WINTER HAVEN, FLORIDA | She stood in the center of the light green grass, mown so low a hint of brown peeked through. The same could be said for her arms, tanned a little more than expected for this time of year. But that was true for all of them. Brynn Walker was one of about 20 players, bronzed and ready, on the practice green the first Thursday in March, all plying their trade with a handful of balls and every putting implement on the market. If these young women didn’t have what they needed, most of the major manufacturers were no more than 30 yards away, just across another tuft of pristine turf where clubs stood at attention like tin soldiers outside an equipment trailer at the Country Club of Winter Haven.
The first buds of spring can already be seen in central Florida - blue hearts and thistle. It’s a time when the Grapefruit League normally attracts baseball fans from far and wide, Midwesterners who pose for selfies in front of alligators, forgetting – if they ever knew – that these creatures date back to the cretaceous period for a reason. But that crowd, if they have come to Florida at all, are looking for other pastimes. In years past, pitchers and catchers would have been in town for a month. This year, the Epson Tour, the “Road to the LPGA,” is the only game in town. And Walker, one of the brightest and most thoughtful future stars in a developmental league full of them, can’t wait to entertain them.
The glasses she wore to putt on Thursday gave her a professorial air. And the first words out of her mouth just added to what those who have met her assume to be true: This second-year player is a deep thinker with a lot more to offer than made five-footers and numbers on a card. “I got up at 5:00 this morning and wanted to get this (latest blog entry) written and out while it was fresh on my mind,” she said of her latest contribution to LPGA.com, a piece on the childlike anticipation that comes with the start of a new season.
This is the opening week of the Epson Tour. And with the LPGA Tour half a world away in Singapore and baseball in the midst of a work stoppage that looks more and more like a full-blown strike, Walker and the rest of the 132-player field in Winter Haven find themselves in the kind of spotlight they’ve always wanted but may have never seen.
If anyone is ready for the exposure, it’s Walker, an old soul in a 23-year-old athlete’s body.
“The reason I got into golf was my brother who is seven years older,” she said. “He was a football player, a quarterback, and he got so many concussions that he couldn’t play anymore. His homeroom teacher was the golf coach who said, ‘Why don’t you try golf?’ And I said, ‘Well, if he’s going out, I’m going out.’ So, that’s how I got into the game, just tagging along with him.”
The Walkers grew up in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, between Philly and Norristown. The nine-year-old Brynn wanted to be the first woman to play Major League Baseball, so it’s only fitting that the absence of baseball has shone a light on her and her colleagues in this small-town sliver of the Sunshine State.
“My mom and I were at dinner last night – this is her first time out experiencing this - and she was saying, ‘It’s wild to look back at junior golf, then college golf and now here and how each is different,’” Walker said.
Her brother has moved on from the game. He tried to play a little but has opened a marketing company and has just moved to New York. Brynn went in the opposite direction. After a successful college career at UNC-Chapel Hill, she moved to South Florida where she works with her swing coach, John Dunigan, and trains with IM Performance strength and conditioning coaches. Her fiancé, Trevor Collins is a former football player at UNC who sells medical devices. They plan to be married December 17.
Life changes fast, especially for the young.
“They have a really good journalism school (at UNC) and I went in thinking that I wanted to do broadcast,” Walker said. “I was in an audio journalism class and it really wasn’t sparking my interest, so I was like, I’m not sure I want to do this. But I took some really good writing courses at that time, and I loved it. I think that helped my writing a lot. That’s how I started writing.”
She qualified for the Shoprite Classic in New Jersey, “down the shore,” as they say in Eastern P.A. and she was a solid amateur who played in every event at UNC. Drive-by fans might not know her. Her highest amateur ranking was 201st and her best Epson Tour finish last year was a T-10 at the Donald Ross Classic at French Lick Resort. She has no illusions. Read her essays and you see a clear-eyed realist who understands that there is a big difference between a one-off tour event here and there and playing the game for a living.
“I played the Shoprite Classic four times and the Volunteers of America Classic in Texas once, and then ten events out here (on the Epson Tour) last year,” she said. “I have a little taste of it and the biggest thing I recall is the nerves. My shirt was fluttering from my heart beating so fast that first time. I remember telling my dad, who was caddying for me, ‘I’ve never felt nerves like this before.’
“Now I get to see the reality of (playing regularly for a living) a little more. That part hit me hard. I started out playing five events in a row and by the third one, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a lot of time alone.’ I was hauling my bags here and there, trying to figure out how to change a flight and get from one spot to the next. It was really different.
“The golf is the easiest part because you’ve played for so long. It’s everything else. The alone time and getting used to being alone is one of the hardest things. Usually, you shut your brain off (from golf) by being around other people. So, the biggest and best learning experience has been to learn to be alone and get comfortable with yourself.”
She made new friends and rekindled some old ones. Taylor Totland was a friend from junior golf days. Four weeks into Walker’s tour life, Totland invited her to stay in a house on the road with a couple of other players. “That really changed things,” Walker said. “Just not being alone and not having to eat out was huge. I can’t tell you how good it felt to cook a meal in a house, even if it was on the road.”
Now, she channels that aloneness into some of the most prolific and heartfelt prose offered up by any athlete. Her regular contributions to LPGA.com have opened fans’ eyes to the grind of life on the Epson Tour and the humanity of constantly interacting with strangers.
Last week, she was taking a break from practicing golf by shooting some free throws at an outdoor basketball court. A young girl walked up and asked if she and another friend could play. Brynn gave them her new basketball, one of the sweetest moments of the year from one of the best follows in the game.
Bought a basketball today to shoot some hoops. Then something way better happened. Sharing this as a reminder of 3 important lessons I learned. Sound on🔈— Brynn Walker (@brynncwalker) February 20, 2022
1.We are blessed to be a blessing.
2.Sports are a gift - don’t take it for granted.
3.Have courage and curiosity like a kid. pic.twitter.com/PcNkzPKb7h
“If you think about it, we probably have 200 players who will play the Epson Tour in some capacity this year,” Walker said next to the putting green in Winter Haven. “And they’re all really good. At the end of the year, you want to be in the top 10 to get full (LPGA Tour) status. So, what does it take to get there? And once you do get there, what do you have to do to play even better to stay there?
“It’s not easy, but that’s why we’re out here.”