UPDATE (Oct. 22): Torres finished tied for 21st at Stage II to advance to final stage.
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In the days and weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Maria Torres and her family would wake up at 2:30 a.m., pile into four cars and head to four different gas stations, where they’d wait up to eight hours.
Eight members of the Torres family lived in one room to take advantage of grandma’s mini-generator. Maria would still be there, but she’s chasing a dream.
“Everything is a line back home right now,” said Torres, who is in Venice, Fla., for Stage II of LPGA Q-School.
The last time Torres called home, only 3 percent of the island had electricity after lines at the airport collapsed, leaving only the hospitals with power.
It’s still a struggle for the University of Florida grad to reach her family. It’s common for Puerto Ricans to stop in the emergency lane on roadways, Torres said, to take advantage of a signal.
“Right now, it’s hard to find red meat or chicken,” she said. “It gets better, and then it can bounce back in a second.”
With golf course recovery taking a backseat to more pressing matters like clean drinking water and an unstable power grid, Torres took a shag bag to a local park near her grandmother’s apartment complex to stay sharp. She’s trying to become the first Puerto Rican to earn full status on the LPGA Tour.
“She’s a gamer,” Florida associate head coach Janice Olivencia said.
Torres often giggles when she answers a question, even when she’s talking about something inconvenient, like doing laundry in a trash bag. Her dimpled smile was surely a bright light in an otherwise darkened San Juan.
“I think now with the rebuild, we’re going to be stronger than ever,” a hopeful Torres said.
Olivencia first met a pint-sized Torres when she went for a lesson with Jesus Rodriguez, younger brother of Chi Chi, while home from the Ladies European Tour.
Torres was there for a lesson, and the pair were soon hitting balls side by side at the urban range.
“I just saw a little bit,” Olivencia said. “But I thought ‘this girl is definitely going to be very, very good.’ It was a long time ago, and she was half my size.”
Olivencia, a Texas grad, went on to become the first Puerto Rican to compete in a women’s major at the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open in Saucon Valley, Pa.
After Maria struck on Sept. 20, it took Olivencia a full week and a half to find out that her father, Hector, was safe on the northwest end of the island. That message came from a friend of a friend who had gotten hold of a satellite phone.
“That was a tough time for myself and my sisters,” said Olivencia, whose mom’s side of the family also lives in Puerto Rico. Mercifully, everyone was safe.
Olivencia remembers when Hurricane Hugo tore through the island in 1989. They went without electricity for two months and waited in long lines for a mere gallon of water.
“I can’t even imagine what it looks like now,” Olivencia said. “For anyone that was born and raised in Puerto Rico, it hits deep.”
Torres was able to get off the island after the hurricane thanks to help from Puerto Rico’s national coach. Her dream of the LPGA began not long after she was introduced to the game.
No one in Torres’ family plays golf. She grew up riding horses, and one day while driving back to the house with her father, they passed a driving range.
“My dad asked if I wanted to take classes,” said Torres, who was 7½ years old at the time. She soon stopped riding horses and never wavered.
Olivencia said Torres’ greatest strength is her ability to keep things simple. Her game blossomed junior year, when she won the SEC Championship and set a school record for the lowest single-season stroke average at 72.03. Torres won five times while at Florida, helping the Gators advance to match play at the 2017 NCAA Championship.
“She figured out that it doesn’t matter how you’re hitting it or how you’re feeling,” Olivencia said. “You’ve just got to figure out how to score well.”
Torres will be one of 192 players at the second stage of Q-School, contested Oct. 19-22 at Plantation Golf & Country Club. The top 80 and ties will advance to the final stage in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Torres tries to speak with her family once a day, calling when she knows they are in a place with service. They could use some good news, and she’s poised to deliver it.
(Note: This story appears in the Oct. 16, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)