Competitors Discover Passion After Late Start in Game September 17, 2016 | Wellesley, Mass. By David Shefter, USGA

Six years after taking up the game, Californian Nicki Anderson, 60, is competing in a USGA championship. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

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At the age of 54, Nicki Anderson didn’t expect to be learning a new athletic endeavor. Then a friend challenged the California native to a golf match.

Anderson had never picked up a golf club. But she played volleyball at the University of Southern California and later became a competitive equestrian rider, so she figured her athleticism would take over.

“I thought at the time, how hard can it be?” she said.

As it turned out, golf was much more difficult than it looked. Despite struggling mightily, the real estate executive was hooked. 

Golf’s challenge fueled Anderson to succeed, and over time, her game improved. Instruction from Paso Robles Golf Club professional Mike Brabenec sped up the process. Within 18 months, she was breaking 90, and in six years, she is a single-digit handicapper, with a 7.8 Handicap Index.

Last month, the 60-year-old took another significant step in her golf journey by qualifying for the 55th U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship, advancing from a 3-for-2 playoff after shooting 83 on the South Course at Silverado Resort in Napa, Calif.

“It’s totally unbelievable,” said Anderson of the round that brought her to Wellesley Country Club. “I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. It took a long time before it started to sink in.”

Anderson is among a handful of the 132 competitors in this year’s championship who took up golf after turning 40.

For Katherine Moore-Lilly, 60, of Longboat Key, Fla., a high-pressure job in product development for Proctor & Gamble (P&G), as well as raising twin girls, kept her from enjoying recreational activities. Debbie Hughes, 58, of Denver, needed another competitive endeavor after playing semi-professional softball into her 40s.

These competitors are proof that golf is a game of a lifetime, whether one begins as a toddler, teen or in middle age.

“I just love it,” said Anderson, who now lives in Arroyo Grande, Calif. “I am crazy about it.

“It’s a challenge in so many different levels. It’s mental, it’s emotional, it’s how well you can manage yourself, how well you can think under pressure. I could go on and on.”

Katherine Moore-Lilly became hooked on the game at 47 after her husband received a country club membership through his job. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

Like Anderson, Moore-Lilly never thought she’d play the game. Growing up with three brothers in Norman, Okla., she was a “tomboy” and played a lot of sports – just not anything organized and certainly not golf. After working her way through the University of Oklahoma Moore-Lilly focused on her career as chemical engineer, which took her to Belgium and Germany. Her innovations included developing baby wipes and a process to sterilize psyllium through the use of steam to produce a high-fiber snack that aids digestion.

But when her husband, John, whom she met at P&G, became the CEO of Pillsbury in Minneapolis, a perk was a membership at Wayzata Country Club. Having retired at 47, Moore-Lilly was wondering what would fill the void when another member asked why she didn’t play golf.

Moore-Lilly gave it a try and discovered a new passion. At first, she enjoyed the game’s social components, but the drive that helped her career took hold on the course.

“I wanted to get out and meet more women who I can be compatible with as friends,” she said. “I saw that the better players were doing state [and national] competitions. I started entering Minnesota events, Florida events, Colorado events. Together with a free schedule and the financial ability to do it … I knew I could do this.”

A decade later, Moore-Lilly was regularly breaking 80 and winning club championships.

After playing in last year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, she qualified again last month at The Club at Cordillera in Evergreen, Colo., where she is the club champion.

“I love the competition,” she said. “Business is competition. You have big goals, big presentations, the big sales pitch. This doesn’t replace that, but it’s the same avenue.”

Debbie Hughes found golf at 45 after playing competitive softball for 30-plus years. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

In a different competitive arena, Hughes spent a majority of her youth and young adulthood hitting a ball coming at her as fast as 70 miles per hour. She played softball at Azusa Pacific and continued semi-professionally after graduating in 1983. But after turning 45, her physical skills began to decline.

“My reflexes weren’t as good,” admitted Hughes. “Your body doesn’t recoup as quickly. There were younger girls who were way better. So I just stopped.”

Needing another competitive outlet, Hughes turned to a less strenuous activity. At first, golf was an exercise in futility. She often thought about quitting. Then one day while on the range at Green Valley Ranch in Denver, instructor Lana Ortega noticed an athletic swing that needed refining.

“She told me, ‘I really want to work with you. You’re a diamond in the rough,’” said Hughes.

Ortega tightened Hughes’ motion and got it on plane. Hughes, who is semi-retired, became a scratch player and won the Colorado Senior Women’s Match Play Championship two years ago. Since turning 50, she has qualified for five U.S. Senior Women’s Amateurs Championships and two U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateurs, making match play in the 2011 Senior Women’s Amateur at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn.

Hughes’ multiple USGA championship appearances set a great example for Anderson, who is making her USGA debut. After two practice rounds with her instructor, Brabenec, on her bag, Anderson feels comfortable among players who have been playing their entire lives.

“I feel like I do belong here,” she said. “I’m not out of my league.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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