While Denise Desilet never played on the LPGA Tour, she has always been a competitor.
As a young golfer from St. Charles, MO, Denise competed in USGA Junior Girls tournaments and the Women’s Western Junior Championship. This is when she first got a taste of elite competitive golf as she played in the same age group as the future LPGA professionals Nancy Lopez, Amy Alcott, and Hollis Stacy.
“I was just born at the wrong time!” Denise joked. “I needed a whole different era to play in. But those gals were really good.”
Battling nerves and tough competition, Denise competed all over the country during her junior days.
When Denise was growing up, golf for young women was not as popular as it is today. It was a pivotal era in women’s sports, when her fellow juniors were on the cusp of professional stardom and Title IX was just around the corner.
At her all-girls high school in St. Louis, Denise pushed to start a golf team, but she could not get enough interest. She faced the same challenge when she got to college in Kansas. Undeterred by the lack of a women’s golf team, she petitioned the NAIA to allow her to play with the men’s team.
“Ladies will often feel like they have to do something with a friend, that they can’t just go out and do it by themselves,” she said. “With golf, you learn to be more self-sufficient.”
Each week, Denise and her teammates had to try to qualify to play in the next match. She proved herself week after week, playing from the same yardage as the men and qualifying for every tournament.
“When we would go to the matches, the guys were maybe a little startled when they saw a girl there,” she remembered. “But they were just super. Nice as could be. And they didn’t hold anything against me.”
While her junior peers were achieving their dreams of pursuing professional golf on the LPGA Tour, Denise hesitated to make professional golf a career. Her dad had been there before, playing on the PGA Tour for several years.
“It’s a hard life out on that tour, going to a different city week after week,” she said.
On the PGA Tour, her father would share a room with several other players or sleep in his car at tournaments because the players did not make much money. After years of professional competition, he made the decision to leave the Tour and find a job with a steady income for his family. He thought that was the best choice for Denise too.
“My dad really did not encourage me to try and turn pro when I got older because he just thought that was too hard for ladies to have to do that,” she said.
As an adult, competitive golf was pushed to the side as Denise focused on her career. She returned to the sport regularly after retiring from her corporate job in 2000.
The following year, Denise opened her own jewelry business with her husband.
“It was a really big year for me starting a new business and winning my first major championship, the Kansas Women’s State Amateur,” she said. “With that win, it gave me new confidence in myself and in my golf game.”
Although Denise’s path diverged from her childhood peers, she has continued to push the boundaries as a competitor. Back again at the top of her game, she has won the last seven consecutive Kansas Senior Women’s Championships and has eleven championship titles overall. She hopes to achieve her eighth consecutive victory this fall.
For the first time, however, a shoulder injury has forced Denise to take time off during the golf season. She tried to push through the pain, but it was too much.
“So I decided, just bite the bullet and stay home,” she says. “You know, just not play for a while.”
She hopes that by taking this time off, she will be able to come back and defend her title at the Kansas Senior Women’s Championship this September 16-17. Denise is used to stepping away from golf during the offseason, but not playing during the competition season has been an adjustment.
“You know, I always thought it would really just destroy me if I didn’t play golf, but I’ve learned that that’s okay. You can still enjoy the game even though you’re not playing it,” she said.
Instead of playing, Denise has been watching the players on the LPGA Tour.
“I enjoy watching the ladies play golf,” she said. “You can learn a lot by just watching them, how they think their way around the golf course. So it’s helping me, even though I’m not playing, it’s helping me mentally get focused for playing again.”
No matter what the outcome of this fall’s championship is, one thing is certain. Denise will continue to compete and continue to love the game of golf, because it is never too late to do what you love.