She’s comfortably into the final two rounds of the Symetra Tour Championship, although Ana Belac had hoped for better, especially coming off her first win as a pro at the Carolina Golf Classic. But the first-year player out of Duke is happy to be competing, something she has been doing in multiple sports for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up in a country where golf is not that popular,” Belac, a native of Portoroz, Slovenia, a coastal town along the Adriatic Sea, said earlier this week. “The closest golf course was 45 minutes away and was only 9 holes and was not in the best shape.”
The entire country of Slovenia has only 13 golf courses for its 2.1 million people. That’s about the same population as suburban Charlotte, North Carolina where there are 50 golf courses and another 50 within an hour’s drive. Belac grew up hitting cracked practice balls at a course where she was the only junior. But her parents did a great job of exposing her to the game as well as other sports.
“I was an alpine skier, played tennis and did some track and field,” the 23-year-old said. “But ultimately I stuck with golf and skiing until I was 15. That’s when I started focusing more on golf. I love skiing to death but there are so many injuries in that sport that after consultation with my parents, I focused more on golf.
“Most of the time, I practiced (golf) with my dad, who is not a golf pro, but he did his best. Because the course was so far away, I had to learn time management. I would go to school and practice in the afternoon, but I had to be very efficient with my practice.”
By the time she was 12 years old, Belac was a gifted athlete. Her days on the slopes had given her a lot of lower-body and core strength and tennis had helped her hone her instincts to hit a ball hard. She made the Slovenian National Team before she became a teenager.
“I got good really fast,” she said. “I was riding this wave. I won the first European medal championship for Slovenia when I was 15 and I competed in three world championships.”
While representing her country, she got to know Tim Gornik, who was on the men’s national team but also played golf at Duke. “He was like, ‘Check out Duke. They have a good team and a great coach. You’ll like it.’ So, I thought, okay. I was recruited by other schools but didn’t know much about any of them.
“Then, just before my senior year in high school, (legendary Blue Devils women’s coach) Dan Brooks came to the ANNIKA Junior Invitational in Sweden to recruit me. The first shot he saw me hit there was a hole-in-one. It was the 13th hole at Bro Balsta Golf Club in (Annika Sorenstam’s hometown) in 2015. That’s the only hole-in-one I’ve ever made in my life. I walked to the 13th tee and saw (Coach Brooks) show up in his white pants and blue shirt and I was like, there he is. Then I hit the most terrific shot of my life and it went in the hole.”
A year later she showed up in Durham, N.C. with a golf bag and nothing else. Her suitcase with all her clothes was lost in transit.
“I showed up at my dorm with nothing but my golf clubs,” she said. “A senior, Sandy Choi, took me to Target to buy bedding and towels and everything I needed for my life. My assistant coach brought me clothes. I was completely lost, in a new country trying to figure it out. This is how I started my college career.”
She felt lost, alone and homesick. Duke is academically rigorous, and even more challenging when you’re keeping up an athletic schedule and representing your country. Belac missed two weeks of school her first semester to wear her nation’s colors in the World Amateur Team Championship.
Thankfully, she found some friends. “For two years, I was on a team with Leona and Lisa Maguire,” Belac said. “They’re still my best friends. Just having someone from similar backgrounds, coming from Europe and understanding the help that I needed. I was really lucky.”
She was also lucky to have Brooks, who gambled on Belac’s talent but not her golf swing. In her first year with the Blue Devils, Brooks changed his freshman’s backswing to help her become more consistent. For much of that first year, she couldn’t hit hybrid 150 yards. By her senior year, she flew it more than 200.
“I decided after my sophomore year that I wanted to stay (in America) and play professionally,” she said. “The first two years at Duke I was homesick and didn’t know if I was going to play golf after college. But I was competitive and felt as though I was good enough. I was playing with Leona and she was world No.1 and I could compete.
“I stayed the summer (in America) and started situating myself here, getting myself ready to play professionally.”
Now she is a Symetra Tour winner, a long way from the dingy practice balls and splotchy fairways where she learned the game. And one step closer to a career on the LPGA Tour.