'Losing my Dad, who was such a big influence, was tough and mentally I wasn't the same person'

After the tragic passing of her father, Stephanie Meadow’s game fell apart and as a serious back injury saw her hit rock bottom, she began to question if golf was still want she wanted to do.

Stephanie Meadow Meadow is back on the comeback trail after a difficult couple of years. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

THE PEAKS AND troughs on Stephanie Meadow’s embryonic career chart would make for an interesting case study for up-and-coming hopefuls in years to come, although the trajectory isn’t exactly exclusive to her.

Highs coupled with lows, belief offset by doubt and progress counteracted by setbacks, the route to the top isn’t always straightforward. And potential doesn’t always guarantee you’ll ever reach it.

A prodigiously talented young golfer, Meadow always seemed destined to reach the top and a thrilling third-placed finish at the US Open in her maiden professional tournament conformed with the consensus that the Jordanstown native had it all.

Her performance at Pinehurst — for which she won $271,373 — provided further evidence of Meadow’s undoubted potential and further enhanced her burgeoning reputation after a prolific college career with the University of Alabama. A dream come true, a dream start.

Having moved across the Atlantic to Hilton Head at the age of 14 to gain a richer golfing education in the States, Meadow rewrote the record books during her collegiate career, winning nine times in Alabama colours and becoming one of the most coveted players in the game.

The only way was up, and after rapid progression in her development, the general assertion was that Meadow would instantly become a mainstay on the LPGA Tour for years to come, bringing Irish women’s golf to new, rarefied heights.

But in the space of twelve short months as a professional, Meadow experienced the thrilling highs and endured the crushing lows a game of such fluctuating fortunes can throw up.

A whirlwind and rollercoaster start to life on the tour, Meadow’s ecstasy at the US Open was followed by the agony of missing out on her tour card for the 2015 season after a playoff defeat at qualifying school.

But golf couldn’t have been further from her mind, the triviality of missed cuts, prize money and tour cards put firmly in perspective by the bad health of her father, Robert, who had been with her every step of the way, her parents giving up everything back home to up sticks and move to America for their daughter to chase her dream.

U.S. Women's Open - Round Three She announced herself with a third-place finish at the 2014 US Open. Getty Images Getty Images

Meadow didn’t lift a club for five weeks after her father was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, assisting her mother care for him, and played just one event at the start of the 2015 season, with a 20th-place finish ANA Inspiration a remarkable achievement in the circumstances.

Less than a month later, Robert Meadow sadly passed away after a short battle with illness and Stephanie’s world was not only turned upside down, but inside out.

Everything she had known had changed in a heartbeat and finding the mental strength to carry on without her father proved impossible, as he was her inspiration to play the game and why she had worked so hard to become a professional golfer.

“It just never really came back after that,” Meadow tells The42.

Meadow tried to carry on, to return to normality, to continue her career in her father’s memory, and do him proud. But it was too soon. Everything reminded the 26-year-old of him. 11 consecutive missed cuts that year tells its own story, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Mentally I wasn’t the same person and losing my Dad, who was such a big influence on my golf career and life, was tough.”

Meadow’s confidence had been completely eroded, and her game deserted her in every shape and form, to such an extent that a previously solid, repeatable swing began to completely malfunction and she found herself hurtling towards rock bottom.

Everything had changed, all of it for the worse, Meadow’s world ranking slipping from 141st to 460th in the blink of an eye.

Although she had lost her LPGA Tour card, Meadow received a sufficient amount of tournament invites during the 2016 season by dint of her third-place finish at the US Open and the hope was that she would rediscover the spark to get her back on the straight and narrow again. But missed cut followed missed cut.

Clearly struggling for form and confidence, Meadow received a call from Paul McGinley asking her would she represent Ireland alongside Leona Maguire at the 2016 Olympics, an offer she simply couldn’t refuse even if she found herself in a dark place.

But a dream Olympic debut quickly turned into a nightmare as the Jordanstown golfer’s opening round in Rio was a microcosm of her struggles, and despite a tied for 31st place finish, Meadow’s stock continued to fall at an alarming rate, as things progressively got worse.

Stephanie Meadow Meadow represented Ireland at the 2016 Rio Olympics. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“Personally I wasn’t really there,” she continues. “It all kind of accumulates and then you get into a downward spiral and it’s hard to get out of it.”

Meadow was determined to find a solution, to resurrect a faltering career and fulfil the potential she knew she had — but that caused more damage. A swing change was designed to give her more control and accuracy but a serious back injury caused her game to disintegrate further, her confidence and self-belief plummeting to unimaginable depths.

“I changed my swing and that led to a L5 pars stress fracture in my lower spine. It took me a long time to diagnose what it was because I got misdiagnosed by five different people. I’ve never had an injury like that before and I could only believe what the doctors were telling me.

“It started happening at the US Open last year, early summer, and just continued and continued and I got to the point where I couldn’t even hit a driver. I was playing tournaments and hitting it 210 [yards] because I couldn’t swing.

“I just kept being told I was fine and because I was at risk of losing my card again I just tried to suck it up and play. Unfortunately, that was the wrong decision.”

Meadow lost her LPGA Tour card again, and for the first time the flame began to flicker, and the thread of optimism was in danger of snapping. She questioned herself, and questioned golf. She missed 13 cuts from 17 starts last year. This was not how it was supposed to be.

But the lowest ebb can so often be the turning of the tide, and as Meadow spent eight weeks house-bound with a serious back injury, unable to so much lift a club let alone think about swinging it, she came to the realisation that she needed golf more than anything.

“I was doing absolutely nothing, literally sitting, and after that, I built myself back up but it took me a while to even consider hitting full shots again,” she explains.

“It was hard but I suddenly realised how much I missed golf when everybody else was out there playing. That’s all I wanted to do and it kind of shed light on how much I love this game and that’s really why I never seriously considered giving it up.

“I guess I could say it reminded me of how much I love golf because thoughts do go through your head when you hit such a low. I was in so much pain and at that point, of course you question it; what am I doing, is this what I actually want?

Canadian Pacific Women's Open - Round Two Meadow's form continued on a downward spiral in 2017. Vaughn Ridley Vaughn Ridley

“But golf is just a massive part of my life and I’d never give it up that easy. It’s hard to swallow, it was just hard. It’s one of those things but you hear all the time people sinking to that low point and then they realise, this is what I want to do and come out of it a lot stronger.”

So as her injury steadily improved and she received the medical all-clear, Meadow reset and started again. She had to park everything that had gone before, but use the mistakes and lessons to make her mentally stronger on the road back to the top.

It was the turning of the tide, and if it was to be a truly fresh start, rather than a false dawn, Meadow knew she had to do more than just get back on the golf course, but implement significant changes to her lifestyle, including a move from South Carolina to Arizona.

From there, the 26-year-old began to plot her route back to the main tour and while playing on the LPGA’s equivalent of the Challenge Tour — the Symetra Tour — represents a significant fall from grace, it was something she had to quickly accept.

“It really is like starting again, hard to swallow,” Meadow admits. “I was so used to playing the LPGA Tour and being on the big stage and to go from that to this is hard. But I tried to think about it as learning again, like how to win.

“Getting myself in contention every week, I think it’s a good building ground for confidence. It’s still tournament golf and I guess I look at it like I can still make a good bit of money on this tour if I play well. It’s not where I want to be but if I can learn things from it and get back on the LPGA next year, it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Starting at square one again, and Meadow has really hit her straps this season, winning a mini-tour event on the Cactus Tour in February and then, earlier this month, notching her first notable win since college at the IOA Championship.

“A win is a win,” she laughs.

Stephanie Meadow Meadow is enjoying golf again on the comeback trail. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s been a long time coming, and while it’s not where I want to be, it’s nice to see I’m on the right track. I’ve started to feel better about everything and I feel I’m playing well.”

The challenge facing Meadow now is mental more than anything, and as she continues to work on that side of things with Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson, her swing is back in the groove and there is a renewed conviction to her game.

After two events this season, Meadow currently sits second in the overall Symetra Tour standings — with the top 10 finishers earning a coveted LPGA Tour card for the 2019 season — ahead of this week’s IOA Invitational in Georgia.

“It’s hard when you start thinking ‘oh I should be there and not here’ but the way I look at it is that I have a full year, just to focus on being top 10 and get my card back. There’s no other way to do it, so I know what I have to do.

“I’m just focused on getting back there and whatever I have to do, I have to do. This is probably the most confidence I’ve had since 2015 and for the first time in a long time, I truly believe I can compete and perform well under pressure.

“When you’re in a rut like that, your game might feel like it has come out of it, but your head might not be so you’ve just got to give yourself time to get that confidence back and truly believe in what you’re doing.”

A winner again, and on the comeback trail, Meadow is enjoying golf and life in Arizona, with the page firmly turned and a new chapter ahead.

“It has made me a stronger person for sure,” she adds. “I didn’t plan on being here obviously but I don’t regret anything, I wouldn’t change anything and having got through all of that, it gives me a lot of confidence that I can deal with anything now.”

The only way is up again.

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