With third Symetra win, Steen graduates to LPGA

Marissa Steen won three Symetra Tour titles to graduate to the LPGA tour.

Marissa Steen played softball seven days a week in the summer, pushing 100 games. A devoted musician, the trumpeter marched in the Rose Bowl Parade during her senior year of high school. Golf didn’t enter the picture for this Midwestern sports nut until she was 14, and even then it simply was a filler for the fall season. Come winter, she’d be in a basketball jersey; by spring, she was back in softball cleats.

“I knew since age 5 that I wanted to be a college athlete,” Steen said, “but the sport kept changing.”

In this age of specialization, Steen offers a refreshing story. She’ll tee it up this week in the LPGA's Portland Classic riding a wave of confidence after winning for the third time on the Symetra Tour. Steen, the ninth Symetra player to win at least three times in a season, earned a late-season promotion to the LPGA.

“I’m kind of a late bloomer when it comes to golf,” she said.

Steen’s introduction to the game came at a summer camp at Shaker Run Golf Club in Lebanon, Ohio, the summer before the eighth grade. Tim Lambert, director of instruction at Shaker Run (No. 8 in Ohio on Golfweek's Best Courses You Can Play list), has molded Steen’s swing since Day 1. Back then, Lambert said, Steen was quiet and shy but super competitive.

“Her tenacity is what I really enjoyed,” he said.

This week Lambert is in the Pacific Northwest, preparing 24-year-old Steen for the Symetra Tour’s season-ender. They were slated to be in Ohio but moved their work west after Steen’s last-minute invite to the LPGA’s Portland Classic.

For the first half of high school, Steen limited her summer golf to a handful of local tournaments. But there came a point at which Steen realized that when it came to choosing a sport for college, only golf would be of much use to her post-graduation.

It was time to dedicate.

Steen and her mother got their hands on a Ping College Golf Guide and picked out all the Division I schools in states within a three-hour radius of their West Chester, Ohio, home. For kicks, she added Tennessee.

When Steen won the Ohio Junior Girls in the summer of 2007, the Memphis golf coach was there watching. Entering her senior year, Steen gave up softball and concentrated on music and golf.

“I think it goes back to desire,” Lambert said of her success. “It boils down to what does she want and what is she willing to do to get it.”

Steen, who competed in no AJGA events, accepted a scholarship to Memphis and averaged 79.1 as a freshman.

Even now, Steen said, she considers herself lucky that Memphis took a chance.

When Steen set a school scoring record of 73.97 during her junior year, she thought for the first time that professional golf might be a possibility.

In the first stage of the 2011 LPGA Q-School, Steen shot 10 under and tied for sixth: “By far the best I’d ever played.”

She graduated with a degree in sports management in 2012 and headed to the Symetra Tour, where she lost in a playoff in her second event.

Man, I think I can really hang with these girls, she thought.

The no-longer-shy Steen put together a three-year plan. Lambert, a goal guy, set benchmarks for his rising player. He wanted Steen, a strong ballstriker, to lead the tour in greens in regulation. In 2013, she accomplished that goal but wasn’t making enough birdies.

Steen got the nickname “Thor” in high school, Lambert said, because she putted like a hammer.

“She was the worst putter I ever saw as as a freshman,” he said, laughing.

But that’s the thing about Steen; she takes on a weakness with a vengeance.

Steen winters in Lake Mary, Fla., and during the past offseason spent countless hours on the practice green with tees and string. Her other focus: wedge work at 30-100 yards.

“From 80 yards in, she’s just gotten phenomenally better,” said Lambert, who watched Steen compete in her first U.S. Women’s Open, at Pinehurst.

This season on the Symetra Tour, Steen has 10 top-10 finishes, the most on the developmental tour since 2011, when Mo Martin posted 11. She tops the money list with $75,348, the highest figure since 2010, and will try to hold on to that No. 1 spot through next month’s season-ending event in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Oh, and she still leads the tour in GIR.

Steen’s late, blue-collar start and steady rise could lead to a long career on the LPGA. Burnout is unlikely.

Steen, who has David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” on her hotel nightstand, prides herself in being a well-rounded athlete and person. The life skills learned in team sports – and the fast-twitch muscles – have served her well. She’ll be the first Memphis graduate to play on the LPGA.

“The last four years, I knew I had all the potential in the world to be a great player,” Steen said.

The rest of us are beginning to catch on.

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