STILLWATER, Okla. – When Cheyenne Knight was 9 years old, two of her friends invited her to play in a three-hole golf league. Knight had learned the game from her father, Gene, when she was 5, but she had other athletic interests, too – basketball, gymnastics and ballet among them. And, well, golf was boring.
It wasn’t until Knight learned about the cookout and pool party afterwards that she agreed to participate. In her first tournament, Knight drove the green and three-putted for par on each of her first two holes. But on the third hole, she hit her drive into the woods and because she only had a few clubs, spent what felt like forever hacking away in the tall grass with a hybrid.
When the hole was finally over, Knight had recorded a 17.
“She had never really been emotional before,” said Gene, who was caddying for his daughter that day. “But the tears started coming.”
Twelve years later, Knight’s eyes were again filled with tears as she closed the books on her college golf career at the University of Alabama. Knight, a junior, planned to turn pro after helping the Crimson Tide to a runner-up finish Wednesday at the NCAA Women’s Championship, where she finished fourth in the individual competition and went 3-0 in match play.
“This is the biggest stage,” Knight said. “It hasn’t hit me yet but I’ve loved every minute of this journey.”
Knight grew up in The Woodlands, Texas, an avid golf community. The Knights were members at The Woodlands Country Club, and although Cheyenne didn’t fully gravitate to the sport initially, Gene, a solid player at the time, knew his daughter had something special.
“From Day 1 when she picked up a golf club, she could hit,” Gene said.
When Gene first took Cheyenne to the driving range, he offered her a dollar for every time she hit a ball with her kids-sized utility club past the 100-yard marker. The first trip, Cheyenne earned $1. A week later, she collected $10.
“The week after that I changed it to the 150-yard marker,” Gene said with a laugh.
It didn’t take long for Cheyenne to start beating her dad on the golf course. The two have a Christmas Day tradition in which they open presents and then head to the golf course for a three-club match. They’ve played in snow, ice, you name it. Gene has never beaten his daughter in one of those matches.
Before Cheyenne’s sophomore year of high school, the Knights moved north to Aledo, Texas, near Fort Worth, and joined Shady Oaks Country Club, a club with rich history and strong ties to Ben Hogan. Soon after Cheyenne, a budding junior golf standout with lots of untapped potential, met Joey Wuertemberger, an instructor at the Jim McLean Golf School.
“She came in and said she had lost the ability to drive the golf ball,” Wuertemberger said. “She kind of had a high left arm. She said, ‘I used to be able to draw it and now I can’t.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s easy. We just have to get you in the different position where you can flatten out your arm.’”
Under Wuertemberger’s guidance, driving the golf ball became arguably Knight’s biggest strength. In three seasons at Alabama, Knight was one of the most accurate players off the tee in college golf, and she showcased that driving ability in Wednesday’s final match against Arizona’s Bianca Pagdanganan. While Knight gave up distance to her long-hitting opponent, she also missed just one fairway before closing out a 3-and-2 victory on the 15th hole after Pagdanganan had to re-tee following a wayward drive into the woods.
“I don’t hit it very far, but I hit it straight,” said Knight, who, funny enough, got her first name because Gene loves country singer George Strait, particularly the song “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.”
Last fall, though, Knight believed she needed to change who she was as a player, so she parted ways with Wuertemberger in August and started working with West Point, Miss.-based instructor V.J. Trolio.
“I thought I needed to hit it further and be a better ballstriker,” Knight said.
The switch only lasted a few months. Knight said that while Trolio was a great instructor, “it just wasn’t for her.” During the fall season, she got away from the fundamentals of her swing – plane, grip, ball position – and her results on the course started to suffer.
Knight reached a low point at the Schooner Fall Classic last September in Norman, Okla.
“After the last day, I was in tears,” Knight said. “I didn’t have any confidence. I was spraying it. I didn’t know where the ball was going when I stepped over it.”
Gene remembers the call when Cheyenne told him she wanted to go back to Wuertemberger.
“Thank god,” Gene told his daughter.
By March, Knight had rediscovered her swing. She notched her first top-10 in five starts, a T-6 at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate, and two events later won the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic (her fourth and final college victory) before finishing in the top 10 at both SECs and regionals.
“Everyone goes through lows,” said Knight, who has always been able to keep golf in perspective. (In July 2008, one of her brothers, Brandon Burgett, died in a car accident at just 20 years old. Knight, who was 12 at the time, said Brandon’s death not only strengthened her faith, but she still feels her brother’s presence every day, especially on the golf course.)
“It’s not going to be perfect all the time. You need to be thankful for those low points because you’re going to come out better from it. … For me to experience it now and not down the road is huge.”
Said Alabama head coach Mic Potter: “If you’re going to play professional golf, you need to learn to take responsibility, and it was a great learning experience for her.”
Knight’s decision to turn pro wasn’t easy. Knight advanced out of the second stage of LPGA Q-School last fall and locked up Symetra Tour status for the 2018 season. But she decided to skip final stage because she didn’t want to earn an LPGA card and have to leave her team midseason.
“She goes, ‘If I make it, I’m not strong enough to say no. It’s my dream, but I’m not going to put myself in this position,’” Gene said.
When Knight told her parents this spring that she had decided to forgo her final year of college eligibility and join the Symetra Tour, they were initially unsure but also trusted their daughter’s judgment.
“We’re supporting her 100 percent,” Gene said. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders.”
Knight still plans to earn her degree in public relations and has just three credit hours remaining. She will make her pro debut at the Symetra Tour’s Four Winds Invitational June 8-10 in South Bend, Ind. (Gene will caddie.)
“She did what we all needed her to do, be a great teammate and be here and give us a chance to win,” Potter said. “I think we’re all very thankful for that.”
Knight jokes that Potter only recruited her to Alabama “because she was nice.” But Potter, like many others, saw something much more in Knight. When Knight arrived on campus as a freshman, Tide veterans Emma Talley and Janie Jackson took her under their wings and helped Knight evolve into the player that won national freshman-of-the-year honors that season and eventually went on to become a three-time first-team All-American.
“They gave her confidence in herself,” Gene said. “They kept telling her, ‘You’re better than you think you are. You can do this.’”
Jayna Knight, Cheyenne’s mother, called it “destiny” that her daughter ended up at Alabama. Gene is a diehard Texas A&M supporter – after letting out one last “Roll Tide!” following Cheyenne’s final match, he vowed to put his Alabama gear in permanent storage. Yet Cheyenne knew as a freshman in high school that Alabama was where she wanted to go.
“I remember seeing Alabama, and I was drawn to it,” Knight said. “It was always my dream to go there.”
That dream came true. But now, it’s time to chase another.
There won’t be many cookouts or pool parties on the road to the LPGA. She won’t be guaranteed money every time she hits it past 100 yards, either. But Knight feels she is ready to make the leap, and those closest to her are excited to watch her fly.
“She’s gifted,” Jayna Knight said. “She’s got grit. I wish I had the perfect words to describe her. She just amazes me every day.”