Howard making her way in a grown-up world

Ginger Howard during the NBA All-Star pro-am.

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#NameYearStateRating
1Andrea Lee2016CA68.31
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This question stops Ginger Howard, but only briefly: Is being a professional golfer like you thought it would be?

Definitely. But with an asterisk.

“I honestly did not think about all the hard work it would take,” Howard said. And that’s not just a reference to range hours.

Howard is the junior player who isn’t. She turned professional last June when, at 17, she successfully petitioned the LPGA to play its qualifying tournament before reaching the mandatory age of 18. When she got the green light, her parents got onboard, too. Howard says there was no dramatic, sit-down discussion. You could say her life, totally focused on golf, changed drastically while not really changing at all. She was 11 when she began home-schooling and enrolled at the IMG Golf Academy, just 12 minutes from the Howards’ home in Bradenton, Fla. She says she doesn’t take days off from practice. Playing golf simply is Howard’s first job.

photo

Robert and Gianna Howard (back right), with children (from left) Robbi, Ginger, Arjay and Giulian

Nathan Bertsch, Howard’s swing coach at IMG, also gave his blessing. Bertsch calls her the rare player who was able to skip the step of being a top amateur, which begs this question: Who’s to say how much experience is needed to turn professional?

“She loves and she thrives on the pressure and the tournament golf,” he said. “That’s the maturity in the game that is really special to me.”

The road would get harder later, for reasons no one could have predicted. Howard was competing at LPGA Q-School when her mom, Gianna, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Her left and right thyroids were removed after Ginger won the second stage of Q-School. Gianna has made a full recovery, but it was a hard stretch for Ginger, sister Robbi, 16, and brothers Arjay, 9, and Giulian, 3.

Tough times continue for the family. Howard’s dad, Robert, quit a job in retail to be with Gianna during her recovery. A down economy and Ginger’s travel schedule – “Who in their right mind would let a 17-year-old travel with anyone but their mom or dad?” Robert said – has made it difficult to find work. He recently began working for the nonprofit Golf To End Cancer. Gianna works as a nurse at IMG Academies, which means tuition there is significantly reduced for the three school-age Howard children.

When Howard won second stage, many assumed an LPGA card would follow. Instead she missed partial status by one shot. Six months later, she “wouldn’t even change what happened” and is looking forward to the simplest pleasure: Spending a year on the developmental Symetra Tour with her dad. Now 18, she still is the youngest player out there, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. The next step is to succeed, Vicky Hurst-style. In 2008, an 18-year-old Hurst earned a season-record $93,107 on the then-Futures Tour to earn her LPGA card. She concedes it wasn’t easy.

“Coming from high school, you have to grow up very quickly, especially competing against those girls out there who have been there for a while,” Hurst said.

Howard plans to play as much of the 16-event Symetra season as finances will allow. So much of her immediate future will depend on funding. Howard has signed with IMG (which essentially means she’ll have an agent), but that’s not enough to get a career off the ground. Robert Howard has tried to shield her from the reality that to keep playing, she’ll have to make cuts. Still, his daughter has asked the question, “What do we do when we run out of money?” It’s heavy stuff for an 18-year-old.

During the recent NBA All-Star pro-am, Howard played and won – a good step toward getting exposure. She began that day with an appearance on Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive,” later giggling about introducing the hosts to the boy band One Direction, with which she and Robbi are obsessed. But parts of that interview were uncomfortable to watch. When asked to assess whether golf has become color-blind, Howard struggled to answer. The hosts then pushed even harder, asking her to assign the game a grade for its level of racial acceptance. It’s not something she’s used to discussing.

“Should I say a B? I’m not sure. I guess I will say a B,” Howard said.

That level of scrutiny didn’t exist in junior golf, but it’s part of a fast growing-up process that tour life requires. Howard has adapted well, but she says it’s the biggest difference between life then and life now.

“You could say anything (as a junior player) and they would just laugh and say, ‘Oh, you’re so cute,’ ” she said.

It’s a tricky balance, being a pro athlete at a young age. Composure must complement sheer talent. Howard has both.

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