In an interview in the April edition of Irish Golfer Magazine, Stephanie Meadow chatted about her return from injury, playing on the Cactus Tour and what her hopes were for the Symetra Tour this season. Now with a win under her belt she’s well on the way to achieving her stated goal.
I had the privilege of speaking to Stephanie Meadow at the beginning of last year as she prepared for the LPGA’s opening event of the season in the Bahamas. Although she had missed out on her full playing rights for 2017, she was set to compete in the majority of tournaments through March with the hope that a quick start could lead to a full schedule on the women’s top tour. Her approach to the campaign?
“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.”
She tied 31st at that season opener going 67/67 on Friday and Saturday on her way to an 11-under-par total, just the sort of confidence building result one would hope for so early in the year. It proved to be her best week of another bitterly frustrating season out on Tour.
Meadow went on to miss 14 out of 16 cuts, producing shots the likes of which her eyes had never seen. It turned out that there was more at play than a dip in form. The Jordanstown native had been battling injury through much of that period and it was only when the pain got too much to bare that she called for an MRI to identify the cause:
“It started in July of last year”, she began, as I tore open old wounds. “I was feeling pain in my back and then it got to the point of really bothering me, not just a niggle, it got worse and worse. Originally they thought it was an SI issue and I did a lot of the little exercises with physios but it just wasn’t getting better.”
“After about eight or nine weeks I ended up going and getting an MRI and they told me that I had an L5 Pars stress fracture and that was kind of it. You just have to stop and rest and let it heal.”
Still, the severity of the diagnosis took Meadow by surprise, though the Doctor assured her that it was not uncommon for girls practicing rotational sports to get it.
“It was very scary, especially from the point where I didn’t think there was anything wrong, I was just kind of battling through and you think ‘gosh, what if I hadn’t stopped and got the MRI?’ It could have been a lot worse.”
What could not have been worse was the timing of the news with Meadow too far into her season to obtain a medical exemption that could’ve carried her into this year unscathed.
“That was hard to swallow. I was very annoyed that I didn’t get the MRI way earlier because then my year this year would’ve been totally different, but it is what it is and I’ll learn from it.”
The former Alabama star had entered the campaign with dreams of reintroducing herself to the golfing world after a stunning amateur career. When she turned pro in 2014, she finished third on her debut event at the US Open in Pinehurst, before her season was derailed so brutally by the loss of her number one supporter and Dad, Robert, after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.
Having come out the other side of that heartbreak and regained a status on a Tour where she rightfully belonged, results simply failed to match expectation; her body not allowing her to express her true self on the golf course.
“It was really hard because I’d never quite been in that situation. I’d had a great college career, a great amateur career. I started off great as a pro and then I just couldn’t get anything to go right. It was tough to take, and then with the back injury I couldn’t even practice to fix it.”
“I was in physio two or three times a day. Mentally it was a complete grind. It got to the point at some tournaments where I was in the physio room fifteen minutes before tee off just to be ready to get out. That was the point where I knew I had to step back and get it properly looked at.”
As her rehabilitation began, Meadow found herself grounded at home with Netflix marathons for company and plenty of time for reflection. With a diagnosis finally clear, her outlook on last season became brighter too as she could finally convince herself that it was a physical handicap, rather than a swing-flaw, that had contributed to her underwhelming performances.
“To have shots coming out that I’ve never hit in my entire life, thinking about it now, it’s no wonder I was hitting those shots. I didn’t play that bad because of me, I played that way because of injury and I just didn’t know it. It gives me confidence. I was kinda being told that I was just being a baby but I wasn’t. It was just one big mess.”
If another source of mental strength was needed for the tough Jordanstown professional, she’s now confronted the threat of the game being taken away from her at just 26-years of age. If anything, it’s enhanced a perspective that she’s never allowed to get away from her at any point in her career to date.
“Golf is a part of my soul, I love it. Honestly, at that point last year I didn’t love it anymore. I was putting so much pressure on myself, coupled with the pain, but now I realise that when I can play golf and I’m pain free and I can just go outside and be with friends… you need to remember everything else that golf brings to your life and not just the results part.”
“All my friends are golfers, it’s a huge part of my life. To feel that now and be happy on the golf course it’s definitely going to help me play better. It’s almost like hitting the reset button.”
“It’s amazing how it happens. It gets to the point that you hate golf because you’re playing so badly and then ten seconds later it’s ‘god, I miss golf so much’. It’s a part of me and I’m glad to be stuck with it.”
After such a period of uncertainty, her future momentarily hanging in the balance, Stephanie couldn’t let the opportunity pass to thank her sponsors for sticking by her through everything, with special mention to Investec whose bag she’ll be carrying on her golfing journey this year.
“They’re just incredible and I was actually kind of nervous telling them that I had such a serious injury. Michael and the team there are just amazing, it’s a great environment to be a part of and I’m just so grateful to have them by my side.”
Her rehabilitation also allowed her plenty of time to cast her eye over the Golf4Girls4Life programme, with Stephanie having taken up an ambassador role with the programme last year. As a junior at Ballyclare, she had a team of ten strong girls to bounce off but admits that was a rare exception in a predominantly male environment.
“I’m always keeping an eye out for the girls and checking in. The programme seems to be becoming more and more successful which is fantastic. When I was young we didn’t have anything like that so hopefully we can get as many girls into the game as possible.”
“I was very lucky in that I had a group of ten girls at Ballyclare but I think I was one of the very few that did. I met girls as opposed to just being around guys the whole time but there’s so much opportunity for the girls now and hopefully it will keep going from strength to strength.”
She’ll be hoping that a similar upward curve continues with her own form as sprouts of recovery threaten to bloom already this year. She’s made some wholesale changes to resurrect her ambitions with a move to Arizona topping the list.
“I was living in a pretty old retirement area in South Carolina and there wasn’t very much happening. Definitely not a lot to do in the off weeks. I’d come home after a hard tournament and there was no escape from the game. It was literally a golf island with nothing else to do. I was just ready to move on.”
Now in Phoenix, Stephanie has any number of distractions to relieve the pressures of the sport, as well as a climate that allows for year-round golf when it is time to get to work.
“Phoenix is huge. I live in Peoria which is out west but there’s so many things to do. I love the hiking trails it offers, the weather is amazing. 70 and sunny every day. And there’s lots of mini-tours out here that allow for the perfect preparation for the upcoming season.”
Playing out of Blackstone Country Club, just five minutes down the road from her new abode, Meadow impressed on an outing with some influential members to secure their support for the year. An ultra-exclusive club in a hugely competitive environment, it’s not something she’ll be taking for granted.
“They’ve been so great to me. It’s harder to get into clubs in Phoenix because there’s so many pros. Most of the time they make you pay but I was really lucky in that I met a couple of members, went and played and they wanted to have me out here. I put their logo on the bag and it’s been great ever since.”
Having taken a stab at Q-School, more in hope than expectation as Christmas approached, Meadow’s lack of preparation soon told after a blowout in round one. Admitting that she really struggled on the first day after such a long layoff, she only started hitting drivers the week prior, she was heartened by her revival over the next three days, just the timing of the event coming that bit too soon.
Yet with something on which to build, the bubbly blonde hasn’t looked back since. She parted ways with coach, Jorge Parada, last season to return to an approach that stood by her so well as she rose through the ranks from Jordanstown to Pinehurst. Now with Englishman, Terry Roles overseeing her swing, she seems to have found the perfect coach for her.
“I’ve gone back to what I naturally do. Literally no swing thoughts at all. It took a while but my swing looks a lot more like it did in college. It’s a good thing. After me and Jorge went our separate ways I just tried to do me – just get the ball in the hole.”
“For a while it was hard. I was so used to thinking technical and having thoughts and it took a while to make that go away. But I started working with Terry and he’s very simplistic. It’s probably the least I’ve ever worked on my golf swing and possibly the best I’ve ever hit it”, she says with a disbelieving laugh.
“He’s been really great. He’s one of those guys that when he first meets you, he measures everything – your height, arm span, all these different tests. He’s researched that it’s not necessarily the way your muscles work that makes you swing in a certain way, it’s more to do with your bone structure.
“For example, my arm span is three inches shorter than my body and from that, without seeing me hit a ball, he said to me that you’re probably going to be really flat, the very thing I’ve tried to work to get away from in the past.”
“But he was like ‘no, that’s what you need to be because your arms are short. If you swing on a technical swing plain you’re going to miss the ball because your arms are so short. So my swing is flat again, I’ve just accepted that but that’s how it used to be. And it’s refreshing knowing that naturally what I do is what I need to do.”
Roles’ influence has had an immediate impact and though it might not be the richest prize on Meadow’s radar this season, she picked up her first win of 2018 in fine style by firing a final round 66 to win at Wigwam Patriot Blue by a four stroke margin on the Cactus Tour.
She birdied three of her last five holes to reaffirm that the work she’s been doing since coming back from injury has her game trending in the right direction.
“A win’s a win, it doesn’t matter where it is, it always breathes confidence. It’s really great to be playing good golf again, hitting the ball where I want to hit it. It’s been a really long time since I’ve done that! To be able to do it in competition is even better.”
“I’ve pretty much played four or five practice events back-to-back now. It starts to become normal after a while, there’s no difference between when you go out with your buddies and when you’re in tournament mode and that’s a really good feeling to have as sometimes there can be a big difference.”
“Not just that but I won’t be walking into the first tournament of the season wondering how this is going to go. I feel like I’ve already done that. Symmetra’s not going to be a big nervous thing for me so hopefully I can treat it the exact same way.”
She’ll be reunited with a familiar face as she bids to regain her LPGA status as Cavan’s Leona Maguire takes the leap into professional company on the Symmetra Tour this year. It’s been years since Meadow and Maguire graced a fairway together but Stephanie has no doubt that Maguire will prove an instant hit on the paid circuit.
“I haven’t talked to her in ages. It’s great but kinda scary too because I feel like she’s so much younger than me and now she’s coming out and turning pro too. I feel like I’m getting old but she’ll be great and very successful no doubt and I’m looking forward to linking up with her again.”
As nice and all as that reunion will no doubt be, Meadow has the blinkers on for what she hopes will be a swift return to the top tour next season. Unsure about LPGA invites and unwilling to compromise the Symmetra cash on offer, Stephanie is targeting the top-10 on the money list as she looks to forge her way back to the Promised Land.
“My philosophy is to focus on Symmetra and that will be my avenue back. I’ll try not to get distracted by the bigger events. Would I love to play in the LPGA events? Yes of course, but I’d rather get the card locked down and then go from there.”
“I’m definitely aiming for top-10. You never know, there have been girls in the past who have gone out and won three times and gotten their cards back immediately so that would be the ultimate goal. But at the same time that’s a big ask. I feel like I can do that. If I’m playing like I used to play I can definitely do it.”
After a spell of cursed luck, let’s hope that Stephanie Meadow can finally touch the stars she set out to reach so long ago.