Amber Hensley’s earliest memory of her mother is vague. She remembers sitting on her grandparents’ front porch in Tulsa, Okla., wearing her favorite alien t-shirt. It was egg-yolk yellow. She was waving goodbye.
That might have been the day her mom, Jaquee, went to prison;
she really isn’t sure.
Virgil Hensley and his wife of nearly 59 years, Willie, took in Amber when she was 17 months old. Raised her as their own. Virgil, a
God-fearing man who loves to woodwork, owned a publishing company, and his best-selling book – Through the Bible in a Year –
is known the world over.
Virgil took Amber to see her mother in prison when she was old enough.
“I hated to be in that place,” Virgil said. “I hated it, but I felt like we needed to do it.”
The prison seemed lifeless, the now 28-year-old Amber recalled. A razor-like fence surrounded the outside. She could only bring quarters through security, used for vending machines inside the visiting area.
She still has old Polaroids from those early visits, taken by the prison staff on special occasions like Mother’s Day.
Amber knew better than to fall into the dark hole of addiction. She grew up watching her mother go in and out of prison cells and halfway houses. Felt the sting of being abandoned by both biological parents.
“I swore for years that I would never be like my mom,” said Hensley, “and here I was, just like my mom.”
• • •
Virgil and his wife, Willie, have three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. When their daughter Jaquee started using drugs in college, the couple did everything they could to save her. They bought houses and cars. Took in both of her children, born to two different men.
“She went on just like she had no children,” said the soft-spoken Willie of a harsh reality with which she has come to grips in her eighth decade.
“You think about it, and you pray about it,” said Willie, “but you accept the fact that you can’t change it.
“It’s (only) within the person to change it.”
Imagine their shock, then, to learn that Amber, a budding pianist turned champion golfer, had become addicted to prescription pills
and was on a path similar to her mother.
The turning point came in the spring of 2011, when Oral Roberts women’s golf coach Lance Watson called Amber into his office and asked if the junior could pass a drug test. A desperate and relieved Hensley came clean with the truth, admitting she went through withdrawals on the road at events in an effort to keep her secret safe. She once dumped $200 worth of drugs in a trashcan before going through security en route to a tournament in Las Vegas.
If she wasn’t using prescription drugs, Hensley would self-medicate with alcohol.
She sat in her coach’s office for eight hours on that day of reckoning. The coaches were scared to let her leave.
Late that night, Amber agreed to meet with Sean Sutton at ORU’s basketball complex. Sutton had been arrested for trying to illegally obtain prescription pain pills after losing his job as basketball coach at Oklahoma State. He had taken over at OSU for his father, Eddie, who was fired following a drunk-driving crash.
Sean Sutton’s brother, Scott, was head coach at Oral Roberts and brought him on as an assistant.
“That was probably the best thing that ever happened,” Watson said of the meeting between Sean Sutton and Hensley. “He kind of took over, guided us where we needed to go.”
That place was Orem, Utah, where Hensley spent the next four months at Cirque Studio, a pricey treatment center that once served as a recording studio for Donny and Marie Osmond.
Amber’s sobriety date: April 23, 2011.
• • •
- Opioids work on the nervous system or specific receptors in the brain to reduce the intensity of pain. Several opioids are in use as prescription medicines.
- More people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2014 (the last year for which information is available from the Center for Disease Control) than any previous year on record.
- In 2014, there were 1½ times more drug overdose deaths in the U.S. than deaths from car crashes.
- More than three out of five overdose deaths involve an opioid.
- Deaths from prescription opioids – such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone – have quadrupled since 1999.
- 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
- At least half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.
– Source: CDC
• • •
Amber was 14 years old the first time she met her father, Donnie Ketchum. It was close to Valentine’s Day, and the semi truck he drove was full of chocolate.
They went to Toys R Us, where Amber picked out a Winnie the Pooh bear. They had Mexican at fun-loving Casa Bonita, now closed. Amber didn’t see him again until after her 18th birthday. The two are now estranged.
“At the time I was loving it,” she said of their day on the town. “Looking back, how sick was that?”
At first, it was golf that masked the pain. Amber used her success as a junior player to escape the harshness of being abandoned by both her parents. The game became her identity.
“I used it to hide behind,” she said.
But when knee surgery took away golf, she let pain pills numb the hurt.
Watson said Hensley had a reputation of being a “wild child” as a junior golfer, but he thought he and his staff had “vetted her pretty good” in the recruiting process and offered a scholarship. Hensley, the 2007 Oklahoma State 6A champion at Jenks High School, grew up at Cedar Ridge Country Club in Tulsa, a former LPGA stop where her grandfather once served as president.
For a time at Oral Roberts, Hensley was on the right track. She beat current LPGA player Amy Anderson by one stroke at the 2010 Summit League Championship.
Then a routine arthroscopic surgery brought back the pain meds.
“It went from living, breathing golf to ‘I’ve got to figure out how to get more pain medication,’ ” Hensley said. “I went to the streets.”
Hensley used her Acura MDX as a limo service for those looking for drugs on the “north side.” She was paid in pills. Addicts, she said, can easily sniff out other addicts, as if they speak the same language
“They call them ‘trap houses’ because you literally end up getting trapped,” she said. “You are a slave to this now.”
A friend paid nurses to steal prescription pads, and Amber eventually got into legal trouble for forging prescriptions. (Her record will be expunged Dec. 8.)
Watson’s biggest regret is that he didn’t see the signs earlier. Willie wonders if the addiction cycle would have ended if they had given their daughter, Jack, fewer lifelines. Amber’s half-sister O’Nitta still struggles to get sober.
“I didn’t ever think it would happen to us,” Willie said.
No one does.
• • •
A sober Hensley returned to Oral Roberts after treatment, flunked out of school and lost her scholarship. There was a warrant out for her arrest, and she went to jail for the prescriptions before quickly being bailed out. Lost and disillusioned, Hensley decided to quit golf, chop off her hair, get a tattoo and go to beauty school.
She never did sign up for beauty school. Instead, Hensley visited an old instructor on a whim, wondering if life would afford her a second chance.
Boyfriend Justin Duke, a man who had struggled with addiction and was moving in the same direction of healing, encouraged Amber to sign up for the Women’s Oklahoma State Amateur – her first tournament in more than a year. But when she got to the registration table at elegant Gaillardia Country Club in Oklahoma City, her name was not on the tournament roster.
The payment didn’t go through. Devastated, she and Justin found a local recovery meeting.
The next morning Justin, who is 11 years older, urged his girl to suit up and head to the range – see what happens. An embarrassed Amber fought the idea, but within a matter of minutes, the tournament director informed Amber that someone withdrew. She was in.
Days later, Amber hoisted the massive trophy as cameras flashed.
“From that day on,” said Justin, “she has never been the same about golf.”
As a child, Amber wrote goals on her bedroom mirror. After that victory she revisited an old dream: qualify for the LPGA. She went back to Oral Roberts and finished her degree in social work and married Justin on Aug. 17, 2013. In 2016, Hensley played her first full season on the Symetra Tour.
She was scared at first. What if someone found out her about her struggles? The thought brought shame.
As Hensley grew in sobriety, the question changed: What if someone else on tour shares the same struggle? She found that person, and it fueled her even more.
“I know there are a lot of people out here like me that are silenced,” said Hensley, “They are afraid to tell because of what people might think of them.”
Part of a 12-step program, Justin said, is the intense desire to help others who are suffering. Hensley feels a sense of duty to deliver hope, mentoring a group of addicts from all walks of life.
“She’s making up for it now in every way she can,” Virgil said.
Amber cashed only one paycheck on the Symetra Tour in 2016, but she hired a new instructor midway through the year and, for the first time, advanced to the upcoming final stage of LPGA Q-School on Nov. 30-Dec. 4 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Justin will be on the bag. Virgil and Willie will be home in Tulsa, waiting for scores to refresh on an iPhone.
“Sometimes people have to hit rock bottom,” Amber said, “in order to realize their purpose in life.”
On Sunday mornings in Tulsa, Amber heads with Justin to her beloved grandparents’ house, where they visit for a spell before heading downtown to the First Baptist church, followed by a leisurely lunch. Willie and Virgil light up when Amber comes around.
Through it all, she has remained their joy.
“We knew that God was involved in this,” said a proud Virgil. “That she would have a story to tell.”