It’s been a difficult road for the 25-year old in recent times but Meadow is geared for a big 2017.
“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” – Oscar Wilde.
Antrim’s Stephanie Meadow turned 25 the day after we spoke which made it all the more remarkable that she’d arranged our chat for the ungodly hour of 7am – I’ll try not to get hung up on the fact that she’d already been to the gym too! Packing her bags from her adopted home and set for her first event of the year in the Bahamas, Stephanie is living an American dream that she’s envisaged ever since holidaying in the States and competing as a child a long way short of double digits.
“Dad would take me along to lessons at Ballyearl Driving Range, just as babysitting, but eventually I asked to try when I was five or six and it quickly became my lesson rather than his. Then when I was over in the US playing in events I saw just how much talent there was and how well things were organised. The LPGA was always the dream and moving here looked the best way to get me there. Obviously I was very lucky that my parents were in a position to allow me to do that. But they always wanted to live out here so it was a good fit for all of us.”
In order to follow her lofty ambitions, Stephanie’s family took the plunge and moved to Hilton Head in Florida to support their 14 year old’s dream. “I probably thought of the sacrifices I was making with friends and stuff but not those that my parents were making – the family and lifelong friends they left behind. But they wanted to do it. Mum still lives here and she loves it, she’s living the life.” The move was instigated by no ordinary fourteen year old. Growing up playing the likes of Ballyclare and Portrush Stephanie grew up fast, playing with older ladies who expected a certain maturity. “I was probably a little abnormal thinking back but those experiences taught me a lot.”
Although the settling in period didn’t come quite as smooth as the vacations that came before, there was never a point where she’d doubted her decision. “There were certain things I missed from home but I fell in love with how much better I was getting. At that point Irish coaching was probably a bit behind where America was at. Judging by the standard of recent Irish teams, and I’m pretty heavily involved with Irish coaching, I know that it’s a ton better now and the knowledge has reached there, but when I was fourteen maybe not so much.”
“They have everything in Ireland now. Access to psychologists, fitness coaches. They’re doing all the right things. The weather’s not perfect for developing as a golfer but I find my time at home always helps me, makes me tougher. In America we’re babied at times, a drop of rain and we go inside. It’s funny, I look back now and wonder, how did I ever think that was fun? But you play in what you’re exposed to and if you love golf you play in anything.”
Meadow’s early potential blossomed and it was during her time at the University of Alabama where her prodigious talent came to the fore. She became the college’s first four-time first team All-American, growing up in the process with girls who harboured similar ambitions to her own. She graduated with a first class honours Degree in Accounting, a backup plan of sorts but more so as she told me, because “golf is a business and now I can speak to my accountant and have some idea what they’re actually talking about!”
Although Stephanie’s golfing exploits had built quite the reputation about campus, each summer she returned home for ILGU duties, an organisation she acknowledges she owes a debt of gratitude to. “I don’t think people realise just how much help the ILGU are to young girls with aspirations of going pro. It’s so expensive – I don’t care who your parents are, it’s still a major amount of money and to have their support really helps out.”
With all her stars aligning, Meadow earned a spot on GB&I’s Curtis Cup team in 2012, helping the side to a precious victory over their US counterparts at Nairn in Scotland. The honour of holing the winning putt fell at Stephanie’s feet, one of her first moments of real nerves on a golf course. “I had a chip that I left to three feet and technically I probably shouldn’t have done this because it wasn’t a ‘gimme’ but she had a 30 footer for bogey. I kinda threw my arms up in the air and there’s pictures everywhere of it. I probably shouldn’t have done that ethically but it was one of those things where I knew I wouldn’t miss that. To have a ton of family and support there and then to hit a good shot made it even more special.”
To cap a remarkable year in which she’d also claimed the Nationals in Alabama, Meadow won the British Amateur Championship as the game of golf appeared to come easy to her. Upon graduating in 2014 she turned pro, her debut set for the US Open at Pinehurst if you don’t mind! “It was pretty surreal. I was a reserve for a long time and when I got the call to find out my pro debut would be at the US Open – that in itself was exciting. I was playing great but I was riding along on the fact that this was what I’d dreamed about my whole life and worked towards and to go to Pinehurst and play well was just a blur.” Meadow finished third in her first Major Championship but the highs she so briefly felt were brutally put in perspective by the loss of her number one supporter and Dad, Robert, after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.
“Obviously it was a massive shock. The biggest thing he taught me was to never give up. He expected me to do everything to the best of my ability. There was a time when I was younger that it might’ve annoyed the crap out of me but he really instilled that in me and I don’t think a lot of people ever really get through to kids the way he did for me. For him to see me turn pro and to go so well at the US Open, even at the ANA when he was sick and I finished Top-20 and he got a mention on Golf Channel. He was sitting there on chemo in pain and he’s getting admired on TV. That was pretty cool and I can’t thank them enough. I’m just happy we had the time that we did and that he got to see it.”
Rather than take time away from the game, Stephanie soon returned to the course and her game inevitably suffered. In hindsight, it was all too much too soon. “I guess I’m one of those people who puts things in a box and locks it away but golf and Dad was a huge connection. Everywhere I looked on the golf course I thought of him to the point that I’d look over to the side of the fairway before a shot and expect him to be there. To have gone through that and not have practiced in so long and play like crap. All that tied together was so overwhelming that I just broke down. I felt like I needed to give up, I needed time which I probably didn’t get ‘til the next off-season because I refused to give up; I wanted to but I thought Dad would want me to play on and it was my job. Dealing with it has made me a lot stronger and nothing will be as hard as doing that anymore.”
Stephanie’s courage was acknowledged by her peers when she was presented with the Heather Farr award, which honours an LPGA player’s perseverance on the road to achieving their goals. It was the boost she didn’t know she needed and it came as a total surprise. She was flown to Naples along with her beloved Mum to accept the award. “At that point I was a lot stronger and it was great to get to be able to share stories about my Dad. My biggest fear was getting up there and not being able to speak and just cry. I couldn’t look at Mum because I knew if I did it would’ve been a disaster!
It wasn’t just her peers that stood by her but sponsors like Callaway and the Confederation of Golf in Ireland personally reached out to her to express their unwavering support. It was that belief shown in her that got her through the darkest days. Out the other side and Meadow knew she needed to rediscover her form. “You’re spending a lot of money and you’re watching your bank account go down, and I’m not talking twenty grand, I’m talking six figures. It’s pretty scary. One thing I did learn, after I’d worked and worked and put hours in that I’d never put into golf, ever, and I was just getting worse, is that there’s a point of diminishing returns and you realise you have to have a life outside golf. You can’t pressure yourself to the point of driving yourself into the ground.”
Instead she recognised the need for a fresh approach and remembering what her father had taught her of investing, ‘if you believe in yourself, what’s the problem?’, she recruited new coach Jorge Parada and persuaded good friend Brett Nickolite to carry her bag. Together they have turned a corner, with Meadow pinpointing the Rio Olympics as the catalyst for her renewed confidence. “It was the first time I’d played well in a top LPGA ranking event in a long time and it was just the realisation like, OH, I can do it!”
Her resurgence has attracted new support and late last year Meadow was ecstatic to announce a new partnership with Investec, her first corporate golf sponsor. “It’s new territory for me but I love it. Investec are literally so invested in me and the things that they’ve done are kind of remarkable for someone who’s in my position. It shocked me and my agent just how much they care and how much work they’re putting into it. They’re not all about the logo on the shirt and here’s the money. They want to grow you as a person and expose you to different things and ultimately teach you to be better.”
It’s a link to home that she’s craved for years. “It’s so nice. I’ve been trying for a long time to get something Irish on board. Hopefully this has opened a few more doors at home. More publicity at home makes me more Irish again as a lot of people think I’m American! This is where I live but it’s definitely not my home. It’ll be a great excuse to get back more often and see everybody.”
Indeed there’s a hint of an American twang coming through the Jordanstown girl’s vernacular but she tries her best to hide it. “If I’m doing radio I’ll talk to my Mum for forty minutes before I do it to get everything going again! I came over quite young and adapted a bit but I’m home five minutes and it comes straight back. I say things and I’m like, god I haven’t said that in a while, things I’d never say here, they wouldn’t have a clue. It’s definitely not an act!”
Onwards and upwards.
Although narrowly missing out on full playing privileges for this season, Meadow has gone from 11th alternate to making the starting field for the LPGA’s opening event of the season in the Bahamas. She expects to compete in the majority of events through March and with a good start, she can realistically have an entirely full card marked for 2017. The goal?
“I’ve been so wound up in recent years by money and keeping cards that it was all pretty limiting. This year I’m going to do what I used to do and aim for the stars. Solheim’s going to be tough given there’s only a year but if I was to get on a good run I could get a pick. I guess this time next year I’d love to be in the Top-50 on the money list, I think that’s pretty doable. I was Top-100 from nine events last year and this year I’ll be playing more like twenty. Hopefully I can get going and not have to worry about covering myself. At the same time I have to remember I’m playing golf for a living and it’s really not that bad.”
Having spoken to her, it was hard not be impressed by her attitude. I came away feeling both useless and motivated at the same time and for one so young to evoke so much says it all. Having finally been released from the shackles of grief, it’s going to be pretty exciting to see how far this girl goes. I’ll always support a dreamer.