Golf

Stephanie Meadow's 20x20 vision as she sets sights on 2019

Stephanie Meadow at the launch of 20x20, the campaign to create a measurable cultural shift in our perception of women’s sport so that it will be seen as something strong, valuable, and worth celebrating. INPHO/Morgan Treacy

THE trans-Atlantic accent is understandable, given that Stephanie Meadow has spent almost half her life in the USA – although there are still ‘wee’ touches of NI vernacular.

That explains her unusual pronunciation of ‘Monaghan’ (albeit that it’s arguably closer to the Irish). The fact that she’s a Farney follower is slightly more surprising – until you ‘follow the money’.

Although she’s a professional golfer, that doesn’t make the 26-year-old wealthy, far from it, so sponsors are very important to her.

One major backer is Investec, whose CEO is Monaghan native Michael Cullen. Hence her appearance at this year’s PwC Allstars awards ceremony.

“I’ve met Conor McManus a few times at different launches and get-togethers. Michael [Cullen] said ‘You’re going to be over anyway, would you like to go?’ and I said ‘Absolutely’.

“It was kind of cool to be part of another sport’s big event. It was fabulous. I didn’t expect there to be so many there, 1400 people. It certainly turned into big party by about 11 o’clock, you could see everybody getting a bit unhinged! It was great fun, good to be a part of.”

Farney Army

She laughs about how she’s become a Monaghan supporter now: “Semi-forced…no, no!

“When I started being an ambassador for Investec I didn’t really know much about GAA and Michael was asking ‘Do you know who this is?’, ‘Do you know who this is?’ – and I’m like ‘No, no idea’.

“Then you meet they guys and all of a sudden you’re over in America checking the scores online to see how they’re doing, and agonising with them when they lose and all the rest of it. Investec goes a great job of supporting all their athletes. They’ve done so much for me and so much for Monaghan, it’s like one big family.

“It was fantastic to see them getting three [Allstars].” Mention is made of ‘that’ debate, over the football goalkeeper Allstar, and she replies: “I saw an article in the paper… with all the stats.”

Meadow may have looked like a ‘plus one’ at that shindig, but she should be better known by now.

First female winner

Earlier this month the Irish Golf Writers’ Association chose her as their first female ‘Professional Golfer of the Year’ following her achievements in winning back her LPGA Tour card.

She’s too modest to point out that she was a national superstar herself at college level, as the University of Alabama’s first four-time first-team ‘All-American’, including leading ‘the Crimson Tide’ golfers to NCAA triumph in 2012.

Typically, she spreads the credit around: “I had a really good golf coach there, and a great golf team, and we kinda tore it up. It was a great experience; to be an athlete at a huge university is very different to what it would be over here. Being involved with that community was very special.”

She accepts that she was “a poster girl” at that time: “Pretty much. Not as much as the American football guys but definitely you could always tell who the athletes were.

“It’s just a bigger deal there and there’s a lot of money in it. The American football teams bring in millions and millions of dollars every year. As a result, we have the best golf facilities, we have our own building for 16 people, with bays and putting greens and all the rest of it – there’s no excuses, that’s for sure!”

20x20 campaign

Her Investec involvement has expanded into being one of five female ambassadors for the ’20x20’ campaign:

“It was pitched to me at the start of the year and I’ve always been a big believer in role models. I’m very aware that there aren’t that many Irish female role models out there for young girls.

“The 20x20 campaign is just an effort to make those [female] athletes a bit more visible. We’re hoping for a 20 per cent increase in participation, attendance, and media coverage as well.

“I knew the media coverage was bad, nowhere near equal – but it’s something like three per cent [for women’s sport]. That’s quite shocking when you think about it. There’s no wonder that wee girls don’t know who the Irish female athletes are.”

Participation, not necessarily making a career from sport, is the aim: “I just think that sport is such an important part – or could be such an important part – of a young girl’s life. You don’t have to be elite, it really doesn’t matter.

“First of all there’s the physical aspect, being healthy, instead of sitting on Instagram. Then there’s all the values that come with it: team-work, hard work, perseverance – sport teaches you a lot of things. Even in later life when employers are looking at you and see you’ve been involved in stuff like that it’s definitely a big plus on your CV.

Ireland's Stephanie Meadow playing in the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

“I’m passionate about it. I want to get young girls involved, not just in golf. I understand that golf isn’t for everybody, just sport in general.

“Don’t think ‘Sport’s a man’s thing’ or `a boys’ thing’, just be able to do it if they like it.”

Female icons

Living in the USA since the age of 14, Meadow is more used to seeing female sports stars celebrated: “Media coverage is definitely more, we notice it at our tournaments. Then you have Lindsey Vonn [skier], Hope Solo [soccer goalkeeper], Serena Williams, all these huge names.

“Yeah, I get it, they’re world number one or whatever, which is hard to compete with, but they’re still encouraging young girls to get out there and do it.

“Americans don’t have any problems shoving their girls out there to go play football or whatever. It doesn’t matter.

“We’re not expecting to make a phenomenal impact, but every little helps, and if we just keep investing over time then eventually, hopefully, we can get somewhere near parity. But it does take investment; if you don’t invest anything, you’re not going to get anything out of it.

“We’re very conscious of not wanting it to be ‘men v women’; we want it to be more like ‘Sport’s good, the more people involved in sport, the better’.

Part of the challenge is to open people’s eyes to the qualities of women’s sport:

“I played a pro-am and most of them had never been to an LPGA or Symetra Tour event before – but almost every single one of them says `I actually really enjoy this, even a little bit more than the men’s’ - because the average male golfer drives it around 250 yards, which is what we’re hitting as well, so it’s more relatable.

“Guys like Rory [McIlroy] are hitting it 360, 380 [yards] – that’s just off the planet, nobody is going to be able to do that.

See for yourself

“The first step is actually getting them there so they can realise that, and that’s hard in itself.

“Also, if you make a 30-foot putt to win, why’s that more exciting on the men’s side than on the women’s side? It’s not. And it’s still a seven-iron to two feet.

“Golf might be one of the most comparable sports. I understand in other sports that women are not as fast or whatever, but there’s still excitement to it.

“It’s just that people are so conditioned to believe that ‘Ah, it’s women’s sport, whatever’. I was even like that, it’s just so conditioned in you. You have to be conscious of it – and then make a change.”

Golf may seem a tougher task than other sports given its reputation for chauvinism, but Meadow insists that’s not a major problem: “Maybe a little bit, but not too bad. Maybe a bit more on the men’s side.

“There’s always going to be a few, but that’s their deal. I can go elsewhere, there’s millions of places I can play.

“I grew up at Royal Portrush at the weekend and the ladies had their own clubhouse as well, so… [laughs] I’ve experienced both sides of it. If it’s a private club and that’s what they want to do, then fair enough.”

Equal billing

The 2019 NI Open will send out a message of equality, with simultaneous men’s and ladies’ strokeplay tournaments, at Massereene and concluding at Galgorm Castle.

“I think that’s great; it’s been a long time since there’s been an Irish Women’s Open. People really love golf here, they come out and support it no matter what the weather is, so it’s a great venue for a tournament.”

Yet despite encouraging young girls to get into sport, Meadow’s own life is far from easy.

“No!,” she laughs. “This year was pretty jam-packed. From April 1st to October 10th I was only at my house in Phoenix for eight days. That’s a long time to be away from home, travelling and living out of a suitcase.

“This year especially was harder because the Symetra Tour doesn’t go to as many bigger cities, it’s more small-town areas, so that can be kinda boring as well. It’s just part of it, you get used to it.

“The first few years you’re saying ‘I miss home’. At college you’re used to playing at an event and then having three weeks at home, then another event; it’s not that much golf.”

The price of professionalism

Besides the travel, there’s the cost of being a professional on tour.

“From a financial standpoint, a lot of people have the mis-conception that a lot of it is paid for by the tournament [organisers]. A lot of people think they put us up in hotels, pay for air-fare, whatever.

“They don’t – we actually have to pay entry fees and this year, it’s kinda backwards, in the Symetra Tour it’s a $500 entry fee and on the LPGA it’s $200.

“For a full year on the LPGA you’re talking [costs of] anywhere from $125,000 to $150,000 – that’s a big chunk of money you know you’re going to be down and that’s all coming out of your pocket, so that’s why sponsors are so important.

“I don’t come near to covering those expenses through sponsorship, but every little helps, to take the pressure off a little bit.

“As a rookie you’re thinking ‘That’s a lot of money!’. But then you start getting used to it and it’s just part of the business. The financial rewards are very much there if you play well.”

Apart from Investec’s backing, Stephanie gets “Callaway clubs, balls, and gloves, and I’m currently in the market for a different clothing company.

“It doesn’t have to be big chunks of money, it all adds up. If you can get your shirt filled with sponsors then that helps a lot.

“A lot of the year is ‘Aaargh, not so much money yet!’.”

Another Northern Irish female golfer, Olivia Mehaffey, will also be based in Arizona, at ASU, Arizona State University, and Meadow expects more to follow in their spike marks:

“We’re actually having an Irish [Olympic] training camp out there at the end of November.

The future

“It’s interesting to see so many Irish girls over in the States at college. I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful come through to the pro ranks over the next five years.

“There’s a lot to it. It’s a big commitment. You have to really love it to do it, you can’t fake it because if you’re faking it you won’t make it. There is so much travel, you just have to grind it out and believe in yourself – but if you get to the top it’s fantastic.

“I’d like to be definitely inside the top 50, top 40. I believe I can be better than that in the coming years, but that’s a very attainable goal for next year. I’ve already done that, I’ve been out there before, I know how it works, I know the golf courses. I have a ton of friends out there already which makes it a lot easier than being a rookie again.”

After the spinal stress fracture in 2017 which knocked her off the LPGA Tour, Meadow doesn’t need any more injuries – but perhaps she’ll have a minor one in mid-July when The Open comes to Royal Portrush

“I’m so happy for Portrush because it’s such a fantastic golf course. I’ve travelled all over the world and whenever I’m asked ‘What’s your favourite golf course?’ I still say ‘Portrush’. I might be a bit biased but it’s fantastic; to finally see them get [the Open] is really good.

“I’d love to come over and be part of it, do something to be involved - commentating!”

Stephanie Meadow, speaking up for women in sport – give her a fair hearing.

Read More: Sunny Stephanie Meadow is ready to rise and shine again

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