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More par to her: Record breaker Stephanie Meadow

By Peter Hutcheon

Like all overnight success stories, Stephanie Meadow had to work incredibly hard for many years to achieve it. Ulster's latest golf star made headlines around the world with her astonishing third place finish at the US Open on her professional debut.

She finished just three shots behind winner Michelle Wie and just to put the scale of Meadow's performance in context, it was the American's first win in a major after nine years as a professional.

Her performance at Pinehurst No 2 last weekend has already seen her leap into the top 100 in the women's world rankings and an invitation to play on the Ladies' European Tour later this summer has already landed on her doormat. There will be plenty more of those to play on both sides of the Atlantic in the weeks to come.

Based more or less full-time in America these days since she moved there with her parents, Robert and Louise, at the age of 14, she admits to having lost her Northern Ireland accent a little.

But she is still a regular visitor to Royal Portrush, where she remains a member, and to Ballyclare Golf Club, where it all began for her as she took up the game at the age of just seven.

"There was something natural about her swing which was evident from a very early age," recalls Ballyclare assistant pro Thomas McIntyre. "Obviously, she has had coaching as her career has progressed but her natural game hasn't been coached out of her, it's still recognisably the same.

"Although you can never tell how someone is going to progress from that early age, it is a huge advantage to start the game with a strong natural set-up and swing, and she certainly had that."

There are obvious parallels with the young Rory McIlroy, who has one of the most distinctive – and envied – swings in the world, but it must be stressed that that is only a starting point. To really make it in the cut-throat world of professional golf, there are many sacrifices to be made.

Not just on Stephanie's part. It is hardly overstating the case to say her parents put their own lives on hold to further their daughter's career when they took the drastic step of moving lock, stock and barrel to America eight years ago.

The turning point came when Stephanie was accepted into the Hank Haney international junior golf academy in Florida as a teenager and they went to live in America. The intention was to build on her natural ability, and time in Florida eventually led to a golf scholarship at the University of Alabama.

"I study in the mornings and play golf in the afternoons," Stephanie told me a couple of years ago, just after she had been named on the Curtis Cup team. "It's really not such a bad life.

"It's great to play in America and, although I love playing back at home, here you have the sunshine, which means you can play all-year-round in the way you just can't at home."

Enjoyable as her afternoons back then might have been, the scholarship was not just about golf. In tandem with smashing every college record at the state, she emerged last year with a first-class Honours degree in accounting, incidentally the same degree that Dubliner and three-time Major winner Padraig Harrington insisted on completing before embarking on his own professional career.

It's an intelligence she brings out with her onto the golf course. "She thinks about the game and never gets ahead of herself and that's a priceless asset for any player," says Thomas McIntyre.

"She copes extremely well under pressure and never seems fazed, even when she playing in front of a large crowd.

"That was probably why she was able to perform so well at the US Open. She'd played in front of crowds before, but probably not to that extent, but she certainly didn't let it get the better of her."

Stephanie's appetite for the game – and her drive to improve – was evident from her formative years at Ballyclare as she would turn up at the course to practice from 6.30am. Her father Robert would wait patiently in the pro shop waiting for her to finish to drive her to school.

She took the decision to leave Ballyclare and join Royal Portrush Ladies at the age of 10, guided by an early mentor, Margaret Baird, who is a member of both clubs.

It was a practical move, as being a member at Portrush would enable her to play pretty much all year round, not always an option at the east Antrim parkland course – and to learn the vagaries of links play.

"There were no low handicap ladies at Ballyclare, but with more lady members at Royal Portrush there were, and playing on a senior ladies' team was a good move for her," adds Thomas.

Not only did the teenage Stephanie play her way straight onto the team, she helped carry on Royal Portrush's proud record by helping them to yet another All Ireland Senior Cup crown. "When I think of Stephanie, I always see a smiling, pleasant face and I think of her now as a wonderful export for Northern Ireland," said Elvera Mercer, Royal Portrush lady captain in 2012, who presented Stephanie with honorary life membership of the club in recognition of her Curtis Cup exploits that year.

"Just after the Curtis Cup, I was at the club and saw her on the putting green, practising away as though nothing had happened.

"It can't have been all that easy for her when she came to the club when she was just 10 and we didn't have that many younger members then.

"She was playing with older ladies on the senior team, but she was mature enough to be able to fit in and I always remember the way after they had finished the way she would always have her handbag with her in the clubhouse, just like the other ladies."

The strength of Meadow's game – apart from her ability to keep a calm head – is in her short game, honed around the greens of Royal Portrush as a teenager.

She may not be one of the longer hitters off the tee – and in women's golf that's not always as important as it is in the men's game – but she is extremely accurate, both off the tee and with her irons.

Although Stephanie and her parents did return home to Northern Ireland for the summers during those university years, she spent most of her time away playing on the amateur circuit.

She had been named as a reserve on the 2010 Curtis Cup team, but did not get to play. Then, in 2012, she was called up to face the Americans at Nairn in Scotland, which turned out to be an inspired selection as she held her nerve to hole the winning putt for the slender one-point victory.

She secured her selection by winning the British Ladies Amateur Open that summer, making it a unique double for Royal Portrush as Alan Dunbar won the men's equivalent that year on the eve of the club breaking all European Tour attendance records in staging the Irish Open.

Her university golf career was also taking off. As a freshman in Alabama she won three tournaments, equalling the record for victories by anyone in their entire college careers. By the time she had graduated last year, she had gone on to win nine tournaments – an Alabama state record which will stand for many years to come.

It was always Stephanie's intention to turn professional once she completed her studies, but she delayed the move to play a second Curtis Cup – the ladies' equivalent of the Walker Cup – this summer.

Sadly, the defence of the trophy at the St Louis Country Club did not go to planned, as the Americans won back the trophy easily. Meadow, though, finished joint top-scorer on the Great Britain and Ireland team.

Then came her professional debut last week at Pinehurst No 2 and rounds of 71, 72 and consecutive 69s to finish third to bank a cheque for $271,000 (£159,000).

"We were thrilled by Stephanie's success, but we know from experience that she has the level-headed nature to be able to cope with it," added Elvera Mercer.

"It is an endearing quality in Stephanie – and it will carry her very far."

A life so far ...

  • 1992: born Jordanstown, Co Antrim, January 22
  • 1999: Joins Ballyclare Golf Club
  • 2002: Moves to Royal Portrush Ladies
  •  2006: Accepted by the Hank Haney International Junior Academy in Florida
  • 2011: Takes a golf scholarship at the University of Alabama and wins three tournaments in her first year
  • 2012: Wins British Ladies Amateur Championship; holes the winning putt at the Curtis Cup
  • 2013: Graduates with a first-class Honours degree and ends her college career with nine tournament victories — a record for Alabama
  • 2014: Makes her professional debut with a third place finish at the US Women’s Open at Pinehurst No 2

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