As the 2009 U.S. Girls’ Junior champ, I had my pick of top college programs. But I’ve never done things the conventional way, so my decision to stay home and attend North Dakota State was an easy one
Ever since I was a little girl, my life has been unconventional. I was a huge tomboy. I never owned a Barbie doll and hated dressing up, but I loved rolling in the mud and playing football with my brother, Nathan, and his friends. As a teenager I helped my Dad renovate his rental homes by laying floorboards and shingling. Mom homeschooled Nathan, who’s my best friend and a year older, and me all the way through high school, and I graduated when I was 16. Next fall Nathan and I will become the first members of our family to graduate from college. At North Dakota State, I’m majoring in accounting with a minor in fraud investigations, not the typical subjects that athletes study.
Doing what is best for me, and not necessarily what is normal, has defined my life in golf as well. Every year until the end of high school I would go six months without touching a club, and even now I take two months off from golf every year. The only coach I’ve had, Dale Helm, isn’t a golf professional; he’s a retired businessman who once was a low handicapper and teaches on the side. I putt cross-handed. I love winning, but my ultimate motivation isn’t to collect trophies or to glorify myself; I play to honor the Lord and to use my talents to positively impact other people. Until I was 16, I had never played in a national tournament; I only entered events in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
The thing about my golf that most makes people think I’m crazy is that I live in North Dakota year round. People in the golf world can’t understand how somebody who’s serious about golf could live in North Dakota. They gasp when I tell them I practice exclusively indoors all winter, hitting balls at the Sports Bubble in Fargo and into nets at my house and at my coach’s Quonset hut. For putting, I use the little greens in the basement of my house and at the Sports Bubble. As bizarre as my approach to golf seems, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It keeps me happy and excited about the game, and I’ve had pretty good success.
I’ve lived my entire life in Oxbow, a 300- person community surrounded by farmland and tundra 10 miles south of Fargo. Oxbow has no stoplights and no stores, just a nice 18-hole golf course with about 100 houses around it. We live on the 12th hole, a 185-yard par-3.
My dad, who has been a single-digit handicapper for 20 years, started Nathan and me in golf when we were toddlers. In the summer Dad would load Nathan and me, some snacks and drinks and our cutoff clubs into a plastic wagon, and he’d wheel us to the driving range and around the course. Nathan loved the game, but I hated it. While Dad and Nathan played, I’d pick dandelions and build golf-ball pyramids. The only fun I had was when I intentionally whacked balls into the water—I loved the splashes.
But when I was nine my attitude about the game changed. The year before, Nathan had played in the Ironman Classic, a junior tournament in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and won a big trophy for finishing third. He and I have always been ultracompetitive about everything, and that got me motivated about golf. I, too, wanted to win big trophies. When I told Dad of my desire to play in the Ironman, he was happy to make that happen, but he had a caveat: He’d pay the entry fee only if I agreed to practice.
Mom and Dad have always taught us to work hard and be committed to whatever we do. Dad never had to tell me to practice that summer, and he hasn’t had to tell me since. I loved spending hours on the range. Some parents wanted to know why I practiced so much and how they could get their kids to work as hard as I did. Others suspected that my parents bribed me into practicing. I wish! I worked so hard because I loved the game and wanted to win.
That July, I hit 150 bags of range balls. (There were 50 balls in a bag.) I know the exact number because I kept a log. I won the Ironman’s 8- to 12-year-old girls’ division by 13 strokes, and my passion for golf has burned in my heart ever since.
As a kid I was used to hearing people criticize the way my parents, my brother and I approached things. Take home school ing. That was very rare around Fargo, and some people strongly opposed it and acted unfriendly to us, which was hard to take. They said we’d never go to college or develop social skills if we were home schooled. The perception was that my parents thought Nathan and I were better than other kids and should be taught individually. None of that was true. Mom and Dad simply wanted to instill their values about the Lord and life, and they felt they couldn’t do that if we were at school eight hours a day.
We faced similar opposition in golf. By the time Nathan and I were about 12, we were both serious about the game, but we never wanted to travel around the country to compete. People, including some golf pros, told us that we’d never get noticed by colleges if we didn’t travel. They said we had to play American Junior Golf Association tournaments. But our goal wasn’t to get noticed, win trophies or get a big scholarship.
My goal in golf has always been to work toward perfection. I want to develop a perfect swing and mental attitude that will let me play great golf when the stakes are the highest, which is in a few big events now and, more important, when I’m a professional. It doesn’t matter where the competition is or who the players are. All that matters is how I’ve prepared and how I perform, so why would I have to travel to Florida or Arizona to compete? Some juniors get too focused on beating certain kids and wanting certain championships, but those goals are shortsighted. Like Dale, my teacher, always tells me, “Be careful to not set your goals too low or you might be unfortunate enough to achieve them.”
The critical voices got especially loud after I won the 2009 U.S. Girls’ Junior. Before that event few people outside of North Dakota had even heard of me, so I wasn’t recruited by many big-time golf programs. After winning, though, the phone started ringing and there were lots of offers. But it didn’t matter. I had committed to North Dakota State and nothing was going to change my mind.
I’m a country girl. I don’t like big cities. I listen to country music and like a laid-back lifestyle. Who’d want to leave North Dakota? I love the beautiful plains that go on forever, especially when I’m running a few miles through them every summer afternoon. The rich sunlight in our high sky, the pure air, this atmosphere is part of my DNA.
There are also practical reasons I could have never left. After high school I was only 16, so moving across the country would’ve been hard. I also have never been away from my family and Dale, so I didn’t want to disrupt my support network.
Still, people were dumbfounded that I wasn’t leaving North Dakota to play college golf. That was partly because of some people’s perception that North Dakotans are Eskimos. At tournaments I get the wackiest questions from volunteers, coaches and players. People ask things like, Do you have electricity? Are you buried in snow all year? I joked with someon that we live in igloos, and to my surprise they believed me!
There’s a huge misconception about practicing indoors. People think that hitting off a mat isn’t helpful because it doesn’t replicate real golf shots. Not true. You’re supposed to hit the ball first, so it doesn’t matter whether there’s a mat or turf under the ball. The Sports Bubble is only 70 yards long and 50 yards wide, so I don’t get to see the ball fly very far indoors, but that doesn’t matter. Whether I’m hitting inside or outside, I’m primarily concerned with my swing technique and impact, so hitting inside makes me focus on the most important aspects of my game for several months. Because I’m so focused on technique and work solely on that, I typically hit the ball the best immediately after I come out of the bubble and begin playing outdoors.
It also helps with precision. The Sports Bubble has a few small advertising banners hanging on the far wall, and when I’m alone I always aim shots at the banners or the gaps between the wires from which the banners hang. I get precise feedback about my ball flight. There is one drawback to practicing indoors—my putting and short game suffer. Putting indoors is O.K. for grooving your stroke, but it doesn’t develop feel, so every spring it takes me a while to regain touch. Also, there are no traps or practice greens in the bubble, so I go all winter without hitting a bunker shot or any real chips or pitches.
Some people think I take my annual break from golf because it’s too hard to practice indoors, but that’s not the reason. I’ve always made a conscious decision to put away the clubs. Because our outdoor season is so short, I work intensely during the good-weather months, playing about eight hours daily and rarely taking a day off. So if I didn’t get away from golf in the winter, I would probably get burned out. Since starting college, I’ve been putting away my clubs after the last round of our last fall tournament, which this season was on Nov. 1—I shot a career-low, 67, which was awesome!—and not hitting a ball again until Jan. 1.
My golf sabbaticals are some of the best times of my life. I don’t feel any stress, like having to practice, and I can sleep eight hours a night. (Otherwise, it’s ususally six hours.) I think of my breaks as a cost-benefit thing. I get way more benefit from resting than playing because the two months of peace and rest rejuvenate my mind. It gives me time to do other things I love, such as playing the piano and violin, reading books (Crazy Love by Francis Chan is my current favorite) and hanging out with my friends and teammates. When January arrives, I’m totally refreshed and excited to get back into the game I love.
I’ve wanted to play on the LPGA tour since I was 10, but I never knew how realistic a goal that was until I played in the U.S. Women’s Open last summer. That was my first pro tournament, and I didn’t know what to expect.
I was pleasantly surprised at how nice Natalie Gulbis and all the Asian players were and astounded about how rude some of the caddies were to the fans. In practice the Broadmoor’s greens were so shockingly fast that I wondered how they’d find any legal pin placements. The atmosphere was so serious, which was radically different from college tournaments, where we often joke with one another while playing. But I adapted. After shooting a two-under 69 on the first day, I was leading. Surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous. I realized that I can’t control each round. The most important thing is being a person of character and responding to situations in a way that honors the Lord, win or lose. My character was tested in the next three rounds, because my putting stroke vanished. Still, I still finished 63rd.
Since the Open people have been asking if I’ll turn pro. It’s tempting, especially watching kids like Lexi Thompson do well, but I have too much going on at school and am having too much fun. I love my teammates and don’t want to miss out on things like dinner at each other’s houese and the tournament road trips. Those experiences are priceless. Plus, I was just selected to the Curtis Cup team for the matches in Scotland in June, and I was chosen for the U.S. team at the World University Championship in Prague in July. Those will be my first trips outside of the U.S., and I’m honored to be on those teams.
I’ll graduate in the fall, and then I’m going to stick around for another year to get a master’s degree in accounting. Graduating from college will make Mom and Dad more proud than anything I’ll accomplish in golf. Next fall I think I’ll take the CPA exam. Golf is fickle, and I want to have something to fall back on. After the CPA I’ll probably go to the LPGA Q school, but that’ll require staying on top of my game while studying for the CPA. I hope I can juggle both at the same time.
One of my big motivations is to do what no North Dakotan has done: have a career on a major pro tour. Overcoming the weather is a huge obstacle for us, but I know it can be done. Steve Stricker has shown that you can live in the frozen tundra—O.K., he’s from Wisconsin, not North Dakota—and make a good living at golf. I’m also inspired by how two guys from Fargo (Tom Hoge and David Schultz) have recently fared on the Nationwide tour. If I’m successful and get to the LPGA, maybe then people will stop looking at golfers from North Dakota like we’re from another planet.