Challenges don't deter MU golfer

Sunday, October 26, 2008 | 1:46 p.m. CDT; updated 10:52 p.m. CDT, Sunday, October 26, 2008
Julia Potter, a junior at MU and the No. 1 player on the Tigers' women's golf team, has three top-five finishes in the four tournaments the Tigers have played this fall. Last summer, she qualified for the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship in Eugene, Ore.

COLUMBIA — Julia Potter isn't even thinking about it.

She isn't thinking about the seven-hour surgery. She isn't thinking about the 10-inch long titanium rod in her spine, or the four nights she spent in intensive care. She isn't thinking about how a millimeter slip in either direction could have meant that she wouldn't even be here.

She isn't thinking about it, because she's too busy staring down a two-stroke deficit as she walks into the tee box on the 16th hole. Potter's coach just told her that she needed to birdie each of the last three holes for her team to walk away with a win. Three holes and three birdies later, Penn High School walks away with another win in Indiana girls golf.

That two-stroke comeback took place just one season after Potter, now a junior at MU and the No. 1 player on the Tigers' women's golf team, had surgery to correct severe scoliosis, a dangerously exaggerated curving of the spine. The condition, and the subsequent surgery, has fostered a competitiveness and calm under pressure that have become her greatest asset on the course.

Potter started playing golf when she was 6. After her father had seen an article in Golf Digest magazine about how womens' golf scholarships were going unused, he decided that golf would be a good way to bond with Potter's older sister and maybe develop a collegiate future for her at the same time.

Early on, Potter would tag along with her dad and sister, and as they approached the green she would hop out of the cart and her father would drop the ball near the fringe so she could finish out the hole with her family.

"She'd jump out and take her wedge and chip on and putt out," Potter's father Phil Potter said. "To this day that's the strength of her game, is her ability to get up and down from almost anywhere."

When her sister started playing in junior tournaments, Julia Potter continued to tag along, playing in her own age group's competition, and eventually played her first national tournament when she was 9. By the time she was almost finished with junior high school, Phil Potter started to see that his youngest daughter had the chance to be an elite golfer.

During the fall of her sophomore year of high school, however, that potential was put on hold.

During her adolescence Julia Potter's scoliosis condition had gotten so bad that there was no choice but to undergo surgery.

"Her spine had curved so much that it looked like a giant 'S'," Phil Potter said. "It was actually rotating her ribcage around and realigning her organs."

Over her school's Thanksgiving break, Julia Potter, just 16 at the time, was checked into Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis to have a rod inserted into her spine and have part of her spinal column fused together.

Because of the severity of the surgery, Julia Potter was placed in intensive care after the procedure. While there, she started realizing how important the experience would become.

"The most sobering thought that, that I've ever had, is that I was probably the only person in ICU in a national children's hospital that knew I was getting out of there," Julia Potter said.

"Once you've had that in your mind, you don't look at it as something that hinders you."

For the next four months Julia Potter was deprived of the game that had come to mean so much to her. She was out of school for over a month and was forced to spend most of her time restricted to her family's couch. While most kids would jump at that sort of chance, for Julia Potter it was the last place that she wanted to be.

"It was tough. When you've done something for so long in your life, and it's become such a big part of you, and then for a couple months you can't do it at all, it was hard," Julia Potter said. "It was really hard."

No matter how long, or hard the road back to golf was going to be, Julia Potter knew she was going to be the player that she had once been.

"With how good my doctor was, I knew that I was going to make a full recovery," Julia Potter said. "It was going to take time. Things like that always do. But I just knew in my head that I was going to get back to where I was."

But even she couldn't have predicted how fast she'd get there.

In early March, just four days after Julia Potter was cleared by doctors to begin swinging a golf club again, she entered her first junior tournament in over five months and won.

"We call her our miracle child," Phil Potter said.

Since the victory in her first tournament back from surgery, Julia Potter's success hasn't fallen off. She helped lead Penn High School to three state championships in Indiana during her four years in the program, and as a sophomore last year at MU, had six top-10 finishes including two victories.

This season, Julia Potter has three top-five finishes in the four tournaments in which the Tigers have played, but the most impressive feat of her golf career came this past summer. After eight or nine tries to get to a United States Golf Association event, Potter finally qualified for the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship in Eugene, Ore. in August.

But rather than simply enjoy that she had reached the event, Julia Potter pushed the best women amateur golfers in the country to their limits. She finished in a tie for sixth in the stroke play session of the championship, just three strokes behind the winner and eventually lost in the second round of match play.

With all his daughter has been through, Phil Potter wasn't the least bit surprised that she wasn't intimidated with facing the country's best players. He got to caddy for his daughter during the event and saw her game in a way that he never had before.

"I got to see her thought processes, I got to see how aggressive, how cool she was under fire," Phil Potter said. "It just absolutely amazed me. I've never experienced anybody that was that cool under fire."

"She's stared down some significant challenges in her life, so staring down another competitor on the golf course is nothing."

That ability to keep her composure is the part of Julia Potter's game that sets her apart from other golfers.

"She can raise the level of her play without going over the edge," Phil Potter said. "In golf, that is so difficult to do, because golf is not a game of emotion."

MU women's golf coach Stephanie Priesmeyer shares Phil Potter's respect of his daughter's mental toughness. Over Julia Potter's three years at MU, Priesmeyer has recognized Potter's unique competitiveness.

"A lot of players don't want to know, and sometimes it's not really good to know where you stand when you're playing," Priesmeyer said. "What I've found with her (Julia) is that she always wanted to know where she stood and what she needed to do to win the tournament."

That's because to Julia Potter, no deficit she could face on a golf course, no matter how large, compares to the challenges she has had to face off of it.

"I think after my surgery my whole attitude towards a lot of things, including golf, changed," Julia Potter said. "I realized that there are bigger things out there. When I step out onto the tee, I just know that I'm just lucky every day to be here, because at one point in time there was a chance that I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing right now."


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Ayn Rand October 27, 2008 | 12:49 p.m.

Great story.

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