She led the University of Texas Longhorns to 10 top-10 team finishes and a bid to the 2015 NCAA San Antonio Regionals, earned six top-10s herself, picked up a first career win at the Ping/ASU Invitational, earned Big 12 Player of the Year honours and qualified for the NCAA Championship, writes Lali Stander.
She won her first pro title a week before winning the LPGA Q-School First Stage and early last December, she became the fourth South African to fly the flag on the LPGA Tour next year.
She is Bertine Strauss, one of the most decorated amateurs in SA golf history, and she will not be holding back in 2016.
Take us through your journey to Q-School and the final stage.
I turned pro at the US Women’s Open in June and it was a huge eye-opener. Being among all the big names and all the people around the tee boxes and down the fairways was intimidating at first, but it gave me insight into what to expect next year. It also prepared me well for Q-School. The first stage was fine, but the second and final stages were very intense. The second stage is tough, because you know if you don’t make it, you don’t have anywhere to play. If you fail at final stage, at least you qualify for the Symetra Tour. I tried to treat both stages like any normal event, otherwise the pressure gets to you. I didn’t have my best week at second stage, but it showed me the weak points in my game and I worked hard in the break. I had four solid rounds at final stage, but I knew I was in the bubble before the final round. I just stayed with my routine and kept my game plan the same … fairways, greens and patience. On the back nine, the putts finally started to fall. The last four holes played straight into the wind, and a lot of girls dropped shots, but I managed to keep it together. I know I’ve been off the radar in South Africa for a few years, hopefully I make enough of an impression on the LPGA Tour this year to leave a mark. I’m definitely playing some of the Sunshine Ladies Tour events and I hope I can give Lee-Anne Pace a run for her money in the Chase to the Investec Cup for Ladies.
How did you get into golf?
Us farm kids are always inventing ways to keep ourselves entertained because it can get pretty boring on a farm. We do a lot of snooping and that’s how I discovered my dad’s golf clubs. I was about nine at the time. I hit some balls and I broke a window. When my dad saw the broken window, he was impressed with my shot and asked me to show him how I did it. Instead of getting a hiding, I got some junior clubs and golf lessons. It just evolved from there. I started competing on the Womens Golf South Africa circuit and winning stuff. I don’t think I could pay my parents back for all the miles they drove all over the country to give me the chance to play.
You dominated the amateur circuit, but never won the Big 2. Do you regret that?
Oh, definitely. I won the top junior events, the leading amateur at the SA Women’s Open and almost all the provincial tournaments at least once, but I guess I will always regret not winning the Sanlam SA Women’s Stroke Play or Match Play.
So what motivated a young farm girl to fly the coop?
I always dreamt of playing golf in the US, so when I was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Texas and play on their golf team, it was a no-brainer. I was outta here.
So, a boertjie from Koster graduated with a major in psychology and a minor in business administration from a top US university. It must have been a huge adjustment?
You can’t begin to imagine. If I learned anything it’s that you can do anything when you put your mind to it. Everything was in English, so immediately I started eating, breathing and sleeping English. I got into a strict routine from the start to balance the academics with the golf practice, because if I failed, I would lose my scholarship, so failing was not an option. But yeah, it was tough at the start.
What was a typical week like?
Classes were usually from 08h00 to 13h00 and practice from 14h00 and 18h00. Then you would head back to your room to study. The next day you do it all over again. And we had gym three times a week at 06h15. It was pretty hectic at the start, but by the end of my junior year, I pretty much had it figured out.
You achieved a huge amount in your final year. How come you waited so long?
When I went to the US, I had some lofty goals, but I didn’t achieved them, so they became a priority for me in my senior year. I guess I felt I was running out of time, so I stepped up and made the most of the last year. Making all those goals certainly set me up for the last six months.
What was the best part of your American adventure?
Obviously I saw a great deal and went to a lot of places. We competed on the East Coast, the West Coast, California and even Hawaii. I probably went to 15 states and that was terrific. We got to see a lot of cool places and that was a great experience. It was mostly golf, but we were also able to explore the local attractions. We were in New Orleans during Mardi Gras two years ago and had a couple of extra days in Hawaii to explore the island last year. Those were both amazing trips. Overall, though, I think the people I met and the friendships I forged, more than anything else, is what I am most grateful for. I was able to go back to the University of Texas and practised at their facilities between the second and final stages of the LPGA Q-School. The golf department was great and so accommodating. It felt like I never left and it was great to work with the team again. I will cherish the relationships I made at UT for the rest of my career.
It couldn’t have been great all the time.
Not at all. Being away from home for such long stretches at a time was tough. You miss your family and sometimes you get lonely. That’s where being so busy comes in handy, because your schedule doesn’t allow you much time to wallow in self-pity. I got homesick a lot, but it didn’t last very long. You focus on the reason you’re there and you power through. I was fortunate to always have another South African at UT for my four years … first Dylan Frittelli, then Brandon Stone and then Lara Weinstein for my last two years. It helped to take the edge off the homesickness.
So, what did you miss most about home?
For me it was a good old-fashioned braai. You can barbeque over there, but it’s just not the same. Brandon and I would sit in my dorm room at night with our mugs of Rooibos tea and Ouma Beskuit and watch TV. When Lara joined us I had moved to a house, so I went to Walmart and bought a small barbeque. She’d come over on the weekend and we’d light up a fire and throw some steaks on and a ‘braai broodjie’ … it wasn’t home, but it came pretty close.
Any regrets this year?
I was pretty bummed that I couldn’t play the SA Women’s Open because it conflicted with the LPGA Tour’s Final Stage of Q-School. But I am going to try fit it into next year’s schedule, because I definitely want to win. That will make up for missing out on the amateur double.
Her destiny was decided when she picked up a golf club for the first time at the age of three. While her school friends talked about becoming doctors, teaches or astronauts, Ashleigh Simon dreamt of a pro golf career. Her talent and hard work paid off as Smasley took the SA amateur circuit by storm.
She became the youngest player to win the SA Women’s Stroke Play and Match Play double and first player in 101 years to win it three times. The first player to win the SA Women’s Open as an amateur and pro (2004 and 2007), she represented South Africa in the World Cup three times as an amateur.
Simon joined the paid ranks shortly after her 18th birthday in 2007, and promptly won the Catalonia Ladies Masters in Spain. Four years later, she claimed a second Ladies European Tour title at the ISPS Handa Portugal Ladies Open.
However, recurring back injuries and resultant hip surgery in 2014 derailed her progress and she had to fight for survival at the LPGA Tour Final Stage in 2014. After a tough year getting back to form, the four-time Sunshine Ladies Tour champion is positive about an LPGA Tour breakthrough in 2016.
‘I have my cards for the LPGA and LET for 2016, my long-time boyfriend and caddie David Buhai finally popped the question at the Omega Ladies Masters and my health issues are a thing of the past,” Simon said.
‘Life couldn’t be better. I’ve learned that you have to grind it out and constantly work to better yourself. You have to keep at it even when the results are not going your way. Obstacles are a challenge, but I have a superb support team and Dave by my side. When I encounter setbacks, I remind myself of all my accomplishments and use them to motivate myself.’
The flags on Paula Reto’s bag and shoes tells you she is a South African, but it’s when she starts talking that you know this Capetonian is proudly South African.
‘I’ve lived in the United States since I was 15, but I’ve never shaken my South African accent and I’m really proud of it,” says the 25-year-old LPGA Tour player.
Unlike most of the college graduates who campaign on the LPGA Tour, Reto didn’t learn golf until her family relocated to Coral Springs in Florida in 2005. ‘I played hockey at home and I was pretty good, but they didn’t offer hockey at my school. My dad suggested I try golf and I loved it.’
In fact, Reto’s athleticism saw her take to the game so well that despite her late start, she earned a golf scholarship three short years later.
During her career at Purdue University, Reto bagged several notable achievements including 2013 First-Team All-American and an individual third place finish at 2013 NCAA Championships. She was also named the 2013 Mary Fossum Award winner for low stroke average in the Big Ten Conference.
Just six months after graduating with major in Law and Society, Reto secured her LPGA Tour card at the Final Stage Q-School. The South African is excited for her third season.
‘I love playing on Tour, travelling, playing different courses and meeting people. Every week is an adventure. I am better prepared mentally and physically and I also know the courses better and at which courses I can really contend. But I also love the unpredictability of it all. It can be challenging to stay positive when things are not going your way, but you have to persevere and remind yourself that you are better than your results suggest.’