Editor’s note: North Texas golfer Gerina Piller wrote the following “In Her Own Words” article as part of the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s “Drive On” campaign that promotes the women’s professional golf tour along with the LPGA’s ongoing effort to create greater opportunity for women and “celebrate the hard work, focus, and tenacity that it takes to achieve our goals.” Here’s a link to a video introducing the article.
When you think of a professional golfer, what image comes to mind?
Do you see a junior athlete being groomed on the pristine fairways of a private country club? A family room full of amateur trophies, framed scorecards and news clippings? My background in golf is different. That history, where I came from, is what continues to drive me today.
I am a 10-year veteran of the LPGA Tour, one of only two players in LPGA history from New Mexico. The other is the legendary Nancy Lopez, who went to the same high school I did.
My parents got divorced when I was four. My mother, my two brothers and I were products of welfare until Mom decided that she had to turn things around.
We moved to Portales, New Mexico, where Mom enrolled in Eastern New Mexico University to get her degree in Phys Ed. She wanted to be a PE coach, to affect the bodies and minds of elementary school kids. We lived in the dorm. Mom and I shared one room and my two brothers shared another. She worked three jobs to keep us above water. One of our proudest family moments was attending her graduation.
We then moved back to Roswell, a town of about 48,000 people in the middle of the desert, a place where everyone knows each other and where not a lot of people leave.
Roswell has a long history of developing great athletes. We always had winning teams in almost every sport. I played on a championship volleyball team and had success in other sports as well.
I was 15 years old before I took up golf. That’s ancient by today’s standards. Mom couldn’t afford golf, and she didn’t have the time to take me and my brothers to separate sports. If I was going to play sports, it was with my brothers. So I grew up playing baseball and basketball with them.
When I finally took up golf, I loved it. It was the individual challenge that I found so appealing. In volleyball, I could play great and if the rest of my team struggled, we wouldn’t win. Or I could have a bad game and my teammates could carry us. Golf was different. If I posted a good score, it was on me. If I struggled, I was completely exposed. I relished that pressure.
And I was pretty good at it. My high school coach, Becky Robertson, taught me how to be prepared, how to work alone without getting distracted and how to be ready for anything. Those lessons not only helped me in golf, they also prepared me for life. By my senior year, I won my high school state championship. And, I felt ready to play at the next level.
Because I started golf late, no colleges recruited me. I never traveled the junior-golf circuit; never played in the AJGA. My senior year of high school, I qualified to play in the Junior PGA Championship. Inbee Park and Michelle Wie were in the field but I barely knew who they were. I’d never played with either of them. In fact, I’d never experienced anything like that event. When I arrived on the driving range, my name was on a placard. I almost hyperventilated. When I played pretty well, a standard bearer showed up with my name on a sign, which completely freaked me out. This was a world I’d never seen.
Mom remarried and my stepdad helped me put a VHS tape together of my golf swing. It wasn’t spoken out loud, but I needed a full scholarship if I wanted to go to college. While there was some urgency about getting an offer, I had two priorities: I was looking for a college that would challenge me academically and had a golf team where I could play while being pushed by better players. That school turned out to be the University of Texas El Paso, 200 miles from home, with a coach – Jere Pelleteir – who saw enough potential to give me a scholarship.
Jere became my swing coach and helped me win four college tournaments my senior year. I was also the Conference USA Player of the Year and earned my degree in mathematics.
Other players have similar stories. The coach who made an impact in a young player’s life; parents who helped put a tape together for college applications. These small steps may not seem big at the time but, in my case, they were game changers.
I qualified for the Symetra Tour after graduation and played there for three seasons before earning my LPGA Tour card. During those lean years, I had plenty of doubts. But they hardened me. They prepared me for the next steps.
As I enter my 10th year on the LPGA Tour, I look back at my past and ahead to my future with a lot of perspective. Yes, I hope to win and win often. I’ve put myself in position many times. Sometimes, I’ve let the moment overwhelm me and failed to close out the victory. Other times, I’ve played great and others have played better.
In Germany in 2015, I was blessed to be in position to hole one of the defining putts for the U.S. team’s victory in the Solheim Cup. It was the the largest comeback in Solheim Cup history, and the biggest moment of my career.
Whether it’s a high like winning the Solheim Cup or a low like losing a tournament, I feel as though I’d developed the right perspective. Of course, winning is important. You keep score in sports for a reason. But I don’t measure my success by wins. There’s a new winner every week in golf. Once you capture your first title, the question is always: When will you win again? Or when will you win a major?
I decided early on that I wouldn’t let victories define me. If I won every week but had no impact on the world, no positive influence on a fan or failed to leave the Tour better than I found it, then I wouldn’t consider my career a success.
I want to be available to fans. I want to let them know that athletes are not a breed apart. We care. We are given a platform and it’s our responsibility to use that platform to inspire others – young and old; girls and boys.
So I’m still pushing. My husband and I have a little boy now and I’m working hard – every day – to be the best mother, wife and golfer I can be. I have no intentions of quitting. I couldn’t dishonor the example set by Mom. And I couldn’t do it to my son, A.J. I never want my child to think that his mother gave up her career for him. And, I don’t want him to hear that his mother was a good player; I want him to see it.
One of my callings in life is to use my voice. My route, my upbringing, my story has definitely not been glamorous. Kids see professional athletes and assume our paths have been easy. Nothing could be further from the truth. There have been setbacks. There will always be setbacks, for me, for my mom and for many others. Without setbacks, there can be no progress. Without failures, no one can be inspired by success. Where I’m from is a big part of who I am today.