Purpose renewed, Scotland's Stirling chases dream
For many professional golfers, December is more of a money grab playing in limited field events for millions.
For Heather Stirling, golf this month has nothing to do with millions but a chance to relive a dream she has held since childhood at her nine-hole course at the Bridge of Allan Golf Club, an Old Tom Morris design in Scotland.
Stirling took another step toward that realizing her dream Friday when she shot 1-over 73 in the second round of the Ladies European Tour Pre-Qualifying tournament at the Royal Golf Dar Es Salam's Blue Course in Rabat, Morocco.
It was not a spectacular round, with five bogeys and four birdies, but remarkable for a 36-year-old woman who spends most of her time on a golf course not as a player but as a caddie.
For more than a decade, Stirling could be seen carrying a bag at Gleneagles and the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland in the summer months and at Old Collier and Old Memorial Golf Club on Florida's Gulf Coast during the winter.
But Stirling got the urge to compete again, and the Paul Lawrie Golf Centre Scottish Ladies Open Tour gave her the opportunity.
Lawrie, the 1999 Open Championship winner from Scotland, lent his name and support to the tour in its first year with hopes of generating a place for Scottish women to play and hone their skills.
For Stirling, it means a return to professional golf and, she hopes, a better result than her first go-round.
“I just got fed up caddieing all the time,” Stirling said recently, framing her return to competitive golf. “It's an interest I had apart from caddieing.”
Stirling played on the Scottish national team, was runner-up in the 2000 British Amateur and competed on the 2002 Curtis Cup team for Great Britain & Ireland.
“It was kind of something that I was good at from a young age,” Stirling said of how easily she adapted to golf. “My brother (Roy) was into golf. He's a golf pro, as well, so both of us played.”
Despite success as an amateur, Stirling was dealing with personal demons. Her 18-year-old sister, Hazel, was killed in a gas leak explosion and fire in 1983 at the Royal Dornoch Hotel in Aberdeen, where she was staying with her boyfriend.
A 6-year-old at the time, Stirling didn’t remember much about the incident, but the death would consume her life.
“My parents kind of became, I would say, workaholics (after my sister’s death),” Stirling said of how her family dealt with the loss. “We were left kind of to fend for ourselves. They gave us everything financially because we were fairly well off. We had a hotel and a house, and we had a nanny and stuff, but emotionally they probably struggled. That's probably why they drank, and depression and all that.”
The drinking and depression was not limited to her parents as Stirling took to drinking at the age of 13, which led to her becoming an alcoholic by her own admission.
“That's probably why I drank, to cope with the pressure and the stress, Stirling said of dealing with her life at home and the success she was having on the course.
At 15 she won the under-18 for Great Britain and was given a spot on the Scottish under-18 team.
It would be a couple of starts and stops, but eventually Stirling would stop drinking and says she has been sober since she turned pro in her early 20s.
“I wanted to do something about it,” Stirling said about her drinking. “I wanted to change. You've got to want to help yourself. Sometimes it's not easy, but you've got to do it.”
Loneliness took its toll, too, and after four years trying to earn her card on the LPGA tour through the then-Futures Tour, Stirling returned home to Scotland and decided to caddie to earn a living.
“Too many head issues and traveling,” said Stirling, explaining why she didn’t succeed in her first attempt at professional golf. “It's quite lonely, isn't it, the tour, away from your family and friends back home. It's not easy.”
Living in a caravan park in Dairsie, two miles outside of St. Andrews, with her boyfriend, Ronnie, Stirling has looped for more than 15 years on both sides of the Atlantic.
At the beginning of the year, Stirling would caddie 10 times a week and, between loops, practice and squeeze in a round or two and compete on the Lawrie Tour.
Starting with few expectations and some tears, Stirling would win twice on the Scottish women’s tour and also win the Order of Merit, which gave her a spot into LET pre-qualifying in Morocco.
“I'd like to play a lot more and enjoy it more now because I don't have the pressure to do well, just trying to go out and have fun and enjoy the game a bit more instead of trying to shoot 3 or 4 under every time,” Stirling said. “I got down to plus 4 (handicap), and every time you had to go out you had to play pretty decent. If you play bad, it was like the end of the world.”
If Stirling can pre-qualify in Morocco this weekend, she will stay another week in Morocco for the LET Q-School.
And if she can earn an LET card, Stirling who would like to live in Scotland full-time and have a child. She would face many decisions, but first her focus is on this weekend.
“I'll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Stirling said of earning an LET card. “I've got a long way to go."