Most golf fans know that fourth-year LPGA Tour player Cheyenne Woods is the niece of PGA Tour superstar Tiger Woods.
And many know that it was another member of her family, grandfather Earl Woods – father of Tiger – who introduced her to golf.
But there is another branch of her golf family that has played a key role in the LPGA player’s life for about 20 years -- and that family, the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program, is one for which Woods feels a long-standing appreciation in helping her reach her own goals.
“I joined the Girls Golf program around age 7, and it was a great environment to introduce kids to golf,” said Woods, 27, who grew up in Phoenix. “There were girls my age and it was fun, and whether we were playing in father-daughter tournaments or dressing up for Halloween and playing golf in the dark, it was something that really, really got me tied to the game.”
Woods got started in golf around age 5 or 6. She and her mother would go to the local park and hit balls. When the youngster showed a growing interest in the game, her mom researched different programs in the Greater Phoenix area and found what was called the Girls Golf Club, which later became the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program.
“I was young and it was the most fun thing I had ever done,” recalls Woods, who remained in the program while in high school.
The program, designed especially for girls ages 6-17, also fit into her grandfather’s idea of how to engage children and spark their interest in golf.
“He liked that the Girls Golf program would have young girls tee off from the middle of the fairway to make it more fun for their skill level,” added Woods. “It went along with my grandfather’s philosophy to make it realistic, fun and create a good experience with golf while learning at the same time.”
While Woods could watch her uncle Tiger win tournaments on TV and dream her own big dreams, she was also watching Phoenix resident Grace Park achieve at every level. Park was a standout junior and high school player, and later became an NCAA champion at Arizona State University before moving on to become a winner on the LPGA Tour.
“Grace was always around and she was a superstar,” said Woods, who went on to play college golf at Wake Forest University, where she was a two-time All-American and the 2011 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) individual champion.
“I thought it was really cool that Grace went to my high school for a year and I always watched how she played and carried herself,” added Woods. “Growing up in Phoenix, she was the one.”
Woods developed her skills in the Girls Golf program and was undeterred when she finished last in the very first tournament she played. She was having too much fun to be upset, she reasoned, and besides, all of her friends were right there with her. The goal was to just come back the next time and play better.
Keeping the game fun was the whole idea of the Girls Golf program when it was founded in 1989 by Phoenix-based LPGA teaching professional Sandy LaBauve.
When the time came to teach her daughters golf, LaBauve used the same model her mother, Sherry Lumpkin, had used to teach her. She added games and fun drills into golf lessons, allowing the girls to improve their skills while enjoying the process.
From that pilot program, LaBauve developed a manual for other golf professionals to use in creating their own junior golf programs for girls. Now, more than 415 communities in the United States have a Girls Golf program, reaching some 70,000 girls each year. Program graduates include Woods and other current LPGA players such as Brittany Lincicome, Morgan Pressel, Mariah Stackhouse and Vicky Hurst.
“I think it’s great how the LPGA has built a relationship with Girls Golf because a lot of us came through that program,” said Woods, who posted two top-15 finishes last year and a career-best tie for sixth at the 2016 Cambia Portland Classic. “I know how much of an impact it had on me as a girl and as a golfer.”
“Now, I love being that LPGA representative to show the girls that even LPGA professionals care that they are learning and enjoying the game and we’re here to help,” added Woods. “I try to stay involved with my [hometown] program and to come home and feel like I’m making a difference.”
Last week at the LPGA Tour’s stop in Phoenix for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, Woods had some special followers in her gallery. Just as Woods followed her uncle and watched hometown star Grace Park as a junior, the girls from the Phoenix LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program were there following their favorite LPGA player -- maybe even dreaming of following in her footsteps some day.
“When you are behind the ropes and see little girls waiting for you at the end of the round, it’s just so cool,” added Woods. “I remember as a young girl, any tiny thing from a professional golfer meant the world to me. I used to be one of them, so I just want to show them what’s possible.”
Woods definitely feels a connection to Phoenix golf. Her coach, Mike LaBauve, is the husband of Sandy LaBauve, who founded the Girls Golf program. Now her longtime friend from junior golf, Cori Matheson, is the director of the Girls Golf program in Phoenix, which has given Woods even more reason to help run clinics and work with the juniors whenever she’s in town.
“Over the last four years, I’ve gotten to know them, see them grow up and watch their games mature,” said Woods. “Now some of them are in high school and want to play college golf. It’s great to be a part of that and to see them grow as girls and as golfers.”
Woods experienced a “first” during a recent practice day in the Phoenix Girls Golf program. She was working with 4- and 5-year-old girls when Matheson introduced Woods and asked the girls if they knew who Tiger Woods was? That question was met with squirmy silence.
“For so many years, I’ve been introduced with that connection to the family name and it was just funny those girls had no idea who he was,” laughed Woods. “They were new to the game they were there to have fun.
That is, of course, still the objective. And now that Woods has been involved as a visiting professional long enough to see the older girls in the program begin taking their next big steps, she admits she gets excited at the possibilities that lie ahead.
“I get goose-bumps thinking that I might have had an impact to actually guide somebody’s golf career in a positive way,” she said. “Not everyone wants to play college golf or turn professional, but if I were to have that experience with a girl who comes up through this program, it would be surreal. I think I would get emotional.”
Even when women show up in her pro-am groups on the LPGA Tour or she sees women and girls playing casual rounds of golf, Woods admits she feels a bond that goes all the way back to her days as a girl playing golf with other little girls and developing lifelong friendships.
“It just feels familial, like a natural connection, with all of us playing golf together,” she added.
As the LPGA’s 2018 season rolls on, Woods’ Girls Golf family will be there to cheer her on, just as they always have.