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September 1, 2015

The Will to Compete

After facing a devastating setback, LPGA Tour golfer Maria Hernandez grinded it out on the range to return to competition

BY: TONY L. STARKS

During my first few trips to Maderas Golf Club in 2014, I recall seeing a petite figure at the end of the practice range. The picturesque golf swing repeated itself time, after time, after time again. And, at that time, I had no idea who this swing belonged to. I came to learn that its owner is LGPA Tour golfer Maria Hernandez. The story of how, and why, she groomed that swing is as captivating as the motion itself.

Hernandez first learned the game in her home country of Spain. Her parents took her to a practice range when she was 12, where she was hooked after only a few swings.

“They asked me if I wanted to try, I said ‘Yeah sure,’” Hernandez told me while sitting in a golf car on the range at Maderas, in Poway, California. “I tried and I just loved it instantly.” That love would transform her into one of the top junior and amateur golfers in Spain by the time she left high school. She received numerous collegiate offers from schools in the United States, and while she wanted nothing more than to compete at the highest level, something was deterring her.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to come to the States; the best golf is in the U.S. But I think I got scared because my English wasn’t good enough,” said Hernandez, her Spanish accent still distinct and appreciable. “I think that’s why I freaked out at the last second when I was going to commit (to playing college golf in America). Then I decided to let the school know I’m not coming.”

She tussled with her decision. She knew that if she stayed home and “went to university” in Spain it would be a radically different experience than going in the U.S.

Rigorous course loads mandated by Spanish universities make it nearly impossible to play a sport at the highest levels. The time commitment needed for academia just wouldn’t allow it. She settled on studying architecture. But Devon Brouse, the persistent head golf coach from Purdue University, wouldn’t give up on the talented young Spaniard. “He kept calling, calling, calling. And finally I told him, OK, I’ll come for two days,” said Hernandez. That two-day trip turned out to be the start of the rest of her life. She went on to win 13 times in four years at Purdue, including the NCAA individual championship in 2009. She made it through LPGA Qualifying School on the first try.

Shortly after turning pro, things took an unexpected turn. Experts at the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, California told her that her swing was causing so much damage to her neck and spine that she was in danger of crippling herself in the future. “I had some pain, and people told me something else was coming. But I never really believed it until the day it came,” said Hernandez, staring out beyond the Maderas range. She awoke some mornings and couldn’t feel her hands or feet. A herniated disc was pinching nerves in her spine – getting out of bed became a labor. She put down her clubs and returned home to Spain for six months, where her father’s bout with cancer had also taken a turn for the worst.

When she returned, she set out with instructor Chris Mayson to completely overhaul her swing. They forged a new motion that wouldn’t cause harm to her body, while also generating Tour-quality results. The end product is that picturesque swing I mentioned at the start of this story. But it wasn’t easily achieved. “I was here (at Maderas Golf Club) with Chris bright and early in the morning with the sunrise. And with the sun setting, we’re still here on the driving range,” said Hernandez. “I remember times coming home and my hands hurting so much with the amount of balls I hit. We thought it was going to be a lot faster, but at the end of the day we had to change my entire golf swing. My backswing, my downswing, absolutely everything.”

It’s been a three-year process, and a process that’s still ongoing. With the new swing engrained, and her health no longer a concern, Hernandez can now focus on the type of practice that will improve her scoring. “Now I do a lot of playing, chipping and putting – compared to when I was working on the swing change. I still put in the hours on the range, but before all my work was done on the range,” detailed the 28-year-old. “Now I’ll go play, then hit balls for an hour, then go play more, then putt and chip, then maybe come back and hit balls for 30-40 minutes.” How exactly does she spend her time on the practice range these days? Much of Hernandez’s work is to ensure that her takeaway is on line and that the club doesn’t get caught too far inside on the downswing. She uses alignment rods to accomplish this.

Hernandez continues to battle her way back into the championship form she’s accustomed to. She currently sits at 100th on the 2015 LPGA Tour Money List and has made 11 cuts this year – with her best finish being T19 at the Kia Classic, played in her backyard at Aviara Golf Club outside San Diego. But given everything she’s overcome, you can expect to see her return to top form. “I knew I was coming back. I knew I was going to fight and work hard. I never had a doubt that I was coming back to play. The doctors and people around me were more concerned that I was,” she said with an air of grit. “I’m doing the right things and now we can see improvement. Improving on one thing each week. So I’m staying patient and the scores will come.”