Solitary game: Loneliness can be one of the hardest parts of life on LPGA

Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

Solitary game: Loneliness can be one of the hardest parts of life on LPGA

LPGA Tour

Solitary game: Loneliness can be one of the hardest parts of life on LPGA

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Karen Stupples makes a living talking about golf, but she’s actually quite shy. To escape the bullying she sometimes endured at school back in England and enter a world where her own creativity and drive could blossom, Stupples shoved a couple of clubs into her backpack and rode her bike five miles down the road to Princes Golf Club, where the practice ground was tucked away from chatty grown-ups and peace and quiet prevailed.

For Stupples, the solitary nature of golf was a natural fit.

“I’m a firm believer that whether a player is successful or not on tour,” said Stupples, “is how comfortable they are with that loneliness.”

There are no teammates in professional golf. Players are constantly surrounded by competitors, and it takes effort to make friends. Even winning can be lonely.

When the hugs and handshakes and press conferences are over, the victor often walks out of the clubhouse to the startling realization that the tour is gone. The traveling circus has packed up and moved on and, unless family is on the road, there are times the winner is left standing alone with the trophy.

Karen Stupples working as an on-course announcer for the Golf Channel during the Ricoh Women’s British Open. (Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images)

“I think I felt more lonely when I played well,” said Na Yeon Choi, a nine-time winner on the LPGA, including the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. 

Being alone, of course, isn’t the same as feeling lonely. How a player builds her support system for this nomadic life can have a deep impact on performance and longevity.

MORE: Na Yeon Choi finds community, support while adapting to LPGA

“I think far more people struggle coming out on tour because of the lack of community and loneliness,” said 27-year-old Amy Olson, “than from a technical problem in their swing or their putting stroke.”

Growing up different

Angel Yin showed prodigious talent at an age when some kids are still learning how to color inside the lines. By 7 she was competing in tournaments and began separating herself from “normal everyday kid life” to focus on the future. For the exceptional, the battle with loneliness can begin early.

“We’re friends with competitors, but you can’t just go cry on their shoulder because maybe they played worse than you,” said Yin. “You’ve got your mom, but this is your job. You have to accept it. Sometimes you just hold it inside, but you want to let it out.” 

Yin, one of the longest players in the women’s game, loves to make people laugh. She’s a cut-up during interviews and doesn’t appear to be an introvert, though she says she tips that way.

“I close myself off,” she said. “I disappear for a while.”

It’s easy to do when more than half the year is spent on the road, away from friends and family. In high school, classes forced her to connect with people. As a professional, she had to make a choice. She chose not to connect. She has since realized the need to change.

“I enjoy being alone,” said the 20-year-old American. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but we do need friends in life.”

More than a number

Mo Martin lines up a putt at the 2018 Volunteers of America LPGA Texas Classic at Old American Golf Club on May 5, 2018 in The Colony, Texas. (Photo: Darren Carroll/Getty Images)

Mo Martin calls it “performance-based communication.” Win a tournament and your world explodes, like when she won the 2014 AIG Women’s British Open at Royal Birkdale. Calls and texts poured in along with interview requests. Miss a cut, on the other hand, and nobody wants to talk to you.

“I think that’s hard mental health-wise to balance,” said Martin, 36, who is rehabbing a back injury. “You get a lot of exposure when you’re doing well, but when you’re not doing well, you’re either criticized or ignored.”

Vision54 performance coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott call the human side of golf the forgotten piece. So much of being a professional is centered around results. Players sometimes feel reduced to a pile of numbers.

“The real you is your values,” said Nilsson. “I think it’s more important today than ever … to create a support group around them (focusing) more on who they are than what they do.”

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Angela Stanford, 41, said the first time she really felt alone in the game was this year when she dealt with her first serious injury and came back playing poorly.

At least on a team, said the TCU grad, you’re rehabbing in a facility with other players and sitting in the dugout or the bench during games. 

“Here, it’s you,” she said. “So when you’re not playing or you’re not playing good and your phone is really quiet, I think that’s when it’s hard.”

Oftentimes fellow players, even friends, don’t know what to say when someone falls into a slump. 

“You don’t want to ask them why,” said Stanford. “It’s a weird dynamic. I’ve had a couple of friends that have struggled. I’m learning all you can say is ‘I’m thinking about you. It hasn’t passed me that you are struggling.’

“That’s been hard because I haven’t had a lot of people say that to me.”

At times, the silence was as painful as the injured rib.

Wired but not connected

As the LPGA skews younger, more and more players are growing into adulthood while traveling the globe chasing a dream. And much of their lives, at least a version of it, is available for the world to see on social media.

“There’s this outer persona that so many are required to keep up, that’s a mismatch back to who they are,” said Marriott. 

The Vision54 coaches help players learn how to run the show in this virtual world “and not let it run you.”

“These young golfers are addicted to social media,” said Marriott. “Literally, they can’t get off of it.”

It’s about redirecting daily habits so that the phone isn’t the first thing that comes out of the golf bag and consumes a player’s attention all through lunch. Helping players learn how to connect and squashing the notion that you can’t open up and care for the competition. 

Rookie Charlotte Thomas decided in September to quit social media for the rest of the season. She doesn’t have any contractual obligations to be on Twitter or Instagram, and while she feels guilty about not interacting with sponsors and fans, it’s more important that she stops comparing herself to others. 

Little by little, it was eating away at her joy.

The LPGA looks so glamorous in perfectly edited photos and carefully chosen words. But the reality behind this hashtag life is that most players travel the world but rarely see it.

Many never make it beyond the hotel and the golf course.

Nilsson and Marriott want players to start thinking about what they can do off the golf course that will give them energy before they turn professional. Choi, 31, for example, learned how to bring people together by cooking South Korean specialties in her hotel room. She also spent time in big-box stores like Target, Walmart and Home Depot talking to workers so she could strengthen her English skills away from the spotlight.

Paula Creamer said the unconditional love of her dogs, first Studley and now Penny, helped her on weeks she traveled alone and reminded her to see the big picture after a tough day.

In Gee Chun lets loose with ice hockey during the offseason and took up drawing last spring. Being active helps the two-time major winner forget how far away she is from home.

Christina Kim during the first round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club. (Photo: Thomas J. Russo/USA TODAY Sports)

When Christina Kim asks, “Are you OK?” it’s not a flippant question. She wants to know. Truly. As a person who has been open about her battle with depression and thoughts of suicide, she’d do anything to help someone else avoid going down the same road.

“A lot of that was out of loneliness,” said Kim, “but a lot of that was out of my own stubbornness, my own inability to ask for help, my inability to realize that I needed help.”

So many players on tour are the breadwinner for their families, said Kim. They are the CEO of their business, and when problems arise, it’s not always easy to share those concerns.

“You almost feel like you have the future of the world depending on you,” said Kim, 35. “So you have to be strong. You can’t allow your emotions to take over.”

Kim appreciates the blue-chip athletes, like Michael Phelps, who have been open about anxiety and depression. 

“The fact that Michael Phelps came out and said that he sees a psychiatrist,” said Kim, “you’re an Adonis! You’re one of the greatest athletes of all time. What could be wrong with you?”

Phelps’ admission provided a lot of perspective for Kim. 

“I learned that a lot of what was going on with me went back to the fact that our bodies are working 24 hours a day to keep us from crumbling under the pressure,” said Kim. “When you’re constantly trying to perfect yourself, you’re run ragged. Just like a car runs out of gas.”

Double-edged sword

After someone gushed to Martin, “Oh my god, you have the best job in the world!” her uncle, who was at an LPGA tournament for the first time, looked at her and lovingly said, “Your life sucks.”

Martin laughed and said both statements were true. The opportunities can be extraordinary. But she misses out on a lot, too. 

Stanford often tells people she’d like to drive a school bus when golf is over. Sleep in her own bed, same schedule every day, summers and weekends off. She might hate it, but the normalcy of it sure sounds nice.

Missing the weddings of friends and the births of their children, said Martin, becomes part of the job.

“I don’t consider myself to be a selfish person,” she said. “But to play this game at the highest level is very selfish. You have to maintain this certain space. … That is the loneliness part of it.”

Or the beauty of it, depending on whom you ask and where they are in the journey. Gwk

This story originally appeared in the October issue of Golfweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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