After a bumpy road Stephanie Meadow is turning up the heat
‘It’s been a long time since I had so much self-belief,’ says Northern Irish golfer
Northern Ireland’s Stephanie Meadow: “Just being who I am and what we Irish are as a culture. We don’t go down easy.” Photograph: Steve Dykes/Getty Images
“Stephanie Meadow, 22-years-old. Third in the 2014 US Open.”
It could have been a career epitaph. Qualifying as first alternate and in the mix on the last day of a Major. It was her first professional tournament. No one knew her. The world expected her to fade. She didn’t. That would come later.
After the first round she was tied 8th, second round tied 10th. On the Saturday a 69 took her to third with three other players.
When Meadow looked around Pinehurst on the final day she saw the world’s most famous golfer Michelle Wie leading the field. Her partner was Hall of Fame Australian Karrie Webb. The seven times Major winner Webb faded, the Irish rookie did not. Where did Stephanie Meadow go?
“It is kind of a blur when I look back now,” she says. “I don’t remember many details. It was my first week as a pro. It was unbelievable. I was thrown into it.
“I wasn’t scared. It was my first week on tour. If I tanked on the last day, big deal. I had a lot of support. I was a big story. I was a new face.
“All of a sudden it was ‘is she going to win, is she going to win?’ Maybe I wasn’t quite ready. I was 22. I thought I’d just drive forward and get better and better. Obviously things took a few bumps.”
To go forward it is necessary to go back. Belfast High, a 14-year-old talent and what to do? Her parents decided to emigrate to the US for the best chance of their daughter having a clear run at golf. They settled in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
A golf academy of like-minded students of golf made the move from Jordanstown in the North less harsh. Both parents bought into the life, but her ever-present father Robert was the on-course enthusiast, the golfer from Clandeboye and Royal Portrush. But the bigger picture was opportunity. Her parents jumped. So did the teen.
“Pretty much emigrated, yeah. There’s no way I could have gone over there by myself. That would have been too hard, definitely culturally very different. But young enough to figure it out.
“It was great for me because I got to see world-class coaching. All the stuff that maybe wasn’t here yet. Now it is. They wanted for me to succeed. I don’t want to say it was their dream for me to succeed. But they did want me to achieve my dreams. They gave up everything. Went for it.”
Not long after her announcement at the US Open, Robert was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Just weeks later in 2015 he died. It changed her. Cut off from the human space that he father always filled, that had always been there, fundamentally reconfigured who Stephanie Meadow was.
In the months after his death she says she was looking at her golfing world and she was no longer who she used to be. It became disabling.
“I felt I was out there like a zombie walking around. Before I knew it I was done. It took a long time for that to waver. It was almost that when I played golf it was a reminder. At that point in time a reminder didn’t bring...now it brings happy feelings but at that time it was so fresh I wasn’t ready to experience that. It was hard.
“I would just keep trucking on. Then I realised ‘wait a second here, I’ve changed’. I need to figure out what that is, and how I deal with that, and how I go out. Now I play golf in a different world than what existed before that. [It lasted] a year and a half at least.”
It came with 11 missed cuts. Her ranking slipped into the 400s, and while the third place at the US Open gave enough invitations in 2016 to harbour optimism, she was on the wrong kind of streak. A back injury due to over rotation followed. Any light at the end of the tunnel dimmed further. She lost her tour card again.
As a 26-years-old she was playing the Symetra Tour, a league below the LPGA Tour. She sucked it up. She finished sixth on the 2018 Symetra Tour money list to earn her LPGA Tour Card for 2019. This season she missed six straight cuts. Then in August she won the World Invitational at Galgorm Castle.
“Most of it was in my head, as it always is,” she says. “When you start missing cuts by one or two continually the problem is it’s in your head. You are constantly thinking about cut line. It’s on the leaderboard, it’s on the website you look at and there it is. Really, you should be thinking about going out and winning the tournament. It is so easy to get caught up in that.
“Changed the attitude a bit. I still look. I care less. Once I got that in my head and had some guts to go out and play and not be this shy scared person who wants to make the cut. Be the golfer you know you can be. If you are not on the same mindset page they are going to destroy you every week.”
Three months ago she started thinking, and arrived at a point where she could act on having honest doubts or living a dishonest faith. She changed sports psychologist to Dr Debbie Crews.
Meadow had always believed the accepted doctrine of golf being all about process. You don’t get too excited, don’t get too down. It was like everything needed to be in the middle. She was taught by the sport to ignore results and to ignore the environment, to always centre.
She realised that over the season, with the same places, same hotels and same restaurants, same head, she became flat. She knew it worked for some people. She looked around at the Korean players – didn’t know what was going through their heads but they were always even keeled. But for her it wasn’t quite right. She needed more heat.
“It is like ‘what made you great at 22 in the US Open?’ It was I had a ton of fire,” says Meadow. “ Most of it was intensity and fire.
“You are doing this week-in, week-out. It can get repetitive. You can get into this zone and just lose it. You’re just creeping through life. Nothing is really there. The very next week after working with her [Dr Crews ] I made that first cut after the six [missed cuts] in a row. I finished T11.
“Then you realise what kind of a big miss you’ve been doing. You think about rugby. They use adrenalin to make them go faster, hit harder. In golf that kind of scared golfers for a while.”
She plays in Indianapolis this weekend at the Indy Women in Tech Championship. Next week it is Texas in the Volunteers of America Classic. Form has been decent, making the cut in four of the last five tournaments, but she is currently outside the placing for an automatic 2020 card.
A finish inside the top 100 would be sweet, although she has conditional status on next season’s LPGA Tour.
“It’s been a long time since I felt so confident and had so much self-belief,” she says. “Just being who I am and what we Irish are as a culture. We don’t go down easy.”
That’s where Stephanie Meadow is now.
*Stephanie Meadow is a brand ambassador for Investec, an official sponsor of 20x20, an all-inclusive movement to shift Ireland’s cultural perception of women’s sport.