You hear it all the time. It’s much harder to be a parent watching your child compete than competing yourself. That is so true. My husband Tom and I know because we’ve experienced a range of emotions with our daughter Haley, who is a rookie on the LPGA Tour. Tom and I were college athletes. He was the long snapper on punts, field goals and extra points for the Ohio State football team, and I played tennis for the Buckeyes. We both had butterflies before we took the field and the court. But we were never as anxious playing or watching each other as we are following Haley around the golf course.
But I also have experienced other nerves watching Haley grow up, the kind of anxiety that a lot of parents go through but few discuss in public. The kind of fear, apprehension, helplessness and heartache that comes with being the parent of a bullied child.
Haley always stood out. From the time she was in elementary school, she was a big girl. That worked to her advantage early, especially in sports like soccer and softball. She ran hard, kicked hard, hit hard and went all out no matter what she was doing. But as she reached age 10 and 11, being different made her a target for cruelty. There was name calling, some she heard and some she simply knew about because of the whispers and laughs. There was isolation and taunts. Remaining easy going was Haley’s defense mechanism. When she wasn’t included in any group, she would just shrug it off and say, “okay, I’ll do my own thing.”
That broke my heart. Many nights I laid in bed and wept. The “mama bear” inside me wanted to go to school with Haley, to protect her and give those mean kids a good dressing-down. But I knew that handling conflict and unfairness, learning to cope with nasty things and unkind people, was part of life. If I did nothing, my child would suffer. But if I intervened, I might make things worse.
There were times when it seemed like too much. In the seventh grade, Haley had an upset stomach and got sick in math class. That sort of thing happens all the time. But the teachers knew the other kids would abuse Haley for it, so they moved her into another class. Every taunt felt like a cut to Haley and an added weight on my heart.
One incident when Haley was in middle school finally opened the floodgates. Some bullies filled Haley’s backpack with water. She didn’t carry much in there but that day it held her favorite book, which was ruined. On its own, the incident sounds like a bad juvenile prank. But on top of everything else, that violation of her property and her dignity was the final straw. Haley broke down and was inconsolable.
The school called and I rushed over, barging into the assistant principal’s office. My message was clear. Enough was enough. The school could handle this, or our family would. Either way, the pattern of abuse of our daughter was going to end right then and there.
While no one said it out loud, I’m sure school administrators thought I overreacted. But there is a line. Bullying scars children. It robs them of confidence and leaves psychological potholes that remain unfilled throughout life.
We were fortunate with Haley. Thank goodness we had golf.
Tom and I had played a little at the executive courses and munis in San Diego when we first married. Then the kids came, Tyler in 1996 and Haley in 1998, and life happened. But my father was a big golfer. He got the kids into the game. At a family reunion in Ohio, my dad gave Tyler a club and pointed to an open field. Tyler was only four years old, but he gripped down and hit the ball about 60 yards in the air. Dad knew he had a golf buddy forever.
Haley played to be with her brother, and she was just as good. She hit the ball long and hard from the very beginning and seemed to have a knack for getting it in the hole. We put both kids into the San Diego Junior Golf program and Haley started dominating right away. By age 12, she had won an AJGA All-Star event and at 16, she won the ANA Junior Inspiration, which earned her a spot in the field for the season’s first major.
She played with Charley Hull in the first two rounds of the ANA Inspiration, a pairing that could not have been better for Haley. Charley was still a teenager at the time and they both were relatively long off the tee. Charley talked just enough to put Haley at ease, and through the front nine on Thursday, Haley actually led the tournament. She fit in on the golf course where the number of strokes you take is all that matters.
Both our kids went to the University of Arizona and loved it. Haley will tell you that the three-and-a-half years she spent with head coach Laura Ianello were the best of her life.
The world got to see just how much the game and her teammates meant to her in May of 2018 in Stillwater, Okla. That’s when Haley sank a four-and-a-half-foot birdie putt in sudden death to win the NCAA Championship for the Wildcats.
If bullying shows the worst in people, the outpouring of love and support from strangers after that national championship showed the best. The painful tears from Haley’s younger years were shed alone. But a lot of people wept tears of joy along with us that day.
That support has continued. When Haley went to first stage of LPGA Tour Q-School at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, Calif., people came out and cheered, telling her how they remembered her from the ANA and how they hoped she would be back soon.
Second stage was in Florida, and we struggled to figure out how to get there. Tom works in wireless communications for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and I work in public safety. We’re happy, middle-class people who’ve done our best for our kids. But with airfare, hotels, rental cars, meals and everything else that goes with playing competitive golf, we aren’t the kind of people who can drop everything for a week and fly to the other side of the country.
Again, the kindness of strangers was overwhelming. Haley started a GoFundMe page, and Beth Ann Nichols with GolfWeek wrote a story drawing attention to Haley’s needs and we exceeded the fundraising goal. People even donated Hilton points and Delta miles so Tom and Haley could fly to Florida early and get in some extra practice.
Now, my daughter is a full-fledged member of the LPGA Tour. She might not look like everyone else. But that doesn’t matter. She is kind; she is happy; she is a fierce competitor inside the ropes and the best friend you could have outside of them. She has game and heart, determination and mental toughness.
She was a bullied child who grew up to be the strongest woman I know. She is my daughter. She is my world.