ORMOND BEACH, Fla. – For proof that golf truly is a global game, look to the two Latvian players entered in this week’s South Atlantic Amateur (Sally).
Krista Puisite was more than willing to give a primer on all things Latvia (food, golf, Natalie Gulbis) just off Oceanside Country Club’s 18th green on Thursday. You get the impression it’s not the first time she’s been asked.
Still, Krista has a hard time explaining how exactly she and younger sister Mara got golf clubs in their hands as young children. It’s not a particularly popular sport in Latvia, in the Baltic region of northern Europe that has a population of a little more than 2 million.
In fact, there are only two 18-hole tracks and one nine-hole course in the entire country (not including the “garden holes” some people use for yard practice). The Puisites practice at Ozo Golf Club near their home in Riga, the capital.
By Krista’s count, Ladies European Tour player Laura Jansone is the only female professional with Latvian roots. There are no golf magazines and no Golf Channel at home. This is where the conversation turns to Natalie Gulbis, who has a Latvian father. Krista and Mara pulled Gulbis aside a few years ago at the Evian Masters to explain their connection.
Both Puisites play for Texas State, and now have a coach in the U.S. – Tom Burnett, based in St. Augustine, Fla. They even listed Texas as their home when filling out entries for the Sally. Through two rounds, Krista is T-3 at 4 under. Mara is T-27 at 7 over. It’s the first time either has played the event.
The Puisites’ most noticeable physical attribute is their long, white-blond hair. They’re the kind of players who have smooth, easy swings that you feel like you could watch all day. Except for different outfits on Thursday, they’re also players who would be hard to distinguish from a distance.
It’s always been like this for the Puisites. Mara figures they’ve been together nearly every day of their lives, except for Krista’s freshman year at Texas State, when Mara remained at home. Now they live in a house off campus with two other teammates. There are tiffs, but they generally blow over quickly.
“Lately we’ve been getting along way better,” Mara said.
Krista acknowledges that Mara is the longer hitter, and with such similar swings, Mara’s explanation goes back to childhood. She developed later than Krista, she explains, and swing coaches were more interested in working with the older Puisite, at the time nearly a foot taller.
“Everybody hit further than me,” Mara said. “I didn’t change my swing; all I did was try to slam it where all the big kids were. No coach really has messed with my swing … but I kind of learned on my own to hit it far, and I’ve kept it.”
After Krista graduates in December, she plans to immediately pursue a career as a professional golfer. Mara isn’t sure what she’ll do, but it might change from day-to-day. She carries a 4.98 cumulative grade point average as a computer information systems major (her single “B” came in an English course), and says the coursework is a mixture of computer programming and business classes. In summary, Mara just wants to “know how it all works,” and doesn’t have a specific dream job in mind.
“I decided if I can pull it all off, why not?” she said. “It’s just a challenge. I can’t just do something boring just to do it.”
Krista landed on the Texas State campus in San Marcos after emailing a series of coaches as a junior player and deciding Texas State was the best fit. There is a direct correlation between her arrival and the team’s gradual rise. At the end of the 2008-09 season, Texas State was ranked No. 93 by Golfweek. At the end of the fall, it was ranked No. 37. Aside from the Puisites, other players hail from Iceland, South Africa and Malaysia.
“No one really expects anything from us, which is nice,” Mara said. “When our team does good, everybody is so shocked and so happy, and we don’t have the pressure of expectation.”
Talk of home is what eventually shifts the conversation from golf to bacon pies, a delicacy in Latvia. With such a heavily international Texas State squad, Krista explains there is always a teammate jonesing for traditional fare she can’t find in the States.
“We already know that people are so different,” she said. “You have to kind of look at that.”
As for those bacon pies, which just yesterday she and Mara had to describe to their Sally host family, it’s not something you’re likely to find in Texas. And that’s just fine with the Puisites.