Kelli Bowers suffered a back injury while playing for the University of Washington women’s golf team at the NCAA East Regional tournament in May 2012, but she tried to not let it affect her.
That was hard for her to do, though. The Chelan graduate couldn’t swing a club the way she was used to without experiencing searing pain. She figured that her back might start to feel better during the ensuing summer with some rest, but that hope, too, went unfulfilled.
When she returned to Seattle last fall, Bowers tried to play, of course. Being a good, reliable teammate is important to her, and she didn’t want any of her teammates or coaches to think that she wasn’t capable of living up to their expectations for her.
But in the end, the pain won out. Bowers played in just three tournaments in September and October before succumbing to the realization that something had to be done about her back. She didn’t play competitively again for months.
But when she did return to the course, she did so with a new swing, a new outlook and a new vigor for the game.
She also accomplished something that for many golfers is a dream-come-true experience — qualifying for a major tournament.
Bowers will play at the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open, to be held Thursday through Sunday at Sebonack Golf Club in Southhampton, N.Y.
Bowers qualified for the Open by taking one of the top two spots at a 36-hole sectional qualifier held at Waverly Country Club in Portland last month.
“I’m speechless, to be honest,” said Bowers, who last week participated in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship in Norman, Okla., before flying to New York to prepare for the Open. “It really hasn’t hit me yet. It’s surreal to know that I’m going to be in a tournament with players that I’ve watched on television. These are the best players (in the world), and I’ve idolized them, so I’m obviously overly excited; I can’t express how excited I am. When I get there, I think it will start to sink in.”
“A lot of good golfers never get to do (something like this), so we’re really excited,” said Bowers’ father, Larry, who has been serving as Kelli’s caddy. “Her back is not bothering her, so it’s great to get this kind of tournament experience moving forward.”
Hard work pays off
Playing in a major tournament was the furthest thing from Bowers’ mind last fall, however.
Medical tests conducted in Seattle revealed that she had a stress fracture in her back.
That meant that she’d have to miss most of her junior season at UW. That fact devastated her.
“It was one of the hardest things (I’ve had to go through) in athletics,” she said. “I’ve never had an injury that kept me out a whole season before. It only made me stronger mentally and physically. I had to work hard; I could’ve let (the injury) defeat me or motivate me, and I chose the right path.” Before returning to the links, Bowers had to undergo a rigorous rehabilitation process, working dutifully with UW athletic trainer Cristina Getto.
“I had lots of physical therapy,” she said. “Five days a week, up to two hours a day. I did aquatic work, stretching, abdominal work, everything you could imagine. I had painful massages. Cristina knew exactly what to do to get me healed.”
Once she felt good enough to play golf again, she knew that she had to change her swing so that the injury wouldn’t flare up again.
“It was an overhaul,” she said. “I had developed some poor habits, so I had to change my entire swing. I had a few months to work on it; I started with proper back posture, which was my main problem. After a month and a half of that, once I got the feeling, it wasn’t that hard to transition to the new swing. It felt way better; the stress on my back was no longer there.
“Now I’m 100 percent and as strong as I possibly can be. Typically, I don’t feel (pain); sometimes at night I’m a bit sore, and when I’m walking I’ll feel a pinch in my lower back, but it’s nothing like it was. Basically, as long as take care of my body and use the proper swing, it won’t be an issue. If I get lazy and go back to the old habits, (the injury) could come back.”
Change in perspective
Playing in the U.S. Women’s Open should help Bowers going forward in a variety of ways.
Her mother, Carol, thinks that playing in prestigious tournaments that don’t involve team scoring will help Kelli with her individual game.
“It’s changed her mindset a bit,” Carol said. “Before, she wasn’t interested in the LPGA; she’s always been more of a team person. She’s been a (UW) captain the last couple of years, and the team has been (comprised of) international players, and Kelli’s done a lot to take care of them and get them situated. I think maybe that sucked the life out of her a little bit. She got away from the team this spring, and playing in (the Amateur Public Links Championship and U.S. Women’s Open), she’s rethinking things.
“She’s more relaxed. She’s not playing for the team; she’s playing for herself, and you can see a difference in her attitude. She’s not as stressed. It’s a different Kelli we’re seeing now. She’s having fun.”
“I definitely think it’s helped me personally with my golf game, to be able to step aside (from the team environment for awhile),” Kelli said. “I’m used to doing everything I can to help others. Finally this summer I got a chance to focus on me. If I get better as an individual, that will help the team get better. I think it’s a definite positive.”
Bowers, who won four 1A state titles while playing for Chelan, made an immediate impact at UW. As a freshman, her 76.26 scoring average was third on the team, and she led UW at the NCAA Championship, shooting 9-over par to tie for 26th, the second-best finish ever at the tournament by a Husky freshman.
Her sophomore year, she was fourth on the team with a 76.12 scoring average, had four top-20 finishes and shot under par twice, including an opening-round 71 at the NCAA East Regional.
“(My time at UW) has been more (fulfilling) than I ever imagined it would be,” she said. “The people that I get to work with every day… it’s a family there to take care of you. It’s been an amazing transition from a small town to the big city. I wouldn’t change a thing about my decision.”
Bowers struggled a bit at the Amateur Links championship (she finished with a two-day total of 158, missing the cut by five strokes), but she’s optimistic that she can play better this week in New York.
Larry said that if Kelli can play to her potential, she could be near even par Thursday and Friday and have a good chance of making the cut to advance to weekend play.
“I’m focusing on my game plan,” she said. “I’m ready to go, and confident. I’m blessed to have this opportunity, and (hopefully) everything is going to work out the way it’s supposed to.”