Sunday, July 10, 2011

Standing Tall at the Tee: A Portrait of Laura Restrepo, Golfer

Golf is a lot like life. The things that matter require practice and dedication. And then, when they don’t go your way, you just need to step back, remain calm, and relax.
Laura Restrepo

At the age of sixteen, Laura Restrepo (no relation to the Colombian novelist of the same name) had already achieved every golfing honor that could possibly be earned in Central America. At the time of our first conversation for this piece, in March of 2010, Laura had recently won the President’s Cup of Panama, competing against the top male golfers in the region and becoming the first woman to take the tournament.

That was great news for her many fans and friends.

The bad news was that if Laura remained in Panama, her home since the age of eleven, her growth as a golfer would be stunted.

Having foreseen that possibility, however, with her parents’ full support Laura applied and was accepted to the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy (IJGA), in Hilton Head, South Carolina. For those not familiar with Hank Haney, he was Tiger Wood’s coach during the legendary golfer’s most successful years.

At the IJGA, Laura would have a chance to devote herself to pursuing her dream—to earn a living doing what she loves most: playing golf.

Born in Colombia, to Colombian parents, when Laura was seven her family moved to Peru. It was there, at the age of nine, that she first took up golf. Upon moving to Panama two years later, she became serious about the sport.

“I love golf because I enjoy being on my own. Also, I like that when I'm playing, the only person I’m competing against is myself,” Laura says. “Besides those things, my personality seems well suited for the game. I tend to be positive, I’m calm, and I’m at ease under pressure.”

I’ve known Laura since she was fourteen years old, a student in one of my Spanish literature courses at Balboa Academy—in the Republic of Panama. Early on in the academic year, I noticed certain traits in Laura that set her apart from most of her peers. As a student she was—and remains, I’m sure—mature, supremely disciplined, and highly organized. It was a pleasure to observe how Laura set high goals for herself, but that she was also was willing to make sacrifices and work hard to achieve them.

The first time we sat down to talk about golf was a little over a year ago, not long after she had learned that she was bound for the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy. Although I—along with her other teachers—was saddened to learn that Laura was leaving Balboa Academy, I was also excited about the extraordinary opportunity that lay before her.

When asked what she hoped to gain during her year in Hilton Head, she replied, “I’ll be able to concentrate fully on golf. I’ll be able to work on my swing and participate in golf tournaments alongside far more experience players than in Central America. In addition, I hope to meet a few college coaches, and perhaps one of these meetings will translate into an athletic scholarship.”

As we said farewell, I wished Laura luck in achieving her goals.

When we sat down to chat again a year later, Laura Restrepo had attained them all.

“I love the IJGA. The coaches and teachers are excellent. The schedule is centered on golf as well. Every morning I get to practice from 8 until 11:30. Then it’s off to the showers, a quick lunch, and classes from 12:40 until 5:30. The school follows the block schedule. The extended time allows me to concentrate on only a couple of subjects a day. After classes, we have fitness training twice a week, and the rest of the time is for studying.”

With regard to Laura’s golf game, she adds, “I’ve improved immensely in the mechanical and mental aspects of the game. This, in turn, has helped raise my level of competitiveness.”

And Laura, not surprisingly to those who know her, managed to stand out once again. The seventeen-year-old Colombian-Panamanian won four of the fourteen tournaments in which she played. What's more, she placed among the top five in the others. Better yet, she closed the year in a most impressive fashion: winning the prestigious Bridgestone Golf Tournament of Champions—by six strokes, nonetheless—in May of this year.

“That victory means that I’ll be invited to more exclusive tournaments. Next year I’ll get to play alongside some very, very talented players. I can’t tell you how exciting this is.”

After taking the Bridgestone Tournament, Laura returned to Panama to a hero’s reception as the news media enthusiastically spread the word of her triumphs. She was already accustomed to such coverage. In spite of being Colombian, over the years she always represented Panama in international tournaments, much to the pride and joy of the people in her adoptive country.

“I enjoy the news reports and articles that are published about me in Panama. It makes me feel as if the entire country supports my dream of playing professionally.”

And the news gets better.

Because of Laura’s outstanding year at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy—both as an athlete and a student—she was offered a full-scholarship to return, something her family celebrated.

“Without the financial assistance,” Laura says, “my return to the IJGA would have been next to impossible. I’m grateful and I’m fully aware that I’ll have to work hard to repay the confidence the school has shown in me.”

Although her dedication to golf has kept her busy, Laura says that she missed a few things about Panama during her year in South Carolina. “My family, my friends, and definitely home-cooked meals. But I’ve also made great friends in Hilton Head. Because of this I now feel a little torn. But I’m not complaining. At the moment I’m in a great situation.”

Laura’s third goal—that of meeting college coaches and perhaps receiving a scholarship offer—also materialized. “I’m being recruited by several universities. I’m keeping my options open. Still, I’m leaning toward one in Kentucky, although I haven’t committed yet.”

As a person who golfed avidly for a several years—although I never amounted to anything more than a hacker—I’ve been able to live vicariously through my former student’s success. But placing my hopes on Laura’s shoulders was an easy, sure bet. And, ultimately, it doesn't really matter how high Laura climbs up in the hierarchy of women’s golf. In the end, those of us who know Laura Restrepo well are certain that regardless of the outcome of the pursuit of her dream, she is well on the path of becoming an adult we all can admire.