Volume 26 | Issue 4 | November 2017

Cover Feature • November 2017 • By Kurt Kragthorpe

A Championship Season

UTAH STATE AMATEUR

After staging a major upset of BYU teammate Patrick Fishburn in the semifinals, Cougar golfer Kelton Hirsch completed his breakthrough week by defeating Utah State's Braydon Swapp 7 and 5 in the finals of the State Amateur at Ogden Golf and Country Club.

“It was a great experience and probably the biggest win of my career,” Hirsch said. “It was an honor to compete against so many amazing players in the state of Utah, and it was even more fun to come out on top. I have worked really hard over the past year upon returning from my LDS mission in Mexico City, and it was great to see all that hard work pay off.”

Hirsch became the fourth BYU golfer in five years to win the State Am, although the pre-tournament favorite was Fishburn, a home-course player (a month later, Fishburn would blitz the field in the Siegfried & Jensen Utah Open). Hirsch made a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to win that semifinal match, then regrouped quickly after the emotional victory and dominated the 36-hole final match the next day.

Hirsch had been motivated to improve, recognizing the strength of BYU's returning team. In the fall season, the Viewmont High School graduate was in and out of the Cougars' deep lineup.

Kelton Hirsch

WOMEN'S STATE AMATEUR

The idea that Kelsey Chugg might collect her fourth Utah Women's State Amateur title in six years hit home on the first day of match play, when she almost made a double eagle on the par-5 No. 10 – twice. Her eagle putts totaled barely more than 2 feet in length, although she ended up needing to play 21 holes to beat Weber State golfer Kiselya Plewe in the first round and 19 holes to outlast BYU star Kenda Dalton in the quarterfinals.

Eventually, Chugg took a 2-up victory over BYU's Anna Kennedy in the final match at Davis Park Golf Course in August. She topped incoming BYU freshman Naomi Soifua 1 up in the semifinals.

In the finals, Chugg fought off a rally by Kennedy, with a big drive that led to an easy par on No. 18, concluding a match she described as “pretty intense coming down the stretch.” Chugg earned her latest title by playing a total of 76 holes in four matches, unusual for a champion.

“The other memory I cherish is having my former teammate and good friend, Sara Federico, caddy for me,” Chugg said. “It was really fun to work with her all week and special to win at one of our Weber State home courses.”

Kelsey Chugg

MEN'S SENIOR AMATEUR

Brett Sampson and Kirk Siddens enjoy playing together in team events, and they found themselves competing in the finals of the Utah Senior State Amateur at Glenwild Golf Club & Spa. After losing the first two holes, Sampson charged ahead and had a 2-up lead with five holes to play before needing to win the last hole to secure the title. He won it with a par, as Siddens' approach shot plugged in a bunker.

That stressful finish was typical of Sampson's week, as four of his five matches went to the 18th hole at Jeremy Ranch, Tuhaye and Glenwild. “I had a similar memory in both the Senior State Am and the UGA Four-Ball,” Sampson said. “In the Senior State Am I was 3 down after four holes in my first match (vs. Darren Kuhn). I had to dig down deep and continue to believe I could still win.”

Sampson succeed with a 2-up victory and went on to take wins over Scott Fairbanks, John Johnston and Randy Hicken to advance to the finals against Siddens.

Brett Sampson - Champion

Mark Monsen - Net Division Champion

Mike Hacker - Super Senior Champion

WOMEN'S SENIOR STATE AMATEUR

In difficult conditions at River Oaks Golf Course, Sue Nyhus claimed her third Women's Senior Amateur title in four years. The wind, rain and her emotions made a tournament she described as “a bit of a blur” more challenging.

Nyhus considered withdrawing because her father, Peter Billek, had suffered a stroke. “Instead of withdrawing, I decided to play with him in mind … 'Play for Papa.' It was a somber 36 holes. The rain fell and the wind blew and I just kept making pars for Papa.”

Nyhus shot 72-74 to win by two strokes over Julie McMullin (81-67), who had quite an adventure at River Oaks. In the final round, Nyhus parred the first 11 holes and then made four bogeys on the way to the clubhouse. McMullin posted four birdies and 10 pars on the last 14 holes to make it more interesting.

Sue Nyhus

MARY LOU BAKER OPEN

The 2017 Mary Lou Baker Open would take on greater significance in October, with the passing of Baker, a Utah Golf Hall of Fame Member at age 96. Sirene Blair became the last winner of the tournament during Baker's life, and she's deserving of that distinction.

In June, Blair shot 71-66 at Crater Springs Golf Course in Midway. She won by three strokes over BYU golfer Rose Huang. Blair, a former Bingham High School and San Diego State golfer, birdied three of the last six holes during a bogey-free final round, after being tied with Huang, who posted 71-69. Blair almost eagled the par-5 No. 17 with a wedge shot from 85 yards. “I missed a couple (putts), but I gave myself a lot of birdie chances,” she said.

Blair turned pro soon afterward and enjoyed some mini-tour success during the summer. She finished second in the inaugural Siegfried & Jensen Utah Women's Open, then went to the first stage of the LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, where she fell one stroke short of advancing.

Sirene Blair

WOMEN'S STROKE PLAY CHAMPIONSHIP

Kendra Dalton bogeyed the par-5 No. 18 at Glenmoor Golf Course and walked off the green in disappointment, figuring she may have cost herself a chance to win the Utah Women's Stroke Play Championship in regulation.

She was happily wrong. The BYU senior from North Carolina ended up with a one-stroke victory over Cougar teammate Rose Huang and Kelsey Chugg. Dalton shot 70-74 to finish at even par.

Looking back, Dalton said, “It just felt good to see my hard work pay off and see that the things I had been working on were improving and moving me in the right direction.”

Kendra Dalton

UTAH MID-AMATEUR

Dan Horner made it look easy in the Utah Mid-Amateur Championship at Wasatch Mountain's Lake Course in June, shooting 68-67-65 for total of (-16) 200. He took over Kurt Owen, Jon Wright, Darrin Overson and Jacob Boyce.

But he felt some pressure down the stretch, especially going into the par-5 No. 17. “If I have to chose one moment, it would have to be making a really good birdie putt on 17 of the final round,” Horner said. “At that point I thought Jon Wright and I were really close, and that birdie gave me a little cushion going into 18.”

As it turned out, Wright was not as close as Horner thought, but he responded well, in any case.

Dan Horner

UTAH FOUR-BALL

Brigham Gibbs and Jon Wright were thinking “59.” The friends from The Country Club of Salt Lake City shot 67-61, making nine birdies and an eagle in the second round, including five birdies in a row on the back nine. They took a four-stroke win over Dan Horner/Darrin Overson in the Utah Four-Ball.

Wright got the winning team going in the final round. He birdied No. 1, then eagled No. 3 and birdied Nos. 4 and 5 at Victory Ranch. “Once we had it going like that, I told Brigham that we should try to shoot in the 50s,” Wright said. “We came awfully close. … It was fun to be a little disappointed that we didn't make it into the 50s, but to still have won by such a large margin.”

Gibbs birdied No. 9, then the pair alternated birdies from Nos. 11 through 15.

Kirk Siddens and Brett Sampson shot 66-65 and easily won the senior division. Ron Davis/Randy Hicken (71-66) and Steven Poulson/Patrick Murphy (70-67) tied for second, six strokes behind.

“Brett and I got redemption from 2016 and ran away from the field,” Siddens said, adding, “birdieing five of the first seven holes the second day and pretty much put away the tourney.”

Sampson remembers being 2-over par after two holes, and then three-putting for a par on No. 3. As he did in his match vs. Siddens in the Senior State Amateur, Sampson battled back (and so did his partner). “So, what I continue to learn is that it's important to stay patient and never let challenges cause you to believe that you can't win,” Sampson said.

Jon Wright & Brigham Gibbs

WINTERCHAMPS

Birdies are always nice, but BYU golfer Rhett Rasmussen remembers a 30-foot par putt on No. 2 at Sky Mountain in the second round of the UGA Winterchamps as his most important shot.

“It kept my momentum going and it helped me win the tournament,” said Rasmussen, who scored 45 points at Sun River and 46 at Sky Mountain to finish four points ahead of Max Brenchley.

Kirk Siddens made 11 birdies in two rounds at The Ledges and Sun River to register 81 points and take a one-point win over Rick Lloyd in the senior division, thanks to a 25-foot putt on the last hole. “Winterchamps was great, because it was my first win in that event after many runner-ups, in senior or overall competition,” Siddens said.

Naomi Soifua, then a Provo High School senior and now a BYU golfer, posted 40 points at Sky Mountain and 42 points at The Ledges to top Sue Nyhus by seven points for the women's title.

Heber Jacobsen captured the super senior win with 75 points.

Rhett Rasmussen

Naomi Soifua

Kirk Siddens

Heber Jacobsen

UTAH SENIOR

STROKE PLAY

Ron Davis enjoyed a phenomenal 2017 season with seven tournament victories. The Utah Senior Stroke Play event has to rank as the most memorable.

At Bountiful Ridge Golf Course, where Steven Poulson was almost a perennial club champion, Davis shot 68-71-69 to beat Poulson by one stroke and Brigham Gibbs by two. Davis moved ahead with birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 and parred the last five holes of the final round, notably making a 12-foot putt on No. 17.

That only begins to tell the story. The shot Davis will never forget actually came from Poulson, who got up and down from a very difficult position on No. 6, with what Davis described as a shot only a home-course player could make.

Davis thought, “Oh, man, I've got to do something to stay with him and not let him get too far in front of us.” He matched Poulson's tap-in birdie on No. 12 and also birdied the next hole, then moved ahead when Poulson bogeyed No. 17.

“Winning it was definitely the highlight of the year for me,” Davis said. “We are fortunate to play some awesome golf courses and play against some great guys in the UGA senior division.”

Tom Jones won the Super Senior flight of the Utah Senior Stroke Play Championship with a 36-hole, (+1) 143.

Ron Davis

Tom Jones

UTAH WOMEN'S

FOUR-BALL

Carly Dehlin and Jessica Sloot are Utah girls golf success stories, now thriving in college programs. In June, they teamed together to win the Utah Women's Four-Ball Championship, shooting 67-66 for a total of 12 under par at Mountain Dell's Lake Course and Rose Park Golf Course. They finished one stroke ahead of Randi Stephens-Sadie Palmer.

Sloot was a star at Davis High School and in the Utah Junior Golf Association on her way to Colorado State; Dehlin's rise to becoming one of Utah Valley University's top players was more of a surprise. They overcame four birdies in two days by making 14 birdies and an eagle, via Sloot's 9-iron shot from 130 yards on Rose Park's par-4 No. 3. In the end, birdies on Nos. 17 and 18 made the difference.

Jessica Sloot

Carly Dehlin

UGA INVITATIONAL

Carly Dehlin and Jessica Sloot are Utah girls golf success stories, now thriving in college programs. In June, they teamed together to win the Utah Women's Four-Ball Championship, shooting 67-66 for a total of 12 under par at Mountain Dell's Lake Course and Rose Park Golf Course. They finished one stroke ahead of Randi Stephens-Sadie Palmer.

Sloot was a star at Davis High School and in the Utah Junior Golf Association on her way to Colorado State; Dehlin's rise to becoming one of Utah Valley University's top players was more of a surprise. They overcame four birdies in two days by making 14 birdies and an eagle, via Sloot's 9-iron shot from 130 yards on Rose Park's par-4 No. 3. In the end, birdies on Nos. 17 and 18 made the difference.

Kendra Dalton

Brigham Gibbs

Kelton Hirsch

UTAH WOMEN'S

SPRING OPEN

Annette Gaiotti and Nuny Kham-One, both from the Salt Lake Valley, posted 78 points at St. George Golf Club and 72 at Coral Canyon to win the Women's Spring Open by 10 points over Sue Nyhus/Jane Betley.

“It was one of those days when the ball insisted on going the correct way, no matter how I hit it,” Gaiotti said, noting the tournament created one of those feelings of how “golf makes you keep coming back to experience it again.”

Kham-One said, “When I struggled on my shots, Annette was able to recover us and get us back in play, and vice versa. On the second day, the wind made every shot challenging, however, it didn’t stop us from scoring well. We both played extremely well and our putting was on fire, which helped us produce great scores.”

Nuny Kham-One

Annette Gaiotti

GAREY CHADWICK/SHERM HATFIELD

UTAH SENIOR OPEN

Steve Schneiter went into the final round of the Garey Chadwick/Sherm Hatfield Utah Senior Open tied for low pro honors, but he had bigger ambitions than a first-place check. “I wanted to win the whole thing,” Schneiter said. “I wanted to see if I could four-peat.”

That's exactly what he did. Schneiter posted a closing 64 at Toana Vista Golf Course, finishing three strokes ahead of Steven Poulson, the low amateur. Schneiter opened the tournament with a 67, trailing amateur Kirk Siddens by five strokes, with Poulson at 67. Firing at the flagsticks, Schneiter birdied five of the first six holes in the final round, then eagled No. 10 and birdied No. 17 to finish 8-under.

“It was very satisfying,” Schneiter said. “It was fun to actually do it. Everything's a bonus at this point in my career.”

In the contest for low amateur honors, Poulson (67-71) finished one stroke ahead of Guy Child (73-66). A two-stroke swing on No. 16 narrowed Poulson's lead, but he parred the last two holes.

Steve Schneiter - Champion

Steve Poulson - Low Amateur

Garey Chadwick & Sherm Hatfield

Feature • November 2017 • By Kurt Kragthorpe

Leaving No Doubt - Utah Open

By the end of the Siegfried & Jensen Utah Open, BYU senior Patrick Fishburn's scores were shockingly low and his standards were ridiculously high.

Playing the 18th hole of Riverside Country Club with an eight-stroke lead on Aug. 27, Fishburn was “a little disappointed” that his drive failed to reach the green of the 415-yard hole.

As for having his chip-shot bid for an eagle miss the hole by 2 inches, the Ogden product could live with that outcome. He tapped in for a birdie, giving him a 26-under-par total in three days and a nine-shot win over defending champion Zahkai Brown of Colorado.

Brown claimed the $20,000 check as the top professional, explaining his fist-pumping responses to clutch putts on the last few holes, even while hopelessly trailing Fishburn. PGA Tour player Zac Blair of Orem was another stroke back, after closing with a 64.

Over 54 holes, Fishburn made 24 birdies and 26 pars, plus two eagles and two consecutive bogeys (on Nos. 9 and 10 in the first round).

Fishburn's 63-64-63 showing beat current PGA Tour player Nathan Lashley's 2015 tournament record score at Riverside by four shots, although he didn't match the 12-stroke margin of victory for Todd Fischer at Jeremy Golf & Country Club in 2000. Having won the 2016 State Amateur, he joined an elite group of golfers who have won Utah's most prized amateur and professional trophies. The most recent dual winner was Bruce Summerhays, whose 2008 Utah Open win came 42 years after his State Am victory.

Fishburn was the first amateur to win the Utah Open since Weber State golfer Greg Buckway in 2004. Before that, you have to go back to Weber's Mike Malaska in 1974 and BYU's Michael Brannan at Riverside in '75.

Having just turned pro after winning the 2015 State Am, BYU alumnus Jordan Rodgers finished second to Lashley at Riverside. And last year, Fishburn led after each of the first two rounds, while trying to become the first amateur since Ed Kingsley in 1934 to win both the State Am and the Utah Open in the same year.

That's why Fishburn's most meaningful numbers were his 64-63 weekend scores, considering he finished 71-73 to tie for fifth place after opening with a 62 that tied the course record in the 2016 event. He “played probably a little smarter” this time, he said, but the biggest difference was he just played better, driving the ball almost perfectly and putting well.

“He's always been good,” said Blair, his former teammate at Fremont High School and BYU.

But not this good, obviously. As any golfer knows, “Usually, there's something going wrong,” Fishburn said.

That didn't happen much, if at all, over 54 holes on BYU's home course in a performance that “kind of came out of nowhere,” he said. Fishburn started the final round with a seven-stroke lead and ended any remaining suspense with two early birdies and an eagle on the par-5 No. 7.

Brown quickly discovered he was playing for second place, and a lot of money. During the trophy presentation, Fishburn spoke wryly about being eager to spend his $700 merchandise certificate in the golf shop, while Brown filled out a W-9 form in the scoring tent. He drove away with the big cardboard check, which brought his Utah Open earnings to $41,000 over two years.

Blair added $14,000 to his PGA Tour winnings of nearly $800,000 for the PGA Tour's 2016-17 season by shooting 16 under par. “I didn't do anything overly great; I didn't do anything too bad,” said Blair, who was about to start the four-event Web.com Tour Finals in hopes of enhancing his PGA Tour status for the coming season.

Blair's entry was a big story, coming into the tournament. His answer came in response to a question about another golf event, but it covered his motivation for competing at Riverside: “Why wouldn't I play?”

It is golf, after all. Blair would have played somewhere that week, so why not in Provo? Riverside was his home course during his BYU career, and his father, Jimmy, competes in the Utah Open nearly every year (Jimmy Blair caddied for his son this year, while also teeing it up in the first two rounds).

The purse for the 54-hole tournament was increased to $119,000 with slightly different distribution, lowering the first prize to $20,000. Blair would have been playing for a winner's check of $1.575 million in the Northern Trust event, part of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, but he fell out of the PGA Tour's top 125 by one spot in the final weekend of the regular season.

As for other Utah-based pros, B.J. Staten, a former Web.com Tour player from Cottonwood Heights, finished seventh and earned $4,000. Riverside assistant pro Chris Moody closed with a 65 to tie for eighth and collect $3,250 plus the top bonus of $500 from the Wendover Casinos purse as a Utah Section PGA member. Special Olympics Utah, the longtime tournament charity, received a $60,000 contribution, bringing the total to more than $500,000 in this century, according to section president Ryan Kartchner.

When Saturday's round ended, Spanish Fork's Ryan Rhees received the Senior Sidebar's top bonus of $750, as the only senior golfer to make the cut.

Fishburn, meanwhile, had reached 17 under and built a seven-stroke lead. He apparently was not kidding when he said he wanted to follow his opening-round 63 with a 62. He settled for a second-round 64.

“I finally followed up a good round with another good round,” he said.

Fishburn eagled the par-4 No. 2 from about 20 yards out to launch his second round, then added six birdies while making no bogeys.

And then he went out Sunday and played even better, making history in the process.

 

Feature • November 2017 • By Kurt Kragthorpe

Garner’s First Pro Win

Utah Women’s Open

The first Siegfried & Jensen Utah Women's Open seemed almost sure to last beyond the 36th hole, but Lea Garner decided the outcome right then and there.

Garner's 20-foot birdie putt on East Bay Golf Course's 18th hole clinched her victory over runner-up Sirene Blair, who was in position to tie her. Blair had stuck her approach shot to within 6 feet on the par-4 hole, basically forcing Garner to make her putt to avoid a playoff in Provo on Aug. 20.

Garner earned $3,000 and an exemption into the traditional Utah Open at Riverside Country Club after coming through with “one of the more nerve-wracking putts I've had,” she said. The former BYU golfer posted an 11-under-par 133 total as BYU coach Carrie Roberts caddied for her.

Devin Dehlin, executive director of the Utah Section PGA, was impressed by the low scores. Pointing to the “140” mark on the scoreboard during the trophy presentations, Dehlin said he figured that's about where the winner's name would be posted. Yet three pros topped that total, two of them by a considerable margin.

Garner and Blair, who just finished her San Diego State golf career, each closed with a 6-under-par 66. BYU assistant coach Juli Erekson (69-69) was next at 138 as pros took the top three spots. The Cougars' Anna Kennedy was the low amateur at 140, one stroke ahead of Kelsey Chugg, who recently had won her fourth Women's State Amateur title.

Products of the Utah Junior Golf Association and Utah high school golf programs, Garner and Blair were close all day. Garner's birdie on the par-5 No. 13 gave her a one-stroke lead that she maintained with some clutch putts, making three more birdies.

When the Utah Section PGA created the Women's Open, some members of the Utah golf community wondered if the event would become just another version of the State Am. That sort of happened, in the sense that Garner and Blair are former amateur stars, and the final round resembled match play. But they're pros now, and they loved having the opportunity to play for money on familiar turf (Blair collected $2,000).

“I was super-excited, because there's been no professional tournament in Utah at all,” Garner said.

“You can't help it when you get outplayed,” Blair said good-naturedly.

Blair was on her way to the first stage of the LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament in California, where she tied for 91st place, shooting 74-72-73-73 and failing to advance by one stroke.

Garner birdied the last three holes in the first round to shoot a 5-under-par 67 and take a one-stroke over Blair and Kennedy. Blair birdied the last four holes, as she overcame three bogeys.

Provo High School graduate Naomi Soifua, a BYU freshman, and Chugg posted 69s. Chugg was 6 under par after an eagle at No. 13, but she double-bogeyed the par-4 No. 15 and bogeyed the par-3 No. 17.

The final round became a two-woman duel, and Garner emerged in regulation. Garner used her exemption into the Utah Open and was paired for the first two rounds with her brother, Davis, who made the 36-hole cut. Garner shot 78-76 after a promising start in the first round. Utah Section PGA officials honored her at Riverside by reprising the trophy presentation a week later and she said playing with her brother was “something I'll remember forever.”

The Utah Women's Open organizers, with Siegfried and Jensen as the title sponsor and Fairways Media as the presenting sponsor, had a modest goal of attracting 40-player field in the golf tournament's first year, and they came close to achieving it.

The breakdown between pros and amateurs was not quite how they pictured it, though. A partial overlap with the LPGA qualifying apparently kept some out-of-state pros from coming to East Bay.

A field of 11 pros, including some recent collegians and members of the Utah Section PGA, joined 28 amateurs. “We've got to start somewhere,” said Dehlin, who's considering moving the dates of both tournaments next year to avoid the LPGA conflict.

Siegfried & Jensen and the Utah Section PGA are the driving forces of the Utah Open, which has been staged since 1926. Organizers wanted to tie the new women's event to the Utah Open as closely as possible, explaining the choice of dates.

East Bay head pro Brett Watson and his staff loved having the event at their course, believing that a public venue is an important part of the overall Utah Open effort and being proud of East Bay's history with women's golf.

Garner has played on developmental tours since turning pro in February, with conditional status on the Symetra Tour (the women's equivalent of the Web.com Tour).

Garner didn't enter the 2016 LPGA qualifying event, because she planned to spend the fall helping her father, Blair, coach the newly established men's and women's golf teams at Southern Virginia University.

 

Feature • November 2017 • By Randy Dodson

Whitney Rockets to Victory

at Sand Hollow Leavitt Group Open

Former United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Operator and now a Web.Com Tour member with conditional status (top 100), Tom Whitney, shot his way to the top of the Sand Hollow Leavitt Group Open leaderboard after three days of play with rounds of 70-65-66 – 201. Whitney’s 15-under total edged last year’s runner-up Jim Knous by one shot. Knous’ closing round 8-under 64 was beat for low round of the day by Kurt Katayama’s course record-setting 10-under 62. Katayama finished in third place.

With his Web.Com Tour conditional status Whitney is headed to the second stage of Qualifying-School to try and improve his status for next season. The Sand Hollow Open provides multiple motivating factors to players heading in Whitney’s direction including the opportunity to compete against like-minded players in an off-season competition, an attractive first place purse of $18,000 and for most, the exemption into the 2018 Web.Com Tour Utah Championship.

Should Whitney make it into Utah’s only PGA Tour event on his own play next season, the local exemption, owned by the Leavitt Group as a sponsor of the Utah Championship, will go back into the sponsor’s hands, and they will name another player of their choice.

For runner-up Knous, his tournament total of 14-under 202 was identical to his total last year when he finished runner-up to Zac Blair after a one-hole playoff.

“I’ve played well here both years, sometimes there’s just someone else playing just a little bit better,” said Knous. “I knew Tom was going to fire back at me on the back nine, which he did. I stayed patient and made some big putts.”

Knous also has conditional Web.Com Tour status next year and took advantage of the opportunity to play this week in order to stay competitive heading into Q-school.

“I’m thrilled that I closed it out,” said Whitney. “Having a three-shot lead coming into the final round I fell behind to Jim by one-shot even before the front nine was over. I really wasn’t doing anything wrong but Jim made birdie-after-birdie-after-birdie. I lit the fire and was 6-under on the back and got it done.”

Following Whitney, Knous and Kitayama in the final top-five were Utah Open low professional Zahkai Brown and Wyndham Clark who tied for fourth-place at 11-under par.

The only player with local ties in the top 10 was former BYU player/graduate and current Rocky Mountain Open champion Justin Keiley who finished in 8th with a 7-under total 209.

 

Feature • November 2017 • By Dick Harmon

Maleah Goes To Vegas

All Maleah Johnson has thought about her entire life is competing—just like everyone else.

This month the 15-year old Pleasant Grove High sophomore golfer was chosen by Salt Lake Shriner’s Hospital as an ambassador to the PGA Tour’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin tournament in Las Vegas.  Her job is to be an ambassador and carry a scoring banner for a group comprised of professional golfers.

She will make hospital appearances and join other young ambassadors at events across the city with her mother Robyn – all expenses paid.  She’ll even get to hang out with PGA Tour star Tony Finau, whom she met earlier this year at a clinic.

Maleah is a vivacious young woman who smiles easily, is full of hope and faith. She is a softball player and member of the Pleasant Grove girl’s golf team.

Thing is, Maleah was born with eight toes on one foot and her premature birth was complicated.   As an infant she had serious issues in her right leg.  At 11 months, her parents had a choice to make.  They could have Maleah undergo reconstructive surgery, perhaps in the dozens, hoping to make that leg useful, or they could tell doctors to amputate the leg above the knee.

There was no guarantee the surgeries would help. Her parents chose amputation.  She is now walking on a prosthetic leg that hinges at the knee and ankle. She has had 16 of these very expensive prosthetics, three of them this year alone.  They have to be changed according to her growth and weight gain.

Her mother Robyn Johnson said Maleah’s courage has stood out all her life.  She has been hopeful, faithful, a believer and has attempted to do almost everything any other young toddler or teen would try.  She has never looked at her disability as a barrier to her life.   In fact, Robyn has often tried to hold Maleah back, knowing that she could be hurt or extremely disappointed over a failure.

Maleah’s inspiration to take up sports came from her father Scott.  “He taught me how to play softball and encouraged me to take up golf.  I learned everything I know from him,” said Maleah.

Her father died suddenly and inexplicably two years ago at age 40.  “We still don’t know why or how he died,” said Robyn.  “Nobody has been able to explain his death.”

Growing up, Maleah’s forged ahead, often getting banged up by her aggressive play.  When seven years old she fell and broke her big toe.  She has busted off pieces of her prosthesis on the playground.

With the help of Shriners Hospital, she has been able to ride a bike and go longboarding.  “My dad wanted boys in his family, but he got girls.  He wanted all of use to play softball. I do it because it’s really fun. It gives you adrenalin and it’s great to get close to your teammates, make friends and just goof around.  When it’s game time, we get serious. I love it.”

Maleah initially played first base because she was the only one on the team who had the arm strength to throw from first to third base.  She then moved over to third base and is now pitching.

As for golf? She wants to get good enough to earn a college scholarship.  She routinely scores in the mid to high 40s for nine holes.  “My dad told me it would be really hard to get a scholarship, but because I can’t run that fast, I wanted to get into something else and golf became my goal.”

Last year, Maleah made the varsity golf team at Pleasant Grove. “My tee shots are my strength because I can hit if far, but I’ve got to work on my putting, it’s not that good right now.  I’m not patient, I just want to go fast and get it over with and that’s why I’m not so good.”

At the Shriners Open, Maleah will have a front row seat to not only see Finau, but fellow Utah PGA veterans Zac Blair and Daniel Summerhays.  It will be the experience of a lifetime.  She even took her clubs to hit shots during this week’s pro-am events.

“I’m really excited for this. I don’t know why they chose me because I’m really shy,” she said.

Maleah loves swimming and being in the water. She is up for anything as long as her leg doesn’t get sore and tired.  At times, the prosthesis takes a lot of energy to move around.

For Robyn, Maleah is her athlete. Her two other siblings, both girls, don’t have the same passion as Maleah.

“She is an incredible kid.  She has shown so much courage, not only in our family’s trails with the loss of her father, but just her trials in general, having such a disability in her life but not wanting anything to hold her back.

“I love that about her personality, just that spunk that she has in herself.  She won’t let anybody tell her she can’t do something because of her prosthetic.  Even when she was younger, you want to be so protective of your kids, like of that mother bear thing.

“But she would come to me and her dad and tell us she wanted to do this, and try that.  She wanted to try soccer, try swimming.  We never said no to her but deep down we thought, ‘she might be disappointed, she just might fail and be let down.’

“We constantly let her do what she wanted to try. There’ve been times we’ve had to sit down and explain why she might not be able to do something. It’s a balance between encouraging and allowing her to compete and protecting her from being hurt.  There are just so many things a young woman tries to do growing up and you just hope for something that will work for them. For Maleah, that shining star seems to be golf.

“It really struck us when her dad introduced her to golf. This is the thing, it is competing against other people, but also it is about yourself and competing against and depending upon yourself, your own personal thing.”

Robyn said her daughter has played city league softball and many other activities but when Scott showed her golf, “it was as if a light turned on upon her.  She just knew it was her thing, although it was very, very hard.”

Her father would have weekly dates taking her golfing.  “The minute her dad started taking her to the range and playing nine holes, I saw this light go off inside her that she’d never had before.”

Robyn said she doesn’t have blinders on, that he daughter is facing a tough challenge.  She needs to be stronger, work harder.  But the path is there and she is on it.

“This Shriners thing is wonderful, a tremendous opportunity.  The first thing I thought of was the expense as a single mom.  But they told me it was on them.  Next, I worried about taking a week off, but I have an amazing boss who understands what I am going through.

“When they called us, I thought it can’t be real.  We’ve been so excited.  I told her she needed to smile, I told her she needed to be a public relations person now and there was a role to be played in this trip.”

Maleah answered, “Mom, this isn’t my first rodeo.”

What a ride. Viva Las Vegas.

Go for it, Maleah.  Head down, swing easy.  The putter will follow.

 

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