Sunny Stephanie Meadow is ready to rise and shine again
PHOENIX is an apt home for Stephanie Meadow. The golden girl of Irish golf has had to re-generate her sporting career twice already and is ready to rise again.
Both occasions involved the loss of some of the greatest loves of her life – first her beloved father Robert, then the game of golf itself, due to a back injury.
Her recovery to regain her LPGA Tour card for 2019 earned her a place in history, as the first ever female winner of the Irish Golf Writers’ Professional Golfer of the Year award.
That’s fitting recognition for the fortitude she’s shown in recent years.
Asked if she has any siblings, she beams: “Just me – the lucky one!” – but many might query that description after what she’s been through in recent years.
Life and golf did seem to come easy for this sunny personality, admittedly. A record-breaking college star at the University of Alabama, she finished an astonishing third in her first major as a professional, the 2014 US Women’s Open.
Played at Pinehurst, (not far, at least in US terms, from her then ‘home’ state of South Carolina) – having moved to Florida first at the age of 14 – she ended up just three shots behind Michelle Wie.
“Yeah, it was unbelievable,” she laughs. “I had a wee bit of experience from playing as an amateur in the Open, so I was able to draw on that, but it was just the realisation that I’d been working my whole life to turn pro and I was so happy to be there and finally be doing it. I just had a great week. The course suited me, I made a lot of putts, and it was a brilliant way to start my [pro] career.”
Career ‘heartbreak’ followed, though, as she lost out on the final LPGA tour card after a 10-hole play-off at the end of ‘qualifying school’.
Death of her dad
Much worse was to come, however, early the next year, with the death of her dad.
“Pancreatic cancer in 2015. It was very fast, three months, from totally fine to, you know, not here anymore. It was very hard on my mum and I but – sh*t happens. It’s just part of life, unfortunately.”
She says those last few words with a smile, but the sadness is clear too.
“He’s a huge part of my golf career and that took me a long time to, kind of, get over that because golf was more of a reminder of him rather than a place to get away. It became very hard in that respect.”
Another smile, as she recalls the influence of her dad, a golfer whom she describes as “average. I think his lowest handicap was 14, something like that, he wasn’t brilliant – but kind of an addict, as most golfers are.
Stephanie Meadow talks about her influences
“He was the one who got me into it at the beginning – that was his version of ‘baby-sitting’, where I’d be dragged along to the golf course [Ballyearl]. It actually turned into me really falling in love with it.
“I think I picked up a club when I was five or six. I was probably better than him when I was 10 or 11 – he used to say ‘She beats me now’, he was very proud.”
Her talent was prodigious and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be a golf pro.
“I was 11 when I played for my first Irish team, the under-18 Irish team. That’s all I cared about when I was a kid. I didn’t really play many other sports. I played hockey, but then the games were on a Saturday and I’d rather go play golf, so, that was that.
“I used to horse-ride as well, that was my mom’s thing, but I fell off the horse and hurt my arm, and that affected golf – so that was that as well. Golf was my whole life at that point.”
Backing came from outside her family too, from someone who combined a love of sport – as an international rugby referee – with his own career:
“I actually had a lot of support. The headmaster at Belfast High, Mr [Stephen] Hilditch, was a big fan of mine. I remember he would support me in playing all the events.
“Then when we were making the decision to go over [to the USA], we went in and met him, my parents, and he said ‘Just go for it, just go.’ To have someone from that sporting background say ‘Absolutely’ was very encouraging.”
Moving to the USA
From Jordanstown, ‘home’ eventually became Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. “I went over when I was 14. My dad was already retired and my mom had the option to retire. I kinda knew that I was pretty good and they had always vacationed in the US as well.
“I went to International Junior Golf Academy – academic stuff in the morning, then golf in the afternoon with coaches and great facilities, for four years. Then the University of Alabama for four years after that, which was unbelievable. Then I turned pro straight after.”
Her golfing career was put on hold when her dad’s illness was diagnosed. “While he was sick I stayed at home and helped mum take care of him, there was no hospice care at home.
“Even if there had been I’d just have wanted to spend time with him; there’d have been no point me going out and playing golf while he’s sitting there. I may as well make the most of the time with him.
“After he passed away I started up again.”
She has said since that she probably returned too soon to golf, but her character earned her the 2015 ‘Heather Farr Player Award’, given by the LPGA Tour participants to the golfer ‘who, through her hard work, dedication and love of the game of golf, has demonstrated determination, perseverance and spirit in fulfilling her goals as a player.’
2016 took her to Rio, alongside Cavan’s Leona Maguire, representing Ireland: “The golf part was similar to every other week, but everything outside of that, getting to go to the other events, being in the Olympic Village, eating in the dining hall which is 800 yards long – everything was just insane. You have to pinch yourself when you see these big-time athletes walking by.
“As a kid you never grew up dreaming of going to the Olympics, you never thought that was even possible, so it was kinda weird: ‘Oh, I can be an Olympian’, that was a bit strange. To be able to have that behind your name is unbelievable. It was a great experience and hopefully I’ll be there in 2020.”
Back down again
Life took a downturn again last year, though, and she needed her inner strength once more when injury forced her to stop playing – and ended her LPGA Tour involvement.
“It’s hard to pinpoint but it probably was golf-related. It was an L5 lumbar stress fracture. It happened June/ July of last year.
“It presented itself as a SI injury [the sacroiliac joint, between the spine and the hip], I had a lot of pain around that joint, it took them forever to diagnose what I actually had.
“I was getting pain there, not on my spine. I kept playing, kept playing, and it got worse and worse, until eventually I told the physios on the LPGA tour ‘I can’t swing any more’. I went and got an MRI [scan] and 20 minutes later was told, ‘It’s a stress fracture’.”
That was bad enough; the timing was worse. “I screwed myself, in a way, because if I’d stopped [playing] earlier I’d have been eligible for a medical exemption for this year, but it worked out that I wasn’t, because there weren’t enough tournaments left. Big lesson there, use the rules to your advantage.
“But, it’s hard, because you’re always told ‘Get through it, grind it out’, you’re trying to keep your position. It’s hard when you don’t know what you actually have.
“I never really had a big, major injury before, so I didn’t have the experience of knowing when to stop – and unfortunately I left it too late. Especially with all the travel, you always have little back niggles, things like that.”
Recovery was lengthy and tedious: “I pretty much did nothing for about 10 weeks and then it was a slow, boring process of daily physio exercises, and then gradually putting, chipping, and then full swing. It did take a decent amount of time. There was no bending over. It was very boring.”
Counting the cost
The mental aspect was possibly tougher than the physical: “It’s hard when golf is taken away from you and you’re not sure if it’s going to heal, if you’re going to need surgery. It’s a scary time for any athlete when you have an injury.”
At least Stephanie could, no pun intended, fall back on her degree if need be: “I majored in Accounting, it’s good to have a back-up plan, because you never know…Especially when I had my back injury. If I didn’t have a degree I would have been thinking ‘What the hell am I gonna do now?!’
“It’s kinda useful, you do a bit of accounting in the whole golf business.”
Financial prudence was required this year, as Stephanie worked her way back onto the LPGA Tour through the second tier Symetra Tour (previously known as the ‘LPGA Futures Tour’).
“The Symetra Tour is a big step down but the expenses really aren’t that much less. So I ended up not taking a caddy this year, because that is a big expense, you’re talking at least 40 grand (US $40,000) a year because they have their weekly salary and then their percentages on top of that.
Luckily she was able to borrow a caddy occasionally: “My boyfriend [Kyle Kallan] actually works on the LPGA Tour for Cheyenne [Woods] so on his off-weeks he came and worked for me. So I had a caddy for about six weeks, which was nice to have a little break from tugging the bag around myself.”
There’s a rueful laugh when she’s asked how that worked out: “Statistically, I actually played better, but I’m not sure that would ever work full-time. It was really nice to get to see each other, for him to be there. He’s a golfer as well, obviously, and he knows my game really well.
“He played on PGA Tour Canada – usual story, ran out of money and needed to get a job, so he started caddying on the LPGA.”
Another chuckle follows a query about who gets the final say on club selection: “The golfer, yeah. I guess if you have a caddy who knows what he’s doing and if they’re really persistent about a club then you know you’re really messing up, and you need to take a step back and explain why. But it doesn’t happen very often that you wouldn’t agree, just a handful of times throughout the year.”
His job is just another bonus about her return to the LPGA Tour next year: “We’ll travel together, which is great.
“This year we were almost totally separated, apart a long time. It meant I was on the road a lot more too, because on my off weeks I was going to see him. It was a long year, for sure.”
Still, at least all the effort paid off as she secured nine top 10 finishes, including one victory, finishing 6th in the Order of Merit to secure her return to the top flight of ladies golf.
“It went really well – back to being 100 per cent healthy, which was really nice. It was a big concern after last year, you always have it on your mind where you don’t want it to happen again. I played really well this year and got back to LPGA.”
Stephanie Meadow on her Olympic ambitions
When we spoke, her mum Louise was in the process of selling the family home in Hilton Head Island moving to Phoenix.
The Arizonan capital is now ‘home’ and she says: “It’s a huge city. I love it. I moved there from South Carolina. There’s a lot more going on in Phoenix, more things to do. It’s very outdoorsy, hiking, and the weather is just fantastic – I don’t have to worry about rain.”
If anyone deserves the sun to shine on them it’s Stephanie Meadow. Fingers crossed for her upward swing to continue into 2019.
* See Monday’s paper for more on Stephanie Meadow’s career and her ambitions for women in sport.