Rising star Beth Coulter relishing US college opportunity
County Down teenager Beth Coulter continues to make waves in the golf world but, as a summer move to the States beckons, Neil Loughran finds out how community - and camogie - remain key, no matter where she is…
SHE might be one of the hottest young properties in Irish golf at the minute, months away from a big move Stateside, but Beth Coulter’s heart will always belong to the close-knit community in Ballygalget and the camán code with which she was raised.
The talented 18-year-old was crowned AIG Irish Women’s Close champion at Grange Golf Club earlier this month and, despite a trying week weather-wise, remains in contention for a third Irish Girls’ Close on the trot heading into today’s final round in Kilkeel.
“Honestly, it was the worst conditions I’ve ever played in,” she laughed, reflecting on how the heavens had opened during Tuesday’s round, “it wasn’t even golf - it was just pure luck.”
The searing heat, rather than the teeming rain gifted by this most Irish of summers, will be more of a concern when Coulter touches down in America’s south-west in August, ready to begin a scholarship at Arizona State University.
Having watched the likes of Leona Maguire, Stephanie Meadow and close friend Olivia Mehaffey break new ground in recent years, Coulter’s natural competitiveness ensures her ambition matches theirs.
Still, though, there is one itch she would love to have scratched before boarding that plane.
“Winning a Down senior championship with Ballygalget would still be the number one goal.
“I leave on the 15th of August and the championship starts after that, so unfortunately it’s not very realistic this year…”
There is genuine regret as her voice tails off.
On the Ards peninsula, hurling is a way of life – and Coulter comes from considerable stock. Granda Gerard donned the red and black for years before managing Down during the Noughties. His son Conor, Beth’s father, wore the green of Ballygalget with pride, while cousin Martin was a warrior for club and county during some memorable days. There have been many others, far too many to name.
“There’s literally hundreds of Coulters over our side of the water, and we’re related to all of them,” she says.
“All those boys, Barry, Martin, Paul, they’re all my cousins, so we’re all really close. Like, it’s the only thing we know... you could probably count with one hand the amount of people in Ballygalget who aren’t involved.”
A tenacious corner forward, Coulter won two Ulster Schools’ Allstar awards during her time at Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Knock, and would almost certainly have graduated straight to county level were her hands not being put to other use.
Camogie was her first love and, no matter what she goes on to achieve, that will never change.
“Mum and dad were telling me recently that on a Saturday night I’d have been getting my skort, socks, stick and helmet all out and ready before a blitz on the Sunday – I was so eager, I just loved it and I still do.
“My dad was heavily involved with camogie on the county board, so I would’ve been at all the matches, dad’s little girl, running along behind him… I’ve grown up with everybody knowing him and then everybody knowing me.
“When I was in P5 I was mascot when Down got to a junior All-Ireland final, in the changing room with the team, all the girls I looked up to – Nicola Braniff, Catherine McGourty, Fionnuala Carr. I was tiny and when we went out of the changing room Fionnuala ran, and there was me trying my best to keep up with her.
“That’s what I wanted to do - I wanted to be on the county team, playing for Down, winning things for Down. But that has had to take a bit of a back seat in the last few years.”
Instead, many of the skills honed at Mitchel Park have helped her rise through the ranks in a golf career that she could never have seen coming, while women’s golf head coach at Arizona State, Missy Farr-Kaye, has already pinpointed “tenacity and toughness” as major assets.
Coulter’s introduction to the game came during a primary school workshop conducted by Neil Graham, who was pro at nearby Kirkistown Golf Club before relocating to Portstewart.
The Cloughey man could see the potential straight away and, since encouraging Coulter’s parents to take her down to the course during the summer months, there has been no looking back.
“I wouldn’t have known what golf was, that’s not even exaggerating,” she said.
“There’s only Kirkistown golf course down where we live, that’s it, and in Ballygalget not many people would’ve played golf. It would’ve been more of a posh sport.
“It was something completely new, I didn’t know the rules, the etiquette, but the more I played the more I learned.
“When I was 12 I went to a qualifier for a World championship in Pinehurst, dad said we’ll go because you might never get the chance to do something like this again… that’s been the mentality all along - just take things as they come.
“Thankfully, those opportunities have become more regular and something you become more used to over time. But if you’d told 10-year-old me - or even 14-year-old me when I was getting a bit better - that I’d be sitting here now, six weeks away from going to university in America, I would’ve laughed at you.”
And yet she knows the biggest test lies ahead.
While her closest friends head off to Queen’s and Ulster University, where camogie will still be at the centre of so much of their lives, Coulter heads into the unknown.
She leant on ex-alumni Olivia Mehaffey for advice before Arizona State won the race for her signature, and her first visit in January was a window into the culture shock that awaits. There are fears, concerns – nobody would be any different.
But there is also huge excitement and a steely determination to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Arizona State is one the biggest universities in America, so it’s so different for somebody like me who’s coming from such a rural place.
“Here, I know absolutely everyone within a 20 mile radius, whereas I was sitting at a Starbucks in the campus in January and there’s thousands of people within a mile radius and I didn’t know a single one of them.
“The eight hours time difference probably scares me the most because you could have a long day, come in at 5pm in Arizona and everybody at home’s in bed so you can’t talk to them, when that’s all you want to do.
“But those are all things I’ll get used to. One of my best friends in golf has just come home for the summer, and she’s telling about making one of the best friends ever – that’s what’s so nice, you could go over there and meet a best friend, or your future husband. It broadens your horizons, and it’s an opportunity to grow as a person as well as in golf.
“The unknown is so exciting, and I know I’m only ever a flight away from home.”