Olivia Mehaffey drawing on Arizona, Florida and Galgorm for Q-School dream bid
Here’s a short story about how the difference between amateur and professional sometimes isn’t really a difference at all...
Back in May, Northern Ireland golfer Olivia Mehaffey spent the night in hospital on an IV drip as part of treatment for a severe stomach bug.
The next day she was out on the course for her final round of collegiate golf after five years with Arizona State University.
The day after that NCAA Championships quarter-final appearance she jumped on a plane to Florida so that, 72 hours or so after being hospitalised, the 23-year-old could make her professional debut.
Still recovering from illness and playing, by her own admission, in ‘survival mode’ off an 1,800-mile flight alongside the emotional and mental challenges of the transition from a ‘second home’ at Arizona towards her lifelong ambition all crashing together within the space of a few days, Mehaffey missed her first cut as a pro by a single shot.
And, yes, she beat herself up over what could have been.
Back in her Scarva childhood home for a few days of rest with family and friends before a return to America to take on Q-School in pursuit of her pro card, it is a snapshot of the determination and drive from which Mehaffey has been able to draw irrespective of her sporting status as amateur or professional.
But, of course, if securing a career in golf has been your dream since the age of 12, the difference between amateur and professional actually is everything...
“I did think of missing that cut in Florida as a kick in the teeth...but then had to catch myself on,” said Mehaffey, taking a break from apartment shopping online and getting caught up with the paperwork connected to life moving out of the college comfort zone in preparation for what she hopes can prove a transformative 2022. “On that first tee I think survival mode kicked in, which actually probably made things I little bit easier as my focus wasn’t on the magnitude of playing for the first time as a pro.
“It was emotional saying goodbye to the people at college and just that whole environment, it was my second home and you were also so protected.
“Now I’m out on my own and even that experience of booking travel and making arrangements on top of getting ready to play in tournaments is an adjustment but helpful.
“Now the focus is on Q-School and I go into the challenge with confidence coming off the back everything.
“But it’s also been great to just switch off at home with the family and enjoy that aspect.”
The Q-School process is a qualifying event in pursuit of a reward that, if successful, ends for Mehaffey after three stages with her pro card classification.
Having left Northern Ireland as a teenager to enter the US college system, the global coronavirus pandemic was one factor in a delay which extended her time in Arizona to five years.
However, Mehaffey heads into the Q-School system at last drawing confidence from her added experiences across the increased timeframe, such as maximising lockdown or accepting pro invites.
“I’m a pretty positive person so worked hard on trying to turn the delay to my plans for going pro to my benefit,” she said. “I think I used the time well.
“I’ve been working towards this since I was a young girl so, of course, I would have loved to have turned pro one or two years ago as planned but it’s a good life lesson to be able to adapt to situations.
“I’m someone who likes to plan and have a schedule but everything over the past few years has been a massive example of how that’s not always possible, so it’s how you respond.
“You think of the tour as this luxury situation as it is the ultimate ambition but once you get some insight you also realise it’s also a grind in terms of as a pro it’s your income, a job.
“Although the financial side of it is never my motivation, it all does cement the point that your mentality has to change.
“You stand open to greater scrutiny and criticism from the outside once on that big stage compared to when playing at college level.
“I’ve wanted this since a little girl and it’s everything I’ve been working towards for so long.
“You can feel stress but I always try to remember it’s a privilege to be out there and the high-stakes situations are why you practice, to be able to cope in the moment.”
A return to Northern Ireland featured some welcome rest and relaxation - alongside visits to her old course at Tandragee Golf Club plus a tour of the Ulster Carpets factory in Portadown thanks to a sponsorship partnership.
It all arrived following a top-20 finish on her LPGA Tour debut at the ISPS Handa World Invitational around Galgorm Castle and Massereene.
“I was in the spotlight a bit as I never get back that often to play here, plus I knew so many family and friends would be out in support,” said Mehaffey. “But it was lovely, although lots had talked about booking for the first day and the final day...I kept thinking ‘first up, I need to survive to Sunday’.
“In the end, I needed some birdies to make it to the weekend but, again, that’s why you trust in the hours and hours of practice.
“It was amazing and I love coming back home, I actually was super relaxed and just tried my best to enjoy everything.
“I think having a few pro tournaments under my belt now has really helped me get into that mindset, on top of the fact I was back home.
“It was another lesson in how my best golf probably comes when most relaxed and I was definitely proud of that top-20 finish.
“The opportunities to play as a professional since May have given me first-hand experience of everything and one major lesson is you cannot afford to get too up or down.
“Everything can change and there’s always another opportunity around the corner to turn it around.
“I especially look back and was pleased but also know what I’m capable of and know I left a lot out there too.”
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