Stephanie Meadow: "Poor results or great results, you still have to love it"

Stephanie Meadow: "Poor results or great results, you still have to love it"
Stephanie Meadow

Stephanie Meadow

Hermits and wise men had isolated themselves in the desert over the centuries to find solitude and peace.

Not Stephanie Meadow. She's just trying to bloom again in the sweet desert air.

The feisty Jordanstown native (26) could have been forgiven for wanting to hide away from the world for a while to heal the mental and physical scars of the past few years. After all, it's been a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions.

Nearly four years ago, the Royal Portrush star finished third on her professional debut in the US Women's Open at Pinehurst No 2 and won $271,373.

It was a dream come true for a player who was a four-time All-American at the University of Alabama and a joy for her parents, who gave up everything and moved lock, stock and barrel to the US when she was 14 so she could attend the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.

“She was winning all the amateur events at home, so we reckoned that it would be better for her to come here and play against the best players in the world,” her father Robert, an avid golfer and a retired corporate chief financial officer, told the New York Times at  Pinehurst during that US Women's Open. 

“She had run out of competition back home in Ireland.”

At the end of 2014, Meadow lost out on the 11th playoff hole for the final card at the LPGA Q-School. It wasn't the end of the world as she'd still get more than a dozen starts.

Stephanie Meadow. Picture © INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Stephanie Meadow. Picture © INPHO/Morgan Treacy

But tragedy struck soon afterwards when her father was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

She took time out to help her mother care for him at home and she played just one event early in 2015 as a tribute to him, finishing tied 20th in the ANA Inspiration just a month before he passed away.

Still mourning, she tried to return to action a month later but it was too soon. And not long afterwards, her game started to desert her.

While she would play alongside Leona Maguire in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, a swing change led to what turned out to be an L5 pars stress fracture in her lower spine.

Not knowing she was seriously injured, she lost her swing completely with it went her confidence and her tour card. 

But she's now on her way back after deciding to up sticks and head for a new life in Arizona, winning a mini-tour event on the Cactus Tour recently as he prepares to start from scratch again on the LPGA's equivalent of the Challenge Tour— the Symetra Tour — later this spring.

"A win is a win, right?" she says with a giggle down the phone line as she drives across Phoenix to meet her coach for some 3D swing analysis.

"It doesn't matter what tour you play or where you are playing. It brings confidence, and it was really nice to see what I can do. I held things together under pressure, so it's exciting."

The great thing about living in Arizona is that not only is it the perfect place for year-round golf, it's also home to all the best sports medicine practitioners in the US.

And that's why Meadow lives there now after going through an injury nightmare that depressed her so much, she briefly considered her future in the game. 

"I was diagnosed with an L5 pars fracture at the bottom of my spine," she said, recalling the 13 missed cuts from 17 starts in 2017 alone, not to mention another at Q-School. 

"It's an injury I had battled with — and was misdiagnosed with — for about three months. I was playing in a  lot of pain and it wasn't muscular or an injury I had had before. So I had an MRI. 

Stephanie Meadow tries to stay positive at all times but it hasn't been easy

Stephanie Meadow tries to stay positive at all times but it hasn't been easy

"It was my mistake, I should have been more pro-active about it but I trusted and listened to the people who were treating me and I wasn't able to get a medical for the LPGA this year. 

"If I had been diagnosed when I had half a season left, I would have been awarded a medical exemption and I would've had half a year to make enough money.  So it's one of those things where I guess you live and learn."

Having tried to change her swing and gain more control and accuracy by moving from a draw to a fade, she developed a serious injury that caused her to make even more compensations in her swing.

But the changes caused by her body led to utter chaos as she played 11 events in a row trying to save her card and eventually had no idea where the ball was going.

"It was a tough thing for me to swallow because I knew I had been playing injured for quite a long time," she said.  

"I know what caused it and I have made the adjustments so it doesn't happen ever again. What I was trying to do with my swing, it just wasn't as natural, and there was a lot of repetition of that. 

"I started seeing shots I'd never seen before, and I was in more pain on a golf course than I had ever been in my life."

After taking the latter half of the season off to recover for Q-School, she failed to make the cut there and is now working hard to be 100 percent physically ready for the Symetra Tour, where the top 10 money winners will win promotion to the main tour at the end of the season

"If I play well, there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to do that," she said.

Her challenge is not so much physical as mental.

"There are shots that shouldn't come out anymore but you have memories of the bad shots, and it's a little bit of a mental curve that you have to get over," she said. 

"You have to convince yourself it was your body and not your swing that was to blame and it wasn't really you that was causing the bad shots."

She's looking forward to being reunited with Leona Maguire, who will play the Symetra Tour when she is not playing on invitations on the LPGA Tour, when she turns professional in May.

"We have a lot of history after playing on teams together for 10-12 years," she said of Leona.  "There's something about that camaraderie that never leaves you."

Getting back her competitive edge is Meadow's next goal but she's getting there.

Stephanie Meadow is supported by Team Ireland Golf and Investec. Picture © INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Stephanie Meadow is supported by Team Ireland Golf and Investec. Picture © INPHO/Morgan Treacy

"It's definitely been hard," she said, hugely grateful to her sponsors Investec in Dublin have been so supportive of her during her injury.

"You don't see when you are going through it how your attitude changes. You feel that you are working hard and getting nothing out of it.  It is very depressing when you are trying hard and you don't know what's wrong. 

"But everyone goes periods in their life when it's hard. I think for me, the biggest thing in the last four or five months was having it all taken away from me having that 'what would my life be like without golf' moment.  

"It shows me that I really love this game and no matter what, poor results or great results, you still have to love it.  If you are not involved in the process and enjoying the process, you are never going to get results. 

"So I started to have that realisation that okay, this is a game I love, I want to play with friends, I want to have a good competitive match and not be at a place in my career where I am scared of competition. 

"So it's about loving that competition and thriving on it again and that's a great feeling."

She still works with Swedish mental game experts Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson on that side of the game and with her swing back in the groove, a freshly decorated home in Phoenix and her mother soon set to join her out west, she's happier than ever.

Any fleeting thoughts she might have briefly entertained of throwing in the towel have long faded.

"I am not going to say it didn't cross my mind," she chuckled when asked if she considered updating her CV. "But this is what I still want to do, and I still have an opportunity to do it.

"I wouldn't change that for the world. 

"When was diagnosed, I thought, this sucks. But now I am fine and I wouldn't rather do anything else. I'm ready to go again!"

This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent's weekly Tee to Green golf Supplement on March 22.