NORTH PORT, Fla. – Most people don’t dream big. It’s the only explanation for why strangers consistently ask A.J. Newell, “What’s your real plan in life?”
Another popular out-of-bounds pro-am question: “When are you going to start a family?”
(Newell is 25 years old.)
Or how ‘bout this tone-deaf gem: “Hope you don’t hit shots like that, or you’re going to miss the cut.”
Professional golf isn’t for the faint of heart.
Fans turn on the television to see the LPGA’s champagne celebrations and oversized checks, but they miss the grind.
Newell begins her fourth season as a professional when the Symetra Tour kicks off March 7-10 at the SKYiGOLF Championship at Charlotte Harbor National Golf Club. Younger sister, Anna, won’t be along for the ride this time. After one year on the Symetra Tour, 22-year-old Anna decided that life on the road wasn’t for her.
During a warm-up round on the Bobcat Trail last month, the Newell sisters opened up about their bouts with depression, financial pressure, career-threatening injury and the thick skin that’s required to chase a dream.
It was real-life talk. No silver spoons. No shortcuts. No fluff.
If only every LPGA hopeful – and their parents – could spend time with the Newells.
“Golf has given me something to grab onto,” said A.J., “like a greasy piece of chicken.”
Who’d want to let go of that?
The dream began when Jon Newell came home from the night-shift and scooped up baby A.J. for golf practice. Jon and Robin were power lifters before they took jobs at the post office, working opposite shifts so that someone was always home with their two girls.
Jon eventually retired and homeschooled the kids. A.J. used to make putts for nickels back in the day. It pleased her to no end to be able to take her dad to Hawaii and her mom to Iceland on recent golf trips.
“Here we are now,” said A.J., as her dad hit off the ninth tee. “It’s crazy to think where we’ve come from.”
A.J. played in nine LPGA events last year and made $3,909. She figures it cost around $20,000 for that part of her schedule. She also competed in a dozen Symetra Tour events, earning $7,139. There’s nothing easy about bouncing between two tours in one season.
A.J. doesn’t have any sponsors. Like many up-and-comers, she has a GoFundMe page. Since December 2015, she has raised $8,821 there. While she’s deeply grateful for every dime that’s been donated, it’s nowhere near enough to ease her mind. In a month’s time, she’ll age out of the family insurance plan.
For the first time in Symetra Tour history, players will compete for over $4 million in 2019. Purses are up 27 percent from 2018, and up 150 percent from 2013. It’s meaningful growth for a tour full of players like Newell, who mostly rely on friends, family and credit cards to get their professional careers off the ground.
“I want to see what my potential is when I’m not worried about paying my entry fees,” said A.J., echoing the thoughts of many young pros.
Financial strain played a role in Anna’s decision to get a new job. She wanted to get off her parents’ payroll. Breathe a bit easier. She wanted her dad to go back to just being her dad.
It takes as much courage to chase the dream as it does to quit it.
Anna clutched her Tennessee necklace as she began talking about the depression that struck her in college. A.J. knew something was wrong when she realized Anna wasn’t socializing like she used to. Didn’t want to leave her room.
Late last year, she was in a panic over the state of her game before the second stage of LPGA Q-School. It felt like the walls were closing in.
“The more you talk,” said Anna, “especially among student-athletes, it’s more common than you think. But nobody talks about it.”
For A.J., depression hit in college while she was rehabbing from a back injury that occurred while doing squats at a 6:30 a.m. team workout.
She’s undergone a microdiscectomy, two epidural shots, two ablations. For the past five years, her back has been the No. 1 priority.
While A.J. felt like she was being positive and working hard to make a comeback, she couldn’t shake the insomnia and panic attacks that followed.
The team psychologist at Tennessee diagnosed her with anxiety and major depression disorder. She went on medication.
“Mental health isn’t something that’s a mystery,” said A.J. “You can get help.”
The sisters feel that talking about it might encourage others to seek help. Not too long ago A.J. found herself at a small gathering of Tour players where, after a glass of wine, several started to open up about their mental health.
“It’s hard when everyone’s on Instagram putting forth a perfect life,” said A.J. “If you look back on pictures around that time, it looks like I was having a great time. That wasn’t the case at all.”
It’s often difficult for players not to equate their self-worth with scores.
“I’ve spent a lot of time telling Anna it’s OK,” said Jon, who gets tired of seeing so many pushy parents.
“When it comes down to it, it’s your kid.”
A.J. set a modest goal of top 30 on the Symetra Tour money list this season to keep the pressure at bay. She’s a tough, well-adjusted twentysomething who, if given the time, leaves a lasting impression.
“I’ll look back on this time when I’m an old lady and say, ‘You know what? I was doing what I loved,’ ” said Newell. “You can’t buy that.”
This is the side of professional golf that few people see. This is grit, not glory.