Hole In One Queen Lauren Stephenson’s Mental Game Has Her Primed for a Strong 2022 Campaign

By Walker Polivka

Lauren Stephenson is one of several successful golfers on the LPGA Tour to come out of the University of Alabama. At just 24 years old, Stephenson is ready for her breakout season and to become a household name in women’s golf. I had the chance to speak with Lauren earlier this year on a myriad of topics. Read on below to read about Lauren’s career in golf, her approach to practice, her thoughts on the slow play debate, and the astonishing number of hole in ones she has had in her career.

Q: So to start off the interview, I’d like to discuss a little bit about your background. Where are you originally from and how did you first become interested in golf?

A: I’m from Columbia, South Carolina, and I grew up with my dad playing recreational golf. When I was like four or five, he would just take me out when he would go play. I had one golf club, and he would just drop me off in the fairway at 100 yards and tell me to keep hitting the ball until I got to the green. He started to think it was strange that at only five years old, I never got bored or complained, even after 18 holes (4 hours’ worth) of golf. Eventually he thought, “she must really like this.”

Q: I know you played golf in high school, but did you play any other sports growing up as well?

A: Until I was 12, I did gymnastics, golf, and basketball. At that point my parents told me I had to pick one sport. I didn’t have any expectations at that time that I would play professionally, but I picked golf because you could play it your whole life, and I just thought it was like the only sport that you don’t have to give up as you get older.

Q: Do you think that having that multi-sport background helps you develop into a better athlete?

A: Yes, I do think it’s helpful. Today, kids often will get put into one sport and pushed to do that one thing, whereas I got to try a bunch of things. I did dance, gymnastics, golf, and basketball. I tried a lot of different things that I believe helped make me into a better athlete, but it also helped me to have an appreciation for the game because I got to choose what I wanted to do myself. My parents never told me, “You need to play golf.”

Stephenson playing for the Crimson Tide. Photo Credit: https://rolltide.com/sports/womens-golf/roster/lauren-stephenson/4086

Q: So you went from high school and played college golf—you played at both Clemson and then the University of Alabama. You had 3 wins, 16 top 5’s, and you were a top 5 amateur in the world while you were in college. Walk me through what’s it like playing in college. How is that different from playing in the pros?

A: It’s very different. When you golf your whole life (whether you’re in junior golf or at the pro level) it’s an individual sport. So it was really different going to college and being on a team while also being able to have individual success. Going to Alabama, I was on a really good team where we were able to have a lot of team success. I really enjoyed it – it was a lot of fun. Being at Alabama made me a lot better player. My teammates were great caliber golfers. Three of us on my team during those years alone are on the LPGA, and everyone I played with is either on the LPGA or the Symetra Tour. We had a bunch of great athletes that all pushed me to be better. I really got a lot out of my experience there.

Stephenson on the victorious 2018 Curtis Cup team. Photo Credit: https://www.usga.org/content/usga/home-page/championships/2018/curtis-cup.html#!latest

Q: What would you say was the biggest highlight of your collegiate career golf-wise?

A: As a team at Alabama, we placed second at Nationals. It was a little unfortunate because we were probably the best team in the country at the time, so we were hoping for a win, but that was a really awesome experience getting to play in the Finals for a National Championship. It’s not something you do a lot in golf, where you have a team aspect in play, so that was a lot of fun. Right before I turned pro, I was also on the Curtis Cup team, which was a really awesome experience for me to get to represent the United States. I have a lot of good memories from college golf.

Q: Once you finished college, you turned professional. How much of a learning curve is there from coming right out of college and playing professionally? What sort of transition is there?

A: It’s a huge transition and it’s a big shock to the system because in college you’re traveling and playing in all of these tournaments, but everything’s handled for you. All you have to do is practice and show up and compete. When you’re on the pro tours, you’re all on your own unless you have your family and a great support system. You have to figure out how to manage so many things – a caddy, your own personal coach, your time and your travel schedule. It was really overwhelming at first and I remember having a breakdown my first year. At the time, I was 22-23 years old wondering, “how do I manage all these people? I’m not a manager.” Having to figure out how to hire and fire a caddy or how to hire an agent at a young age is a big shock to your system and kind of makes you grow up fast.

Q: You’ve been playing on tour now for several years, and earlier this summer you had a stretch of four top 15 finishes during a five-start stretch. So your game is definitely rounding in the peak form at the current moment. What do you think the strongest area of your game is personally?

A: Ball striking. I changed coaches at the end of my first year on tour and with my new coach, I’ve continued to get better every year. We’ve continued to just try to pick out all my weaknesses, especially my ball striking. I’ve learned to strive for making the least number of mistakes. You don’t have to play perfect golf, just try to make the least number of mistakes. I’ve worked really hard with my coach, trying to be nitpicky on what we can get better at, but my ball striking has always been my strong suit.

Q: What’s the average range session like for you? What all do you do during your practice sessions?

A: I would say my range session is shorter than most people. I don’t enjoy being on the range. I like playing or working on my short game. During a range session, I come up with a game plan with my coach that is very specific to what I’m working on and takes about 30 minutes. I have three drills that I do every time. I have a good process to where I don’t have to just sit out there and hit balls aimlessly. I really enjoy playing like if I’m on the road. I’d rather be out on the course practicing in the conditions that the tournament will be in versus sitting on the range.

Q: How do you stay in shape physically in order to prepare for tournaments?

A: It’s one of the most important parts of the game. It’s about keeping your body healthy with the amount of travel that we do. I try to do workouts in my room if I don’t have access to a gym, but usually we have access to a gym every week, which is nice. Eating healthy is also really important. I don’t always do this perfectly, but it’s important to keep your body healthy, so that’s something I’ve focused on and will work on in the offseason with a trainer. A lot of people in their offseason really work on their physical part, more so than practicing.

Q: Do you prepare your own meals while you’re out on the road? What’s your go to meals during like the week of a tournament?

A: It depends on where I’m staying. I like staying in Airbnbs where I can cook, and not feel so much like I’m on the road because getting takeout or eating at restaurants every week is kind of exhausting. This year and last year during COVID, I stayed at a lot of Airbnbs and cooked a lot, which was nice. I wouldn’t say I have a go to meal, but I would always rather cook a meal than eat out if possible.

Stephenson teeing off during a tournament. Photo Credit: https://www.espn.com/golf/story/_/id/30018809/lauren-stephenson-mi-hyang-lee-top-shoprite-lpga-classic-leaderboard

Q: What’s the average week like on tour when there’s a tournament?

A: Usually we get there on a Sunday or Monday. If it’s a course that I’ve played before, I like getting there on Monday, just because I don’t like having so much time before Thursday. So if I get there on Monday, I’ll do a practice session Monday afternoon. And then if I really know the course, then I’ll play nine Tuesday and nine Wednesday. Sometimes if there’s a Pro-Am on Wednesday, I might play 18 on Tuesday. Every week fluctuates a lot depending on what the tour schedule is like; sometimes we have Pro-Ams that we have to do on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sometimes the Pro-Ams are small, so you might not be able to play on a Wednesday, so you kind of have to go with the flow every week. There’s not a set schedule each week, but it just depends on what course we’re at or if we’re at a major, I do a lot more preparation because I’ve never played the course, never seen it. So, to learn a new course, it’s kind of just a thing I feel like every week is almost different.

Q: You’ve played many different styles of courses. What style or setup do you personally feel best suits your game? 

A: It’s tough to say. There’s this one course we play in LA that I really like because it’s kind of short distance-wise, but it’s tight so you have to hit really quality golf shots and be able to control your ball. So I love old style courses where it’s really shot demanding. But then also I really like majors because usually they’re longer, which suits my game. I’m not the longest hitter on tour, but I hit it far enough so I feel like that always gives me a little bit of an advantage, and I usually hit it pretty straight, so I feel like majors set up well for me. So I have two styles that I like.

Q: We discussed the physical side of the game briefly. How important do you think it is to stay mentally healthy while out on Tour? 

A: That’s the hardest part. The hardest part is learning to work really hard and prepare the best you can, but then not having any expectations because the mental side will kill you. It’s really hard to know that you’re playing really well or you’ve worked really hard, and you know your game is where it should be, but then you’re not seeing the results. So I feel like this year I’ve learned to work hard, do what I have to do, but then also, like, just drop my care level and expectations a little bit when I’m playing and just enjoy the time on the course, enjoy each shot and enjoy the challenges because if you’re out there and you’re just thinking like, “Oh, I have to shoot this score and I have to do this,” you’re going to wear yourself out over the course of a year.

Q: Every athlete regardless of their sport has a zone, like when they’re shifting into tournament mode and they’re just completely focused on that. What is your personal zone like? What’s going on in your mind?

A: I’m a competitor by nature. So, for me, if I’m just going to play golf on a casual Tuesday, I’m not going to score very well, versus when it’s Thursday morning, and I tee off at 7:30 and we have our groups, I feel like my mind just knows it’s time to go and I’m just more focused, more energetic and performing at such a higher level when I’m in my zone versus not. So, I always am ready for Thursday, like the practicing and the preparation beforehand does nothing for me in that regard. As soon as I get to Thursday I’m like, “Alright, I’m ready to go.”

Q: Let’s say they made you the Commissioner of the Tour. You can change anything you want, you can do anything you want. What would be the first thing you would do as Commissioner?

A: That’s tough. I don’t have too many complaints. The most important one for us as women athletes is just trying to increase the purse as much as I could, but nothing like super small that I would change. 

Q: What are your thoughts on slow play? Is it a major issue on the LPGA Tour?

It’s so bad. I’m one of the fastest players. It’s just—it’s not enjoyable for anyone who plays fast to have to wait on everyone else. It’s a big issue and we’re trying to fix it on the Tour and trying to push people to play faster, but it’s just hard. First of all, you’re competing at such a high level but then, the longer it takes, it’s really hard for your brain to focus for that long. So I know I’ve caught myself in the middle of a round be like, “Okay, are we done?” I definitely love playing fast. 

Q: Is there a way to enforce this to make players play faster on Tour? Is there an actual way to really make a change in this? Because I feel like this has been an issue for a long time and everyone’s like, “Oh we’ve got to fix slow play,” but there never seems to be any progress made.

A: Yeah, we’re trying to by enforcing more penalties and fines. But I mean, I feel like no one’s going to play fast if they don’t want to. They’ll always find a way around it or they’ll take the fine. It’s just, I feel like as a group, everyone has to decide, “Okay, we want to play fast.” 

Q: The LPGA Tour has done a very good job in terms of playing events all over the world. You have a pretty diverse amount of competition from all over the world also. How do we continue to grow the game? How do we continue to make progress and make the game inclusive to all? 

A: I think making it more accessible in the U.S. is important because golf is very expensive. If you’re a young kid getting into sports, probably most parents are not going to pick golf because it’s a super expensive sport and everyone knows that. So I feel like just making it more accessible, I don’t know how to do that, but just give people more opportunities. I know The First Tee does a really good job of doing that and making golf fun and accessible for young kids of all ages. I don’t know. I feel like if we can figure out how to include more people by making it less expensive is always the best way to go.

Photo Credit: https://www.worldinvitational.golf/at-a-glance/

Q: The European Tour has partnered with the LPGA and Ladies European Tours for the ISPS Handa World Invitational, where the men and women play on the same course at the exact same time. Do we need more crossover events like that? Do you ever see the LPGA Tour doing the same thing with the PGA Tour?

A: I don’t know if if it will ever happen, but I definitely think it’s the best way to grow the LPGA because whatever the PGA Tour does, it works, and they’re super successful. And I think if we could somehow tag team with them and grow the LPGA a little bit, get more of the LPGA personalities out there so that the world can see that we’re more than just golfers and we’re all fun too—we see more of that on the PGA Tour than we see on our Tour. So if we can find a way to either do a tournament or matches with PGA players, I feel like it could only help us. And it’s something that I think would be great for the game.

Q: Are there any golf courses that you’d like to see added to the current LPGA schedule? 

A: I don’t think so. In the next few years, our majors have some great courses in the lineup – some really famous courses – and just having women play on historic courses is a great way to grow the game. At one point, women weren’t even allowed to play at some of these locations. We have some wonderful courses coming up like the U.S. Open, KPMG and the British Open, so I’m looking forward to all of those.

Q: What sort of hobbies do you have in your spare time? What do you like to do when you’re not playing on Tour? 

A: My favorite thing to do is go shopping – it’s kind of an addiction. I’ve been trying to cut down my spending recently. I just enjoy fashion, so shopping is a lot of fun for me. I like to get my nails done. I also enjoy doing anything outside like hiking, fishing with my dad, going to the beach, or anything away from golf when I’m at home. I try to have a few different hobbies. I took up tennis over quarantine which was fun. It’s something I want to do more of in the offseason because it’s a fun way to get some exercise.

Q: What kind of music do you like to listen to?

A: Anything really. I like a lot of pop and country music, but I’m not committed to one genre.

Dan + Shay, one of Lauren’s favorite bands. Photo Credit: https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory/dan-shay-found-time-reflection-global-success-79421456

Q: Who’s your favorite singer or band at the moment? Who are you listening to the most right now? 

A: Dan + Shay are two country artists that I like a lot. I’ve been to one of their concerts. They’re probably one of my top ones right now.

Q: What sort of advice do you have for amateur golfers who are looking to break 100 for the first time? What’s one tip that you would give them that might make the difference in them finally achieving that goal? 

A: You’ve got to work on your short game. I feel like a lot of amateurs just want to go to the range and they know how to hit the ball better. If you’re not hitting it crazy off-line, the best way to improve your scoring is just by getting it in the hole more quickly. You have to do that on the putting green and by chipping around the green. Working on getting your short game as good as possible is going to help improve your score, and over time you’ll eventually hit the ball better.

Q: Do you have a particular drill that you could recommend that amateurs can practice? 

A: I don’t have a particular drill, but with putting, really focus on speed control. A lot of times, amateurs will get on the green with a 20-foot putt, and they hit it 10 feet over. Speed control is super important.

Q: If you ever decide to step away from playing golf full-time down the road, would you still do something else to remain involved in the sport, like becoming an instructor or maybe doing something on the broadcasting side? Have you ever given any thought to that? 

A: I have, and I really have no idea what I would want to do. I don’t know if I will want to stay in golf. When I was growing up, I always just assumed that I would want to, but I think those feelings might change. I know that I don’t really have any interest in being a golf instructor because I simply don’t know enough in that regard and that would take a lot of learning. Staying in the game would definitely be of interest to me, I just really don’t know what I would want to do.

Q: Have you ever had a hole in one? 

A: I’ve had eight now! 

Q: Simply amazing, I love it. 

A: {Laughter} I had one recently a couple weeks ago, the day before my birthday at a tournament in a practice round, so that was pretty fun. 

Q: That’s a great birthday gift right there. What are your future goals moving forward on Tour, both for the rest of the season, as well as looking forward to next year? What goals have you set for yourself on Tour? 

A: I’m not one to set specific goals like, “I want to achieve this by certain date.” My goal is to try to get better each week and to continue to learn. I can’t control whether I play good enough or finish well enough to make the Solheim Cup. I have to focus on the short-term, like what I have to work on, what I need to improve on. Long-term, I want to win on Tour and build a successful resume. I also want to be on the Solheim Cup team. I was not really in the running this year, but I was close enough that I could have been if I had some better finishes. It’s exciting to know that I can achieve that at some point in the future. For me, it’s just trying to continue to grow every tournament and every year I’ve been on tour, I feel like I’ve learned so much.

Q: What sort of advice do you have for young golfers in general who are just starting to pick up the game?

A: Just have fun. Golf has taken me a lot of places. I have made pretty much all of my friends through golf, and at a young age, that was something I enjoyed. I enjoy going to tournaments, meeting new people, and making new friends. That’s what I really like about golf. I feel like taking those opportunities to meet new people, whether you’re playing at your home club or playing with three other guys or whatever, just enjoying the friendly aspects of the game and enjoying spending that time with other people.

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