LINKS LETTER, 2007 ANNUAL EDITION

MAKING THE MOST OF IT

By Jeff Hopper

It wasn’t your average Christmas present.

But when it comes from your mom, what are you supposed to say? “Uh, no thanks”?

So Stephanie Louden gave in. To her mom, and to her husband. She agreed to take that first dive trip.

Of course that meant lessons first, with all the awkward gear and the heavy tank. And it meant putting away, once and for all, those images of Jaws, the movie that terrorized her—and millions of others—as a kid.

Literally, she took the plunge. Now, she’s not going back.

“I’ve gotten to touch octopus and I’ve seen a shark—sea turtles that are huge right next to me,” Louden says. “It is so amazing that I can breathe underwater and now it’s fun.”

One more thing: it’s a long, long way from the golf course.

Most of Stephanie Louden’s life includes golf.

Four times she was named an All-American at Stanford University, where she played as Stephanie Keever from 1998-2001.

She met her husband Mike, also a professional, when they were high school teenagers. Where? On the golf course. Mike was playing with Stephanie’s dad in an amateur event in their hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada.

And now Louden calls golf her career. The 2007 season is her sixth on the LPGA Tour—and the one she hopes will bring her first victory. She has finished in the top 20 just eight times in her career, and she’s itching to improve.

She started down that path this winter, with a new workout regime.

“I’m trying to focus on areas where I’m struggling right now, areas where I’m weak,” she said at the time. “My hips are not real strong, which is huge for golfers because you’re always firing in and out of your hips. I’m trying to increase my strength in those and also increase my shoulder and back strength, as well as my abs.”

Every golfer starts the year in shape, but the season takes its toll.

“We travel on the road for eight months,” Louden explains. “Your body just gets beat down from travel, airplanes, lifting luggage, lifting golf clubs, and from just standing in golf posture all the time. It’s amazing how you can be strong and pretty balanced in February, but by the time you come back in October, definitely your golf muscles are ready to go and so one side is a lot stronger than the other and you kind of have to get that balance back in the off season just to make sure you don’t get injured.”

It’s easy to see how the game takes over, both body and mind.

As a Stanford graduate, Louden knows what study can produce. She is a student now of her own game, keeping careful track of her competitive statistics.

“The Tour keeps stats as well,” Louden says, “but I like to keep them myself. I know they are 100 percent accurate if I do them and then I can go back and calculate and make sure they’re all right. When our season finishes, I sit down and kind of do a New Year’s analysis, I guess you’d say. Kind of start new goals so that I can begin training for the next year at that point.”

Meticulous, yes, but all for a reason.

“The thing about golf is that you’re never done improving,” Louden recognizes. “There’s always room for a little bit more.”

That little bit more is what Louden hopes makes for a big improvement. When she reflects on her career highlights, she has to reach too far back, to her days at Stanford and her trip to England as a member of the 2000 Curtis Cup United States team. It’s time to step it up.

“As I continue to grow and get better and go from amateur golf to college to pro, the level does change of what you expect of yourself,” Louden says in serious self-assessment.

Watching Louden on the golf course, you may not recognize the philosopher in her. She smiles readily, and she converses casually with amateur partners. She walks taller than her 5’6″ frame, and with a confidence that shows how comfortable she is commandeering a tiny ball on such a large stage. She’s been here a million times, starting when she was only two or three years old, “just goofing off, climbing trees.”

But she loves to play alone when she’s home, heading out in the early morning, when the air is cool and the course is empty, or putting late into the evening, as darkness falls.

“It’s very calming to me,” she says. “Just being able to do what I love is so amazing.”

It is also very inspiring.

When she is on tour, it is the young kids among the fans who give her the most pleasure. “You can see it in their faces how excited they are,” she says.

It’s the same excitement that clutched her when she was just 10 years old and her father took her to see Nancy Lopez.

“I got out of school early so I could go watch her play her pro-am. I got a picture with her,” Louden recalls. “Just being able to interact with the pros as a kid and being able to see how they work really influenced my drive to play professional golf. To know that I could do it and that they were normal people was really important.”

So Louden never limits her role as a professional to what she does with a golf club in her hand: “One of the things that I’ve been blessed with is the ability to touch somebody’s life. Even if only for 35 seconds of something, that could make the difference—giving them a golf ball and signing it or just saying ‘hi’ and smiling and waving.”

All of that is fine and dandy when the shots land where you want and the putts go in the hole. But 2006 was no such season for Stephanie Louden.

She averaged fewer than one sub-par round per tournament. And more than half of her tournaments were shortened when she missed the cut. Her best finishes came in back-to-back weeks in May: two ties for 19th.

It was a recipe for frustration. Or resolve.

Louden, as you might have guessed, chose the latter option. She redoubled her focus in the off-season, played well enough at the Tour Qualifying Tournament to keep her non-exempt playing privileges, and headed into 2007 with a refreshed hope.

After all, she has already been down the road to discouragement.

When she missed seven of her first eight cuts in 2006, she broke down, tears and all. “I just sat there and I prayed,” she says. “I basically took a whole day in prayer and journaling, just trying to figure out where I was supposed to go with this.”

That day brought a deeper understanding of how to fight when trouble has the advantage.

“It was just really great. I kind of found some calm in the middle of the storm basically,” Louden says.

And she turned to the people she knew were on her side: “I just kept talking to friends who were encouraging me, and my husband was just really great about helping me through it. Basically, I just kept doing the best I could and having a good attitude and being a good example to other people. That’s really all I can do out there.”

The changes that came were gradual, but evident.

“I just kept hanging in there and then, sure enough, about two weeks later I had my best two weeks of the season—not really doing anything different physically. Just kind of basically saying, ‘God, it’s on You, ’cause I can’t do it… I just can’t.’ I think finally giving up trying to control the outcome is what really put a peace in my heart, and I really kept that throughout the year.”

For all the golf, God and family reside at the core of who Stephanie Louden has become, even as a professional athlete and a woman seeing 30 on the not-so-distant horizon.

Louden grew up Catholic, touching religion in a city that boasts of its irreligion. When she was 14 and her parents’ marriage was dissolving, she attended a weekend retreat in the mountains with some others from her catechism classes. As part of the retreat, people talked of their faith, and their simple reports caught hold of Louden’s spiritual hand.

“I was able to see what these people had around me,” she recalls. “They got up and gave testimonies of what was going on and it just hit me really hard that I didn’t have that personal relationship with Christ even though I listened to the Bible, I knew stories and I knew things. But I finally at that age accepted Christ into my heart and from then on have just really made Him my best friend every day.”

She later switched churches, finding a more contemporary setting for her teenage mindset. Her mom made the church change with her, and while her parents never did resolve their marriage, they remain friends, a circumstance that makes for reasonable family time all the same.

And then there is Mike, her husband. He’s on the bag as Louden’s caddie this season, a step off the mini-tours for him. It’s an adjustment, but Louden gushes about Mike: “He’s basically a coach, a motivator. You know, when I don’t want to go to the gym or I don’t want to go to practice, he’ll say, ‘Come on, let’s go. It’s just 20 minutes. Let’s do it!’ And it gets you out there and that’s all you need sometimes, just kind of a cheerleader with you.”

But it’s not all gushy support. Mike has his limits.

“He whoops me out on the putting green,” Louden admits. “When I think I’m putting good, he beats me and doesn’t let me forget it.”

Louden is careful about holding too tight to her family, though, or too tightly to things that are familiar and comfortable. When she lapses into the things she can control, she knows she’s not always living the life God would have her live.

“I want to have my plans,” she says. “I want to have it done when I want it. God really doesn’t think that’s how it’s going to work.”

So Louden makes a conscious, get-tough effort to surrender.

“You know, going to Stanford, I had to be very organized in order to get through it all. Then, I tried to pull that into my life in every aspect. I need to do this now and then this now and plan it all out. It just doesn’t work that way. God has made that OK. He’s let me change and be OK with it slowly.”

Part of that training has come underwater, with scuba tank and fins. It’s a place where she’s not in control all the time, but she’s found it to be one cool classroom for life.

“I remember the very first day,” Louden says. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m going,’ and actually in my prayer time that morning I decided to make it an adventure. I said, ‘God, show me all the creatures that You’ve made that I wouldn’t be able to see unless I did this.’

“If I look at it like that it really helps me, because then I get down there and I think, How neat is this?”

Yeah, it’s nine parts serious, all this reflection on the bigger picture. But don’t worry about Louden. She has her fun.

“Diving can be so weird,” she says. “A fish just looks at you sometimes and you’re like, Huh, I wonder what he’s thinking, ya know?”

More than likely, in Stephanie Louden’s case, he’s asking the same question about her.

COPYRIGHT 2007 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Stephanie Louden

    Best LPGA Tour Finish: 5th, 2007 SemGroup Championship