With her LPGA card in her pocket, now is the time for Stephanie Meadow to dream big and show the world what she’s got.
If I was tasked with choosing one inspiring sport’s star, someone who’s overcome their fair share of adversity and displayed a determination and hunger to succeed in the face of multiple obstacles thrown their way, I’d struggle to think of anyone more deserving than Stephanie Meadow. The Jordanstown professional has played her way back to the Promised Land of the LPGA Tour but if you think the story ends there, you’d be sorely mistaken.
This will be Meadow’s third shot at the big time having looked destined to shine on this stage twice in the past only for the golfing gods and those further afield to throw a spanner in the works at the crucial moment. The former Alabama star had entered the 2017 LPGA 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. She had suffered an L5 Pars fracture of the spine, a potentially career threatening injury, and with Meadow too far into the season to obtain a medical exemption, she had to watch her LPGA Tour dreams fade into obscurity from the physio’s table.
It would have been easy to feel sorry for herself, to throw in the towel on her dreams, but Meadow has more fight than that and spurred on by her partnership with Investec Ireland, she grew more determined than ever to carve out a route back into elite company.
“It gives you belief when people believe in you,” she said of a conversation she was dreading having. “It’s funny, this time last year my contract was up with Investec, a day after I got injured. And I thought, ‘oh crap, what am I going to do?’ but Michael at Investec just said, ‘that’s not how we do things, we want to support people and if things go badly we want to support them more’ and that meant so much. It says a lot about Investec as a company to have that attitude.
“Team Ireland have always been on board, never questioned anything since the beginning and they were also very supportive. Callaway were still supporting me and I just didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Stephanie Meadow / Image from Symetra Tour
After months of tedious rehabilitation coupled with hours upon hours of Netflix marathons, her outlook on her recovery began to turn all the brighter. Not that another sense of perspective was needed but through her time spent lying on the flat of her back, Meadow’s love of the game was consolidated and her eagerness to get back accelerated. But change was needed.
Indeed she made some wholesale changes to resurrect her ambitions, with a move to Arizona topping the list. Results have clearly improved since making the move from South Carolina but is that down to an improved golfing environment or is that just coincidence?
“I think it’s more the stuff outside of golf that’s been the biggest change,” she mused. “I now live beside my trainer and psychologist whereas I was doing everything remotely before – especially with the injury, being right next to my trainer was perfect.”
“In South Carolina I had the beach but I’m not a massive beach person. You think you’ll be on the beach everyday living beside it but you never go. I love hiking, the outdoor culture Phoenix has to offer. The population is massive, lots of restaurants to see and places to try and it’s just a better fit for me right now.”
Her comfort in her new surroundings was immediately reflected in her results, but that was thanks to boyfriend turned caddie, Kyle Kallan, who pushed Meadow out the door in order to rekindle her competitive juices. Identifying the Cactus Tour as the ideal preparation ahead of the Symetra season, Meadow picked up her first win of 2018, after some encouragement, in fine style by firing a final round 66 to win at Wigwam Patriot Blue by a four stroke margin on the Cactus Tour.
“My boyfriend pushed me to play in it,” she admitted. “I hadn’t played any real tournaments other than Tour School after my injury. Injury or not, you still see those bad shots when you’re in competitive mode. It’s only natural that they’re still in your mind and it was great to be able to overcome that.”
Stephanie Meadow nd Kyle Kallan
“The motto for the whole team this year was; ‘winning’s winning, it doesn’t matter where’. I made some money playing from home too which was nice but really it was a great way to prepare for Symetra. Event one didn’t feel like event one having played competitively right up to it and I was more relaxed about the whole season from the start.”
The work she’d done with new coach, Englishman Terry Roles while overseeing her swing was certainly a source of comfort too. After battling what came naturally to her to the point of putting her back out, it was love at first conversation with the Phoenix based swing guru this year.
“I’ll never forget the first time he met me – without seeing me hit a ball – and he said I should swing flat, on the inside and hit a draw. And I looked at him surprised and said that right through my amateur career I swung on the inside, flat and with a draw – the best golf I’ve ever played. Turning pro I’d tried to be more upright, hit a cut and I’d injured my back in the process so we kind of just looked at each other in that moment and thought this is going to work!”
And it surely did. In fact, Meadow’s LPGA Tour return never looked in doubt after an incredibly consistent season in Symetra company. An early win at the IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa lay the blocks on which to build and she was unrelenting in her work after that, securing her LPGA Tour card for 2019 having recorded 12 top-25 finishes, including that win and eight top-10 results.
Her name never budged from the top-10 on the Volvik Race for the Card money list set to make the step up in grade and it was at the IOA Classic at the start of October where her fate was sealed. Fittingly, what made the occasion extra special was that Meadow’s father Robert would have celebrated his 67th birthday two weeks before. Born on September 17, 1951, he passed away in May of 2015. Meadow’s golfing inspiration when it came to pursuing the game of golf was no doubt beaming down on her with pride.
“I think my Dad would be very proud, it was his birthday a couple of weeks before that,” Meadow recalled. “I think that’s a pretty awesome birthday present. I’m just really happy that I get a second chance because I came down here and had to work my way back.”
Work her way back she did and reflecting on the season, she executed it pretty much as planned. She played with a freedom that had been missing, without swing thoughts unless her play demanded them. Her injury stood up to the testing schedule better than she could have hoped and no longer entering unchartered waters, she’s excited for what’s to come knowing mostly what the future has in store.
“I feel very lucky because I’m definitely not a rookie in many ways,” she confirmed. “A lot of the girls have no idea what’s about to hit them in the face. I know the golf courses well, what caddies to hire, who not to hire – I’ve learned so much.”
“One of the biggest things now is that I’ve finally ingrained that just because it’s the next level doesn’t mean you have to change X, Y and Z. It’s just the tiny differences that make the big changes. Sticking to what I know works rather than being influenced by what someone else is doing. It’s a confidence thing – I know what I have works for me and I have to trust that. It’s a hard thing to do as a rookie but not so hard for someone who’s been there before.”
“But yeah, it will be a little more normal this time around. I haven’t figured out my goals for the year yet but I’ll be setting some. If I squeeze into the top-50 by next year that would be a big goal. That’s realistic, it’s doable and it’s what I’m focusing on right now.”
Stephanie Meadow / Image from Symetra Tour
What caddies to hire… we couldn’t let that one go. Considering the furor surrounding Rory McIlroy’s appointment of Best-Man Harry Diamond over the past few months, would Meadow consider employing boyfriend Kyle as premier bagman on the LPGA Tour next season?
This year was his first caddying for Cheyenne Woods, currently No. 188 on the LPGA Tour official money list so he wouldn’t be short on experience.
“We haven’t talked about what will happen next year but it’s going well,” she smiled. “It’s always nice to have someone who you’re totally comfortable with but there’s two sides to it. He’s played competitive golf, he knows my game really well. He’s noticed me agitated a number of times on the golf course when other caddies wouldn’t have picked up on that.
“And because he’s my boyfriend he can be a little more direct – he’s not afraid to tell me to take my head out of my ass! His quote for the year was that ‘I’m a volunteer so you can’t fire me!’ but it has been really comforting.”
The other side to that coin, however, is that Meadow can pick up on her caddie’s idiosyncrasies just as quick. “He’s always said that it’s extremely hard to be a caddie for someone you care about because all of a sudden they hit a bad shot and you’re supposed to be neutral but you’re invested emotionally. There’s also things that I’d notice with him that other players wouldn’t when everything’s not quite normal. I guess that was the hardest part this year – him not getting too upset when we’d get a bad bounce. It’s a tricky thing to do but overall it’s been a great experience.”
Another tricky subject we wanted to broach with Meadow that arose this year was around golfing attire, specifically women’s fashion and the regulations surrounding it. Here at IGM we had some interesting feedback this year from a reader concerned with the attire that Stephanie had posed in specifically for one of our feature articles and we wanted to get her take on it.
Recent LPGA Tour regulations were directed by LPGA Tour players themselves to a certain minority who had maybe taken things too far and in an age where traditionalism is being tested, who better to speak on the subject than a young, vibrant star in the thick of the action.
“The main issue was the tank tops with no sleeves and no collar whereas the rules state you had to have one or the other. The skirt thing was more precautionary. Basically the media may have blown it up more than we intended them to, but let’s put it this way.
When I was 10 and I was trying to play golf, if I didn’t love golf I would have had a really hard time playing it. I mean, what 10-year-old wants to play in shorts past their knees? I remember my first Home Internationals and this will tell you how far the ILGU have come in recent years but I’m pretty sure the clothes I was wearing were designed for men. The shirt was falling past my knees – I mean I was tiny but still.”
“If you want girls to be involved in sport they have to be able to look and feel comfortable, feel fashionable and confident about themselves.”
“If you look at Tennis, they used to wear really long stuff too and they barely wear anything now! But at the end of the day, it’s a sport and it’s hot, really hot. You have to understand that if you want golf to be popular it has to fit with how fashion goes.”
No wonder then that Meadow is on board as an Ambassador for the 20X20 initiative, aimed at increasing participation numbers amongst women in sport in Ireland by 20% within two years’ time. Presented by the Federation of Irish Sport this initiative hopes to increase the involvement of women in sport across the board by 2020, with three target areas being of particular focus – attendance, participation and media coverage.
“It was pitched to me in January of this year and I loved the idea – I was very impressed with the launch. Our biggest thing here is we’re not trying to pitch female versus male. It’s more that as a people, Irish people love sport. It’s entertaining, it brings us together as a country and if that’s the case, more sport is better for the country as a whole. As a culture we would have invested in male sport long before we did women’s and now we want to see the same investment in the female game.”
“There’s the health benefits for younger girls, the things that sport teaches you about things in general; the friendships that you make. From my side, I get texts from girls that I played Team Ireland with when I was 11. We’re still great friends even though we might not talk that much, it’s just that connection is always there and sport does that for a lot of people. A lot of people seem to have welcomed the idea too, we were trending on Twitter. It’s very exciting!”
Meadow’s enthusiasm is infectious but if there was one defining trait to take away from our chat, it was her pure humbleness. Her accent may accommodate an American twang these days but Meadow’s attachment to home is unbreakable. Time after time throughout the interview she made reference to those who stuck by her through good times and bad and it’s the prospect of her going into the new LPGA Tour season with her feet firmly planted to the fairways that should prove most advantageous.
“I’m not sure people realise quite how much the support means. When you’re out on Tour it can feel like it’s just you and nobody else cares. The amount of text messages I got from everyone back home, from Ballyclare Golf Club to Portrush and beyond, it was unbelievable.”
“It’s so special to me that many people care enough to look up how I’m going and to get in touch. It’s not something many Americans get and I’ll never take it for granted.”
But if there was one partnership to single out, though she insists on naming others, it’s her linking up with Investec in 2016 that seems to mean the most.
“The biggest thing I can say about Investec is that Michael Cullen, the CEO, personally texts me after every round during the season within 15 minutes of me finishing. That highlights how invested they are in me and how much they support me. They’re always there should I ever need anything and that’s a pretty amazing sponsor to have.”
“I’ve learned so much from Michael and everyone at the office. He’s been very encouraging of me as a business woman whose business happens to be golf. And that’s what it is – it’s my little business. I’ve done lots of corporate speeches and lunches off the back of this relationship that I’d never been exposed to before. That really sets me up for life after golf. Thanks to them I’ve a great foundation on which to build.”
But there are others…
“Team Ireland – their funding has been fantastic. For those girls who maybe don’t have the opportunity to gain support from people like Investec when they’re starting out on tour, it gives them the freedom to be a little less worried about expenses and know that I have at least got somewhere to start from without the immediate stress. It’s an expensive sport to play professionally – with no money and no sponsors, without Team Ireland you couldn’t turn pro. So thanks to Team Ireland and the government for believing in us and providing us with that support.”
And one more…
“I’m very lucky to have another sponsor come on board – ATA Engineering. It’s another source of support but more importantly for me, it’s another Irish sponsor and more much appreciated support from home. I can’t wait to work with them in future.”
What that future holds, we can only speculate but speaking with Stephanie it’s no wonder so many sponsors are seeking a partnership with her given how far she’s come. Meadow is a proven winner, an even more decorated battler who has taken her fair share of hard knocks and come out the other side stronger still. She’s a dreamer who has always reached for the stars, stretching her arms out higher when the game threatened to pull them away. Now with a clean bill of health and an LPGA Tour card in her pocket, Meadow can dare to dream once more.