'Big Break Atlantis': A cast of determined unknowns

The cast of "Big Break Atlantis"

The cast of "Big Break Atlantis"

NASSAU, Bahamas – Meghan Hardin was milling around the cast’s lounge area, waiting for her time in the confessional. She looked more actress than professional athlete, her shiny top and accentuated curves at the center of attention. Hardin sent pictures of herself every week to producers of Golf Channel’s “Big Break” for one reason: “I’m tired of no one knowing me.”

The persistent teen got the call for “Big Break Atlantis," season No. 17 of Golf Channel’s reality show, taped in January on the Ocean Course at the Bahamian resort. The series debuts May 14 and features an all-female ensemble. Hardin turned professional in order to appear on the show and at 19 is the youngest cast member to date. She quickly became accustomed to the oddities of reality TV, experiencing a botched spray tan in the first few days that had to be “scraped” off her skin. She’s happy to endure such stress, however, if it makes her “famous.”

The cast

Anya Alvarez, 22, Pittsburgh

Shannon Fish, 23, Spring, Texas

Natalia Ghilzon, 21, Windsor, Ontario

Meghan Hardin, 19, Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

Selanee Henderson, 25, Temecula, Calif.

Marcela Leon, 31, Orlando, Fla. / Monterrey, Mexico

Aubrey McCormick, 29, Arlington, Va.

Allison Micheletti, 24, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Zakiya Randall, 20, Atlanta

Gloriana Soto, 25, Windermere, Fla. / San Jose, Costa Rica

Christina Stockton, 24, Rocklin, Calif.

Kelly Villarreal, 29, Birmingham, Ala.

Like most of the Atlantis cast, Hardin is a virtual unknown in the golf world. She played community college golf before turning professional and has limited exposure to big events. Jay Kossoff, Golf Channel’s vice president of original productions, said this is not a “cookie cutter” cast. Not everyone played Division I golf, went to Q-School and wound up on the Symetra Tour. These girls were, by and large, chosen for the stories they had to tell. The fact that most of them look fetching in tight golf(ish) clothes doesn’t hurt, either. One player’s skirt was so snug, it split.

“We’re not looking for a crazy amount of drama,” Kossoff said. “But we also want an entertaining show.”

The success of “Big Break” can be measured by its longevity, ranking just behind shows such as “Amazing Race” and “Real World.”

Ryann O’Toole, a member of the 2012 U.S. Solheim Cup team, was working a booth at the PGA Merchandise Show in January when a customer walked by and asked, “Weren’t you on the ‘Big Break’?”

O’Toole made a joke about the man remembering her in a bikini. It’s the same reaction for host Tom Abbott, though he stays fully clothed for the show.

“Nobody ever talks to me about anything but the ‘Big Break,’ ” said Abbott, a regular anchor for the LPGA and co-host for the European Tour on Golf Channel, during a lunch break in the Bahamas.

One thing all 12 women on the show have in common: They need money. This is the fifth all-female cast for a “Big Break” series, and the show’s prizes have come a long way since 2004’s “Big Break III: Ladies Only.” Back then, the winner received exemptions into the LPGA’s Michelob and Ultra Open at Kingsmill and the LPGA Corning Classic, along with increased recognition.

Nowadays, winning the “Big Break” could keep a player’s LPGA dreams alive, financially speaking. The exemption into the Kingsmill event is back for this year’s winner, along with an Adams Golf endorsement contract (that includes $10,000 cash), a $10,000 shopping spree from Dick’s Sporting Goods, $10,000 car rental credit from Avis, full status and tournament fees waived for the 2013 Symetra Tour, a Paradise Island Vacation Getaway Package and … $50,000 in cash.

That’s a life-changing package for any one of the 12 women on this show.

“I don’t have financial backing,” said Zakiya Randall. “I came on the show to get the experience, but also just to get my name out there.”

Randall, who goes simply by “Z,” also turned professional to be on the show. To say the petite black golfer stands out in her homemade Spandex outfits is putting it mildly. The 20-year-old wears a size 0 to double zero and found it difficult to buy golf outfits that fit her tiny frame. So she started designing her own clothes and has been wearing homemade neon-colored Spandex, complete with her own logo, in recent years.

“I just hope to put my name out there, something new and fresh,” Randall said. “I come with a different style.”

Randall’s clothes are far flashier than her resume, though she exudes a great deal of confidence. Her USGA experience consists of a one-time U.S. Women’s Open qualifier, and most of her junior tournaments were near her Atlanta home. She said she didn’t play college golf because she couldn’t find a program that suited her. “Z” is taking online courses from DeVry.

Kelly Villarreal, 29, said she was “probed” by other contestants when she arrived on the island.

“Who are you and where did you come from?” Villarreal was asked.

Like fellow contestant Aubrey McCormick, Villarreal got a regular job after playing college golf and circled back around years later to give it another try. Villarreal has never played in a professional event. After graduating from Samford with a degree in business, Villarreal’s father told her to get a job. Since her junior year in college, she had struggled with an eating disorder that lasted several years and affected her game.

She got a job selling medical devices and enjoyed playing business golf with doctors. With her life healthy and back on track, Villarreal was surprised to receive an inspiring letter from her father in 2010 that encouraged her to pursue a forgotten dream: professional golf.

The letter essentially said: This is your shot.

She sold her house and everything in it – even the knives and forks – and walked away with two picture frames.

“It helped me start over,” Villarreal said.

She immediately thought of “Big Break,” deciding it was the quickest way to gain exposure and sponsorships. Villarreal got a call from the show’s producers in the middle of her honeymoon last November.

Discovering the backstories of this eclectic band of women will be a compelling part of this series. Anya Alvarez, one of the strongest players on the show, was a victim of sexual abuse – twice – as a young girl and has told her story on national programs such as “Dr. Phil” and “CBS Morning News.”

The former Washington player learned the importance of controlling a fiery temper in college, particularly after coach Mary Lou Mulflur took her off the course midround for slamming a club and dropping a word not fit for print or TV.

All 12 women are hoping the 4 a.m. wake-up calls and 10 p.m. confessionals at Atlantis result in the kind of exposure that translates into money. There’s no way around the financial strain of mini-tour golf, particularly in the women’s game.

“Well, since I have no income and no money …,” said 25-year-old Selanee Henderson, when asked what the “Big Break” could do for her.

Henderson has played three years on the Symetra Tour, earning $18,531. A full season on tour costs roughly $30,000. Henderson’s family helps her financially, but simply put, she could use a break.

Gloriana Soto is the first female professional from Costa Rica to compete in the U.S. A graduate of Texas Tech, she too relies on her parents to cover half of her expenses on the Symetra Tour, but they’ve told her that will end after 2012.

“It kind of puts more pressure on me, but I understand economically,” Soto said.

Turns out, a windswept Atlantis was the perfect place for Soto to learn how to deal with excess pressure. Players can wake up at 4 a.m., go through a breakfast taping and warmup, hit one shot and be done for the day. Contestants sit around more than anything else during “Big Break” tapings, providing plenty of time for the nerves to set in.

“I get up to one shot and my whole body shakes,” Soto said.

Believe it or not, Kristy McPherson has thought back to her days on the “Big Break” when in contention on the LPGA, telling her caddie it’s “do or die.”

“The meaning of ‘make every shot count' really stands true on ‘Big Break,’ ” McPherson said.

One shot could change a life.

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