Stephanie Meadow taking the rough with the smooth
Northern Irishwoman has big ambitions as she begins LPGA Tour season in Adelaide
Stephanie Meadow, who is the latest addition to Investec’s ‘Wealth of Successful’ sport sponsorships. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Life’s journey is never a straight line. As a golfer whose aim it is to hit a tee shot down the middle of a fairway, with danger lurking in the shape of bunkers and rough either side of the low cut grass, Stephanie Meadow knows the deal. Keep it on the short stuff. Simple.
For Meadow, though, the route – on and off the course – hasn’t been clear-cut by any means. The 24-year-old Northern Irishwoman has taken the road less travelled: beginning with her family, quite literally, uprooting to start a new life Stateside so that their then teenage daughter could pursue the dream to a professional golfer, to dealing with the untimely passing of her father Robert, after a short battle with cancer.
Meadow sits downstairs in the cellar bar of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin on a soft winter’s day, sipping water, and exuding confidence about what direction her career will take as the new LPGA Tour season gets set to swing into life.
For Meadow, with a tour category that will likely secure up to 20 starts, that quest to hit the ground running gets under way at the Australian Open at Royal Adelaide next month. She can’t wait.
As far as golf is concerned, it all started at Ballyearl driving range in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, when she started tagging along with her dad.
“It was kind of him babysitting me to get me out of my Mam’s hair. I’d go along with him, ask for five minutes or 10 minutes [hitting shots] and eventually it would be the entire lesson. It evolved from there.”
The evolution, as it happened, was far from the norm. After deciding that golf rather that horse riding would be her sporting pursuit of choice, Meadow’s talent was evident.
Each winter, the family would go to Florida for junior competitions aimed at children under nine years of age and that exposure to Stateside competition resulted in Stephanie – aged 14 – wondering aloud if it was possible to attend one of the golf academies that mixed schooling with golfing.
“For them to pick up and leave like that was such a massive sacrifice. I don’t think I realised when I was 14 how big of a sacrifice that was, leaving friends and family.
“My mum left her job, a lot of things went into it that I didn’t appreciate until I was a little older . . . I remember my parents drilling into me, is this really what you want to do? It wasn’t as though my parents were ‘okay, you’re moving to Hilton Head and you’re going to school there’. They weren’t pushing. Not that it was my choice. If they didn’t want to do it, they wouldn’t go but they wanted to make sure I wanted to do it too. It was decided – they sold the house and packed up and went!
“Before I moved to America, being a member of PGA Tour was the dream. I wasn’t going to move over there and not try to have that dream. I think I knew that at 10, 11 when I saw them playing, I wanted that to be me.
So it was that Meadow’s golf development took place in the International Junior Golf Academy at Hilton Head and, later, the University of Alabama, where she became the college’s first four-time first team All American.
She played internationally with Ireland, with emerging talent like Leona Maguire and Olivia Mehaffey, and a glittering amateur career finished with a Curtis Cup appearance in 2014 before she progressed straight into the professional game the next week at the US Open in Pinehurst.
What a professional debut that was. No speed bumps on the journey whatsoever. Meadow finished third – behind champion Michelle Wie – and she and everyone knew her game was suited for the LPGA Tour.
On the men’s tour, that third-place finish in a Major would have been sufficient to win a full tour card; on the women’s, it doesn’t work that way. No fast-tracking. Qualifying school it would be.
And the twists and turns became cruel at Q-School later that year, where Meadow lost out in a 10-hole playoff for the final full tour card. “It was like getting two daggers in the heart,” she says of those two episodes.
Life, though, would get crueller after her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“He wasn’t sick. He went to the doctor because he thought he had maybe an ulcer, lactose intolerance or something like that. It wasn’t anything we were concerned about and then to be hit with that . . . Dad being Dad wanted me to play, he loved to see me play and knows that I love it. I told him, no, that’s not what I was going to do.
“He convinced me to play one event because I was already in one of the Majors, that was a big opportunity. I literally picked up a club five days before I left [for the ANA] and I practised, finished 20th and Dad was mentioned on the Golf Channel. He’s sitting there in a lot of pain after chemo and seeing that was definitely a great memory and special to me for his story to be told.”
After her father’s death, Stephanie felt it would be better for her to start playing again sooner rather than later. It was the wrong decision.
“I was definitely not ready for that and if I had to do it again I wouldn’t do it because you are talking about standing in a fairway breaking down and saying ‘oh god, I really can’t do this yet, I am not ready.’
“It was really hard. And at the same time I was trying to protect my mam [Louise] from all of it and be there for her because it was a really hard time for her. We battled through, both of us. It has been a long journey so far and it is not over but it is definitely getting better.”
The other players on the LPGA Tour though were hugely impressed with how Meadow dealt with matters and awarded her the Rolex Award for Perseverance.
Now, it’s about the future. Team Meadow has changed a little since she turned pro. She’s now working with Spanish coach Jorge Parada – who is based in Jacksonville – in a stable that includes Jonas Blixt, Anna Nordqvist and Carlota Ciganda; Bhrett McCabe is her sports psychologist, and Australian Nick Randall is her fitness coach.
“My whole workout plan is based around building speed now which is something I have never really focused on in the past with other trainers, and I’m interested to see how that goes and see if I can get speed up . . . I’m definitely on an upward trend, which is really nice. I didn’t finish  the way I wanted to in Dubai but I think that was a little bit of exhaustion. Last year was great, I’ve come really far and hopefully can go as far in 2017.”
A new corporate sponsorship with Investec is another sign that her journey is getting smoother. “Having an Irish sponsor has been a great honour. I’ve been trying for a while to set my roots back here, because I’ve been in the States a really long time. I love where I’m from and I am very proud of where I am from.”
There is a freshness and positivity about Meadow, who represented Ireland in the Olympics and used that experience to claim a top-10 finish in the Canadian Open in the following weeks. Although her status means “a tricky schedule” in factoring in where she can play on the LPGA Tour this year, Meadow is setting her sights high, with even the Solheim Cup – with Annika Sorenstam as Europe’s captain – “definitely on my radar”.
She expands: “Obviously I’d have to have a fantastic year but I know I can do it. Annika’s the captain, actually I’d call her a friend. She was a role model when I was younger, I admired her since I was 11, 12 and she was in her prime winning everything. To have her as a captain would be unbelievable but it is definitely a goal, a very high goal but if you don’t reach high you can’t go far.”