Miniature Golfer: Lauren Thibodeau
She was 8, and had already scored her first hole-in-one. But golf, says Lauren Thibodeau, is like a puzzle that can never be solved, so she’s planning on still playing when she’s 80.
Practice may not make you "perfect" in the challenging and ever-changing game of golf, but it can win you a lot of medals.
Photo by Tanya Lacourse
David Thibodeau clearly remembers the day seven years ago when his daughter found her passion. It was a day like most others, save that Thibodeau’s wife, Kristen, had scheduled a golf lesson for the couple’s then 6-year-old daughter, Lauren. A psychologist for the Derry School District, Kristen had booked the lesson at the urging of a colleague who had observed Lauren’s athleticism and heard that the youngster had enjoyed playing miniature golf at summer camp. Still, as the appointment approached, Lauren seemed indifferent and David voiced reluctance about taking her, thinking it might be too expensive. But he relented and drove Lauren from the family’s Hampstead home to the nearby Atkinson Resort & Country Club.
There they met teaching pro Marc Spencer, who made a good first impression. “When he first walked up to her, he says, ‘OK Lauren, today I’m going to teach you something you’re going to be able to play until you’re in your 80s,” David recalls. “She started hitting the ball pretty well right away. I figured at 6 years old, she would just toss the club down after a few minutes and say, ‘I’m tired.’ But she didn’t. It kind of surprised me.”
With no previous exposure to the game — neither David nor Kristen played golf — Lauren was like a blank canvas. Spencer remembers a pupil who seemed mature beyond her years and was willing to follow his suggestions without the fear of failure that plagues so many adult golfers. And David recalls a moment when Lauren paused in the middle of her backswing to glance back at Spencer and ask if she had executed the move properly. After Spencer replied affirmatively, Lauren looked back down and struck the ball purely.
“Marc elbows me and says, ‘If you or I ever did that, take our eye off the ball, we’d totally whiff,’ ” says David, an electronics engineer.
Whether because of Spencer’s welcoming way or the preternatural aptitude she displayed, Lauren emerged from her lesson hooked. “We were driving back, and Lauren says, ‘Daddy, that was fun. I want to be a golf pro,’” David says.
Since that first lesson, Lauren has become a golf phenom. After turning 8 she started playing in tournaments around New England with other kids her age, and at 11 she shocked the field at the 2011 New Hampshire Women’s Golf Association Junior Championship, beating girls up to six years her senior to win the 18-hole tournament in Manchester. That same summer, she scored her first hole-in-one while competing in the Optimist International Junior Golf Championships in Florida.
As a 12-year-old last year, Lauren repeated as the NHWGA junior champion while playing a slate of tournaments in New England and beyond. During consecutive weeks in July and August, she finished fifth in her age group at the Optimist tournament and shared ninth place among 12-year-old girls at the US Kids World Championship in Pinehurst, N.C. And upon returning home, Lauren finished tenth competing against the state’s top female amateurs at the NHWGA Championship in Hanover.
When not competing, Lauren can usually be found honing her game at Windham Country Club, her home course. “She absolutely loves to play,” says Joanne Flynn, Windham’s director of golf and Lauren’s instructor for the last five seasons. “She’s driven. I think when some [other kids] are more apt to run to the mall, she’s running to the practice tee.”
As a new season dawns, Lauren is preparing for another run of state and regional tournaments while hoping to break into the American Junior Golf Association, the nation’s elite junior circuit, her father says. Moreover, she’s planning to enter regional qualifying tournaments for four United States Golf Association national championships: the US Girls’ Junior, the US Women’s Amateur, the US Women’s Amateur Public Links and the US Women’s Open.
Photo by Tanya Lacourse
While amassing credentials that could eventually earn her a college golf scholarship, Lauren dreams of one day making the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association, the major leagues of women’s golf. Although she hails from a state known more for ski slopes than fairways, she wouldn’t be the first Granite State girl to achieve such heights. Jane Blalock, who grew up in Portsmouth, starred on the LPGA in the 1970s and ’80s along with Pat Bradley, a Massachusetts native who grew up playing at Nashua Country Club. And Bedford-bred Tina Tombs played the LPGA for more than a decade, winning a tournament in 1990.
Now 13 and a seventh-grader at Hampstead Middle School, Lauren is in her second year of physical training at the Parisi Speed School, a youth athletic performance enhancement program offered in Haverhill, Mass. She also has two decorative signs in her bedroom that read “Dream” and “Believe,” signs that she’ll often hang on the back of her parents’ front seats during long drives to tournaments.
Despite her accomplishments and focus, Lauren figures to face fierce competition as she ascends the golfing ranks. A generation of young international stars that includes several players from golf-mad South Korea has dominated the LPGA in recent years. And teenagers like Lydia Ko, a South Korean who grew up in New Zealand and last August became the youngest LPGA tournament winner in history at 15, are increasingly making their mark. Cognizant that success as a tour pro is a long shot, David and Kristen have encouraged Lauren’s aspirations while seeking to keep her grounded. “I’ve said, ‘Look, if you want to be on the LPGA, you can do it,’ ” David says. “We’re trying to find a balance of not discouraging her, but not saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’re going to be an LPGA pro, no problem, you’re the greatest.’ ”
Still, when asked what she enjoys most about golf, Lauren suggests with her answer that she’s someone who relishes a challenge. “It’s that you’re never really going to master the game,” she says. “It’s like a puzzle that can never get solved.”
So your 6-year-old daughter takes a golf lesson and decides she wants to be a pro. What next?
That was the question David and Kristen faced back in 2006, and being nongolfers they were flying blind. Although the game was first popularized in this country a century ago by a working-class kid named Francis Ouimet, who as a 20-year-old amateur defeated legendary English professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray to win the 1913 US Open outside Boston, golf has long been viewed as a country-club sport most accessible to those with means.
It’s a game with hidebound traditions, strict rules and a code of etiquette. As such, it can be intimidating to newcomers. “I didn’t know how to keep score, and I didn’t know the rules,” Kristen recalls. “It’s challenging to try to figure out the culture.” Adds David: “It did take a while, a good year-and-a-half or two years, to really get comfortable with it.”
Fortunately, the Thibodeaus had guidance. As they contemplated how to introduce Lauren to tournament play, Spencer recommended US Kids Golf Foundation local tours, which offer kids age-appropriate competition. “They set up golf courses to the [children’s] ability,” says Spencer, who over the past decade has coached several junior standouts, including Joe Leavitt, the 2011 New Hampshire Golf Association junior champion and 2012 NHGA State Amateur winner who’s now a scholarship player for Florida Southern College. “Parents get to caddy for the kids to help them out a little bit, count [strokes] for them and show them what it’s about.” Although there is no US Kids local tour in New Hampshire, Lauren started out playing the local tours in the Boston and Hartford areas, with David or Kristen usually serving as her caddy. Through conversations with other parents, the couple learned the tournament ropes, becoming familiar with golf’s conventions and fluent in its lingo.
Golf really is a family affair for the Thibodeaus.
Photo by Tanya Lacourse
At the 2007 suggestion of a late family acquaintance, Dot Quigley — whose son, Dana, is a well-known competitor on the Champions Tour for pros 50 and older — Lauren also became involved with The First Tee of New Hampshire, the state chapter of a national youth initiative that seeks to build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through golf. Established in 2003, the chapter offers programs that teach kids golf and life skills primarily at the Sagamore Golf Center in North Hampton. “We believe that golf expects you to behave in a special way, with honesty and integrity, that’s different from other sports,” says Jim Blalock, The First Tee of New Hampshire’s lead coach and the younger brother of Jane Blalock, the former LPGA standout. “Our primary goal is not to make better golfers, but to make better kids.”
Not long after meeting Lauren, Blalock began noticing qualities that reminded him of similar traits in his well-known sister. “I was amazed by her golf skills,” he says. “I was captivated by her love of the game. She loved being on a golf course, and you could see it in the smile on her face.” While helping Lauren develop as a golfer, The First Tee has taught her how to set goals and approach others with confidence, David says. “They teach [kids] how to introduce themselves, how to look a person in the eye and how to be confident about it, and she has really internalized that,” he says.
Because of her First Tee involvement, Lauren was invited to play alongside some former LPGA greats at last June’s Hannaford Community Challenge, a tournament on the Legends Tour for women pros 45 and older. Staged in Falmouth, Maine, the 36-hole event paired Legends Tour competitors with kids from The First Tee’s Maine and New Hampshire chapters during the first round. One of Lauren’s playing partners was Sherri Steinhauer, an eight-time LPGA winner. “I was just really in awe of her game,” the 50-year-old Wisconsin native says. “It brought back memories of when I was 12. I definitely didn’t have the talent that she has, although at that time in my state when I competed I was considered a very good player. But it just goes to show how times are changing and kids are getting better younger and younger.”
Before departing for Florida and North Carolina last July, Lauren played a quick nine holes on the par-3 course at Derry’s Brookstone Golf & Driving Range. With a long ponytail waving through the back of her golf cap, she strode buoyantly to the first tee and peered through her handheld laser rangefinder to gauge her exact distance to the flagstick. After selecting a club, she teed up her ball, assumed her stance and swung. Crisply struck, her shot landed softly on the green, about 20 feet from the hole. A few moments later, she rapped her uphill birdie putt boldly into the cup.
Although golf consumes Lauren from St. Patrick’s Day to Veterans Day, she’s in a select chorus at school, participates in a church youth group and skis.
Photo by Tanya Lacourse
“We want her to have balance, but it’s tough sometimes,” Kristen says. “Golf takes a ton of time.” Not to mention considerable money. For an elite junior golfer, tournament fees, travel, a course membership, lessons and equipment can cost thousands annually. Of course, the prospect of a college scholarship makes the expense easier for some parents to swallow. But despite Lauren’s talent, her parents aren’t banking on a full ride just yet. “We’re not pressuring her,” Kristen says. “It’s great if that’s the goal, but it’s important to me that she’s happy and she’s doing what she wants to do.” Adds David: “If she turned around and said, ‘I don’t want to play golf anymore,’ we’re not going to force her to do it.”
Thanks in no small measure to the way David and Kristen have cultivated their daughter’s interest in golf, it appears Lauren is more likely to make it big than walk away, a notion that her round at Brookstone underscored. After missing a green on one hole, Lauren faced a difficult chip shot from heavy grass. But with characteristic aplomb, she chipped her ball into the hole for a birdie, eliciting cheers from a foursome of duffers watching nearby and a shout out from one:
“When I see you playing on the tour, I’ll say I played with you,” he said.
– Mike Cullity is the golf columnist for the New Hampshire Sunday News.
Golf for Kids
Golf’s reputation as an open-air business mixer for adults is legendary. Getting people out for a nice walk with some friendly competition builds good relationships. Apply that same concept to the family and you’ll understand why many parents are bringing their kids with them when they take to the links. You don’t have to be training the next Tiger Woods and your kid doesn’t have to bring home trophies to benefit from the mental and physical fitness that comes with a good golf swing. Here are a few programs to get the youngsters ready for the back nine.
Sagamore-Hampton Golf Club
- Hosts the First Tee NH program
- Ages: 5-17
- Contact: thefirstteenh.org
Sky Meadow Jr. Golf
- Ages: 4-11
- Various summer camps, clinics and lessons offered
- Contact: skymeadow.com, (603) 888-9000
Seth Dichard Golf Schools
Lil’ Chipper’s Golf School
- Juniors program: ages 4-16
- Teaching the future of the sport in a relaxed environment
- Contact: sethdichardgolf.com, (603) 860-9893
Foster’s Golf Camp
- 20th Anniversary this year
- Largest junior golf camp in New Hampshire
- 4-1 instructor, student ratio for week long session that includes at least nine holes of golf a day
- 1 on 1 driving range lessons
- Contact: fostersgolfcamp.com, (603) 622-1553
World Cup Golf Center Junior Golf Camp
- Location: Hudson
- Ages: 12-17
- Started 10 years ago to provide opportunity in the area for kids to learn and play golf every day
- Contact: worldcupgolfcenter.com, (603) 598-3838
Windham Country Club Juniors Program
- Ages: 10-17
- Individual and group instruction, multi-day camps for beginners, day clinics for more advanced juniors
- Contact: windhamcc.com, (603) 434-2093
Atkinson Resort and Country Club
- Three-day junior golf clinics at the Willowcreek Golf Academy
- Age: 10-16
- Focuses on the basics from putting to full swings. Includes lunch, golf, a gift, and a round on their Nine Hole Par 3 course
- Contact: atkinsonresort.com, (603) 362-8700
Manchester Country Club
- Ages: 6-16
- 3 clinics per year — occasionally available to non-members
- Contact: manchestercountryclub.com, (603) 624-4096
Sticks for Kids Program
- Sponsored by: National Recreation and Park Association and GCBAA Foundation
- Ages: 5-18
- Supports underprivileged children who otherwise would not have the opportunity to learn and respect the game of golf. Provides clubs, bags, and instructors at participating courses.
- Contact: sticksforkids.org