It’s been a rocky road for Jordanstown’s Stephanie Meadow since she introduced herself to the golfing world with one of the most remarkable professional debut performances at the US Women’s Open in 2014.
Five years ago next month, the then little-known 22-year old from Royal Portrush Golf Club shocked the game’s elite when she birdied her 72-hole to finish just three strokes behind Champion, Michelle Wee at the famous Pinehurst resort in North Carolina. Introductions don’t come much better.
It looked as though Ireland had unearthed another golfing gem; Meadow needing no period of transition to get up to speed with the professional game. And then, as it so often does, life got in the way.
Her Dad and number one supporter, Robert was cruelly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer as Meadow took time away from the fairways to aid her Mother with his care. After an extended absence, she teed up at her first event of 2015 – the ANA Inspiration – and finished 20th despite entering the Major undercooked, a testament to her talent. Unfortunately, the comeback proved short-lived.
Robert passed away less than a month later and understandably, Meadow’s golf game suffered. She tried to play through it but 11 missed cuts told its own story; Meadow had returned to the game too soon. Her world ranking plummeted from 141st to 460th while her confidence sunk to an all-time low.
Her LPGA Tour card was the next thing to dwindle away as the bubbly blonde from Northern Ireland searched everywhere for answers. Together with her coach, they settled on a swing change as being the best course of action but as luck would have it, that proved detrimental to her golf game too. The unnatural movements involved in reinventing her swing led to an L5 pars stress fracture of her lower spine and for a significant period of pain and time, Meadow worried if she’d ever play the game again at all.
But Meadow was born a fighter and after two months of incapacitating pain, her injury steadily improved and with clarity of mind, the 26-year old regrouped to join the Symetra Tour – the feeder Tour to the Promised Land of the LPGA. She picked up an early win that made the world of difference to her outlook and with belief restored, Meadow regained her LPGA Tour card last year via the Volvik Race for the Card money list.
In many ways, this week is the culmination of that journey, although for Meadow, it’s only the start. She returns to the spotlight of a US Women’s Open with more experience and perspective than ever before having breezed through qualifying earlier this month in Arizona after firing rounds of 67 and 71.
She might tee off today without the fearlessness of youth that powered her performance at Pinehurst in 2014, but perspective can be a strong weapon and Meadow’s determined to put it to good use this week at the Country Club in Charleston, South Carolina.
“It’s always really exciting heading into a Major week,” said Meadow. “Obviously it’s a little different than 2014 but it’s still a great feeling.
“The course is really nice. It will be really interesting to see pin locations and wind tomorrow because it’s all about the approach shots. You have to definitely play conservative on certain holes but the greens are rolling perfectly which is great so I can’t wait to get started.”
Meadow has endured an indifferent start to her season to this point but she picked up a timely surge of confidence on Sunday when she signed off at the Pure Silk Championship with a closing 67.
“I have been playing well, just not scoring,” Meadow reflected, who needed just 27 putts for her closing round. “I finally put some things together and shot a good round on Sunday. It felt great to have things click and no better time than heading into this week.”
In terms of her own expectations, it would be easy to lose sight of just how far Meadow has come since her professional debut at Pinehurst, given all that’s happened in the interim. That’s why her approach this week will stem from the things within her control as she returns to golf’s main stage not a moment too soon.
“How do I approach it? Just process. I know exactly what I can control and I am going to do my best to control those things. The rest will come. I love Major weeks and I can’t wait to get started.”