Elite players find their way back to golf, prove they can still compete

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Elite players find their way back to golf, prove they can still compete

LPGA Tour

Elite players find their way back to golf, prove they can still compete

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FRENCH LICK, Ind. – There’s a question buried deep within the minds of elite professional golfers of a certain age. 

“I used to do that,” said Suzanne Strudwick, “but could I do it again?”

There were plenty of players trying to answer that question at the Senior LPGA Championship. Players like Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, a major winner who hadn’t teed it up in real competition in a decade.

Two back surgeries later, Meunier-Lebouc took one look at the entry list at French Lick and couldn’t resist. And with good friend Helen Alfredsson winning the U.S. Senior Women’s Open earlier this year, her mind had already started churning at the possibilities. Alfredsson, of course, completed the Senior Slam by once again besting Juli Inkster at the Senior LPGA. 

But the week at the demanding Pete Dye Course wasn’t about a trophy for the French National coach. Meunier-Lebouc knew that some of players on that entry list, like her, hadn’t played much golf at all recently, and the knowledge freed her up to the idea of coming back “for the experience” – a foreign phrase for elite-level athletes.

Meunier-Lebouc walked off the course after the opening round thinking everyone in the field deserved a medal.

“We are so courageous to be here,” she said amongst a table full of retired players at the Hagen’s Club House Restaurant at French Lick.

Life after the LPGA

For many players, transitioning into life after the LPGA isn’t easy. There’s often an identity crisis that follows. Who am I without golf? What do I do now?

Meunier-Lebouc, now an instructor at Ibis Golf and Country Club, was burnt out when she left the tour. With her daughter going into grade school the dots started to naturally connect. But it took time to rewire.

“I was in my own little bubble (on tour),” she said. “I had that environment with people basically taking care of me. When you think about it, everything was me, me, me. That’s the way I has to be.”

Strudwick believes those who leave the tour armed with a plan have a better chance of making a smooth transition. She has seen plenty of players bounce in and out of tour life for several years trying to figure it out. Strudwick retired from the LPGA at age 39 but wishes she had done it sooner. She’s now 54 and pursuing a PhD in sports psychology while coaching at Carson-Newman in Jefferson City, Tennessee.

Coaching college golf feeds that competitive desire for Strudwick. But there’s great fulfillment there too.

“I see the girls come in as kids and leave as young women,” she said. “Being able to have an influence on that. … it makes me want to be a better person every day.”

Leta Lindley never made a Plan B after the LPGA. She felt like if she had a Plan B, then Plan A wouldn’t work.

“I don’t know that you think beyond Plan A,” said Lindley, “and all of a sudden you find yourself at the end of the road, and you’re like it’s time to move and now you’re looking around like what am I going to do?”

Lindley took time after the Tour to focus on her family and charity work before accepting a job as an instructor at Old Marsh Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Lindley initially showed up at the interview at Old Marsh to say ‘No’, thinking she’d use the opportunity to network. Teaching golf was something she never thought she’d do. Turns out the offer was too good to pass up.

Now in her fifth season at Old Marsh, 47-year-old Lindley came back to competition to put into action what she tells her students – Get out there. Have the courage to try. It’s OK if it’s not perfect.

“Honestly, it was about practicing what I preach,” she said.

Still drawn to competition

The majority of the field at the Senior LPGA comes in rusty from a lack of competition. They squeeze in practice sessions between regular jobs and shuttling around kids. There might be an occasional state open or a pro-am, but it’s nearly impossible for most to play their way into form.

With the French Lick tournament moving to July 30-Aug. 1 in 2020, those who are eligible to compete in the 50-and-over U.S. Senior Women’s Open two weeks prior will be able to carry over some momentum. But that doesn’t help those who, like Lindley, fall into the 45-49 range.

Jackie Gallagher-Smith won on the LPGA in 1999 and the mother of two never dreamed that when she left the tour she’d start teaching pre-school.

“Probably one of the last things I thought I’d be doing,” she said.

But at 51, she’s still drawn to competition. Even with a day job that has nothing to do with golf.

It’s in the blood.

At her first player meeting last Sunday night, Meunier-Lebouc realized a perspective on senior women’s golf that went beyond what she’d previously imagined.

“Now you imagine there could be a mission,” she said. “It’s life lessons. We can empower people.”

Meunier-Lebouc tied for 14th at French Lick. It was a full-circle moment for her. She not only answered the question – “Can I do it again?”

She found her why, too.

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