LPGA major championship by winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship at age 18. A six-time Solheim Cup member, she’s posted top-10 finishes in the biggest tournaments over the course of her career. But Pressel’s greatest accomplishment—and truly, her passion in life—has come away from the golf course, as a champion in the fight against cancer.
Since losing her mom to cancer, Pressel always wanted to use her place in the game of golf to help others—and now she had the platform to take action. In 2008, Pressel hosted the first annual Morgan and Friends Fight Cancer Tournament at St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla., to honor her mother’s life and support the fight against breast cancer.
“I feel like I was given a microphone and a pedestal to where I could shout my story at the top of my lungs all around the world, to hope that it resonated with people and really make a difference,” says Pressel.
With support from her friends and fellow competitors from the LPGA, the event has been running for 13 years strong. In January, the tournament raised over $1 million, bringing the total monies raised to $9.5 million.
“Morgan is truly inspirational,” says LPGA star Lexi Thompson, who’s mother, Judy, beat breast cancer and also battled uterine cancer. “We are athletes and we want to give back to the game, but what Morgan does, giving back to the world...she is really making a difference.”
Pressel isn’t simply helping raise money for breast cancer research—she is heavily involved in deciding where the funds go and how they are utilized. Money generated from the Morgan and Friends event has helped launch two key components to the Boca Raton Regional Hospital: The Morgan Pressel Foundation Laboratory for Cancer Research and the Morgan Pressel Center for Cancer Genetics, where Pressel often visits.
“You see people presenting the checks to charity or they just want to get their picture with the check and they're kind of done,” says two-time major champion Brittany Lincicome. “That’s not Morgan.
“She’s involved with all of the research and knows where all of the money is going. She makes sure everything is going to the right place.”
Pressel’s crowning achievement is the Kathryn Krickstein Pressel MammoVan, a mobile van that travels throughout South Florida to provide early breast cancer detection services and screenings, using advanced 3-D mammography technology, and breast health education. The machines and equipment in the van make it possible to test with a tiny, little pin prick, Pressel says.
“It brings testing to people who work full-time, to teachers at schools who essentially rely on the van coming to them to get their yearly exam during their lunch break,” says Pressel. “The thing about breast cancer is: if you catch it too late and you wait and you're not diligent on your scans and keeping up with your own health, that is when it just becomes so much harder to fight it, especially if it spreads throughout your body.”
Now in her 15th full season on the LPGA Tour, Pressel’s career has seen its ups and downs. She won just one additional tournament after her major title but has had 65 top ten finishes and earned nearly $8 million during her pro career.
Last year, Pressel’s career came full circle when at 30 years old, she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open through sectional qualifying for the first time in 14 years. Now 31, Pressel still feels the desire to compete—her mom taught her to always strive to be the best and that fire inside her still burns—but her work through her charitable foundation has transformed into her top priority.
Pressel’s friends say she is a hero, but she has someone else in mind when using that word.
“There's an intangible to the word hero, that really can't even properly be explained,” says Pressel. “[It’s] somebody who drives you, pushes you to be better, and maybe makes you think a little bit more about yourself.
“For me that person was and still is my mom.”