Amazing Amy: Meet Gary Woodland’s U.S. Open inspiration

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Jun 19, 2019

    Josh WeinfussESPN Staff Writer

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    • Covered the Cardinals since 2012
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    • Graduate of Indiana University
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    • Member of Pro Football Writers of America

PHOENIX — Gary Woodland could hear the words of his friend Amy Bockerstette as he stood over the chip shot on the 17th hole that helped propel him to winning the U.S. Open.

“You’ve got this.”

That’s her mantra on the course, and it became his on that shot Sunday at Pebble Beach.

By now, more than 9.6 million people have watched what happened when Bockerstette, who has Down syndrome, played — and parred — a hole with Woodland in a practice round during the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale in late January.

“Amy … you’re our hero.”

How a superstar named Amy teamed up with @GaryWoodland to win the hearts of the 16th hole crowd @WMPhoenixOpen.#LiveUnderPar pic.twitter.com/iRhZbvdjuP

– PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 30, 2019

“She’s obviously dealt with so much in her life, and like everybody has, but her attitude is unbelievable,” Woodland told ESPN. “That’s what I’ve learned from her. And, hopefully, the world gets more of that in it because we all need more of Amy in it.

“There’s nobody that I’ve seen be in the moment as much as she is. Everybody always says in sports, ‘You got to be in the moment, you got to be the moment.’ Amy lives in the moment and that’s what’s special.”

Bockerstette has had a couple of viral moments with Woodland. But there is much more to the 20-year-old, who reached back-to-back state high school golf tournaments before receiving a scholarship to play at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix.

In truth, Bockerstette isn’t much different than those on her team.

Sure, there’s the obvious. She has an extra chromosome. That leads to extra care and requires attention to her routines.

But, in many ways, she’s just like most other girls her age. She has a massive crush on Niall Horan, who’s in her favorite band, One Direction. She loves music, especially Daughtry, and the movies, including “Goosebumps 2.” She’s boy-crazy, always talking about her teammates’ boyfriends. She always wants to know what her next meal is going to be. She loves going to concerts with her older sister, Lindsey. And she’s always singing, whether it’s at practice or in the back of the van.

Amy is turning 21 in October, and her sister is already plotting her first drink — most likely something sweet, like a Long Island iced tea.

“She’s just kind of like everyone else,” Lindsey said. “It just takes her a few extra minutes to get something done.”

On and off the course.

That’s her journey, though. And it hasn’t always been easy, starting before Amy was born.

‘I felt like there were signs’

Amy’s mom, Jenny, says she knew. Almost 21 years later, she can’t explain how. She just had a feeling her baby would be born with Down syndrome. Jenny was 39, so there were inherent risks associated with her pregnancy. Women over the age of 35 are more likely than younger women to have a baby with a birth defect, including Down syndrome, according to the March of Dimes.

“I felt like there were signs,” she said.

Being a “left-brain guy,” an engineer with his MBA, Amy’s dad, Joe, approaches life from the analytical side of, well, everything. He knew the odds of a 40-year-old woman having a child with Down syndrome were one in 100.

“It’s like, ‘No, we’re not going to have this, right? This is not going to happen to us,'” Joe said.

Immediately following Amy’s birth, both Joe and Jenny entered a period of grieving, perhaps for the child they imagined. Joe was burdened with a feeling of losing Amy’s potential.

“For me, it was quite a shock,” Joe said.

The family didn’t talk about it, or much at all, Lindsey said. Jenny’s grief lasted about two months, although she says now she “never looked at it as a bad thing.” It was harder for Joe.

“One of the things I remember thinking is, ‘I’ll never coach her softball team,'” Joe said. “One of my early thoughts was, ‘I’ve lost that opportunity to bond with my child growing up, to participate in her sports and to teach her how to swing a bat, how to throw a ball,’ and those sorts of things that you sort of expect.

“You don’t change your child’s life so much as you learn to accept your child and you learn to appreciate the gifts your child does have. It seems silly now that I was somehow grieving that I wasn’t going to be her active parent in her sports endeavors.”

From the start, Amy’s parents dove into learning about Down syndrome, developing a local support group in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they lived at the time, and joining the National Down Syndrome Society. Joe became board chair.

In time, Joe gained an appreciation for every milestone Amy reached — like when it took her a year to learn the color red.

“You have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, and you have to stay focused,” Joe said. “She will take longer, but she will get there.”

Gaining her identity

When Amy was 5, Jenny decided it was time to tell her she had Down syndrome. From that moment on, it became part of Amy’s identity.

“It was just the two of us and she just gave me this really big, tight hug,” Jenny said. “It was like she could sense that I was struggling and she just wanted to let me know it was OK.”

Joe and Jenny taught Amy how to ride a bike, which Joe said was “unusual” for children with Down syndrome. Jenny also enrolled Amy in piano lessons around age 8.

“It became obvious early that she was healthy and she was fairly coordinated, good hand-eye coordination,” Joe said. “We knew early on that she was pretty athletic.”

Amy bowled, swam and played basketball, baseball and soccer. When she was going into seventh grade, Joe and Jenny began exploring participation in school sports. They had a conversation with her middle school athletic director, Ryan Backstrom, and Amy became the manager for the girls’ volleyball team. With that came her own “posse” of friends, Jenny said, giving Amy a social circle.

Late in the season, with her team comfortably ahead, the coach put Amy in for a point. Her parents watched anxiously in the stands. Amy was set to serve, which she was capable of doing, but she wasn’t strong enough to serve from the back line so she moved up, automatically forfeiting the point.

The loss of point didn’t matter. Amy had her moment. Joe and Jenny had their video. The entire gym went “crazy,” Jenny said.

While Amy didn’t have the skills to be in the regular rotation for volleyball, the idea that she was playing school-sponsored sports at all overwhelmed her parents.

“Our belief has always been the more people that know her and understand her and accept her, the better the world is,” Jenny said.

Natural swing

During a golf outing to raise money for Amy’s elementary school, she rode in the cart with Joe as his group’s fourth. Joe told Amy, who spent the day listening to her iPod while playing with a doll and eating snacks, if they weren’t up against the clock, she could hit a shot or two with a 7-iron he brought for her.

When Joe got home that night, he told Jenny: “You should have seen her swing. It was like she had this natural swing.” He kept repeating it, not believing his own words. Joe was just beginning to play himself and taking lessons with an instructor named Matt Acuff.

The head of instruction at Palmbrook Country Club in Sun City, Arizona, Acuff agreed to teach Amy as well, adopting an approach to coaching her he holds six years later: He treats her like any other golfer.

Acuff told Joe and Jenny early on that Amy was “more capable than you think.” Joe’s goal at first was for Amy to learn so she could play golf with the family on Sundays.

“We had no expectations, zero expectations of her playing competitively, or being part of a team or anything like that,” Joe said. “That was just not on our radar.”

Then Dustin Riley, a physical education teacher at Amy’s school, organized a golf club when sports ended for the year in eighth grade. Armed with lessons, Amy joined. During one round, she hit the pin on a drive. Riley went nuts.

“I honestly probably haven’t cheered so hard for one of my players in my life,” he said.

After nine holes one practice, Riley told Jenny he thought Amy could play high school golf. He reached out to Greg Rice, the freshman coach at Sandra Day O’Connor High School, where Amy was headed the next year.

Tryouts were on the second day of school. Rice said he was skeptical at first.

“How are we going to do this?” he thought.

Then he saw Amy swing.

“My mouth just dropped,” Rice said. “She hit that ball and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I could not believe that she could swing a golf club like that.”

Amy made the team her freshman season but didn’t play in a tournament. She would play practice holes behind the varsity, getting in about five holes every round.

She played in two tournaments the following season.

Joe and Acuff knew a regular spot on varsity was waiting. But some of the effects of Down syndrome are having low muscle tone and strength, which made playing nine or 18 holes, particularly in the heat, difficult for Amy. Acuff started taking Amy out for full-round practices. She would get lightheaded, dehydrated and nauseous. She’d vomit.

Keeping Amy’s stamina up during her college tournaments is essentially a full-time responsibility for her parents. They have a food and hydration plan for each tournament, giving her drinks, energy gels, sandwiches and fruit throughout the day. They continually talk to Amy to keep her focused. They also keep a watchful eye for attention or physical drops.

And to help with Amy’s stamina, her push cart comes with a seat that drops down so she can rest after every shot.

She played with Girls Golf of Phoenix the summer going into her junior year, preparing for the rigors of high school golf — longer courses and 18 holes. Joe started caddying for her and taught her the rules. Either he or Acuff has caddied for Amy ever since.

On the putting green, Joe often uses the flagstick to line up her shot. He gives her pointers like “accelerate through” or “straight back, straight through” or “stay tall.” He makes sure Amy’s feet are lined up or she’s standing the right distance from the ball. He reminds her to hit the grass on a practice swing.

She calls him Dude. He responds by calling her Dudette.

“Some of the most fun days of my life are caddying for her,” Joe said.

Amy made the varsity rotation as a high school junior and played in nine tournaments by fending off those trying to unseat her.

But when the season ended, Joe and Jenny weren’t sure if she was going to play as a senior. They started to prepare for the next phase of Amy’s life. But golf wasn’t done with her yet.

There was a scoring mix-up. A team that had qualified for the Arizona high school state golf tournament was bumped and Sandra Day O’Connor, Amy’s school, was named as its replacement.

Amy was going to state.

A story about Amy came out in The Arizona Republic on the morning of the second round.

It sparked a buzz and a gallery started to form to watch Amy. Parents started approaching Joe and Jenny to tell them how they admired them.

“She loved it,” Jenny said. “She had fun. She gets excited by the attention, and people were coming up to meet her and to say hello to us.

“Suddenly you’re being looked at, and we’re used to being looked at because people with Down syndrome look differently. And we’re used to getting looks, but it was different. It was just a different level.”

As a senior, Amy again qualified for the state tournament, but this time as an individual after a season in which she was scoring career bests. Her nine-hole low was 45 — down from the 60s she was shooting as a freshman.

The state tournament that year was played in Tucson, about two hours south of Phoenix. Because the team had to stay overnight, the girls hung out in the hotel and Baker, their coach, made them breakfast, which, he remembered Amy loving.

“She wants to be with the girls,” Lindsey said. “She wants everybody to laugh and I think she’s probably learned that if somebody is laughing, it’s because they’re having a good time and so it’s all about having a good time.”

College golf

But when states were over, so was Amy’s high school golf career. The Bockerstette house went into a funk.

Everyone stopped golfing. Amy cut off her lessons with Acuff. The family didn’t play together for about two months. The ride had ended. Amy and her parents talked often about what was next. Amy regularly asked Jenny where she was going to college, but Jenny had to explain that not everyone went to college.

Joe and Jenny were looking at all options. They discussed a job-training program, but it would’ve required Amy to move out. That wasn’t feasible.

“We were really struggling,” Jenny said.

Then Joe and Jenny found the guidance they needed during Amy’s final individualized education plan meeting of high school.

Amy’s teacher and counselor, Paul Roads, told them Amy was “one of the most unique students” he’s ever had. But then he added three words that started to change their minds: “She’s not finished.”

Roads suggested they look into enrolling Amy at Paradise Valley Community College, which, he explained, had a department for students with disabilities.

Amy was quickly accepted.

Joe and Jenny also remembered that PVCC had a women’s golf team. Joe wrote the coach, Matt Keel, an email in April 2018, explaining Amy’s situation, sharing videos, her stats and résumé, and asking if she could join the team and participate in any way possible.

Keel wrote back with a scholarship offer.

“I didn’t believe it until the morning of the letter signing,” Jenny said. The NCAA and the National Junior College Athletic Association said they don’t keep records of whether somebody with Down syndrome has received a college athletic scholarship, but it’s widely believed Amy’s the first.

A teaching pro, Keel knew a good swing when he saw one. His first instinct was to sign Amy and then figure everything out. And there was plenty. Amy had to get certified with a disability, which led to the NJCAA allowing her to take six credits a semester to stay eligible. Caddies aren’t allowed in junior college golf, but Keel got around that by hiring both Joe and Acuff as unpaid assistant coaches. They can’t push Amy’s cart or swing a club, but they can do everything else.

“I wasn’t trying to hoodwink anybody,” Keel said. “I wanted us to make a commitment.

“I didn’t want her to be a token player. … I wanted her to be a contributing member to the team.”

Amy still lives at home but has adapted academically. She took one academic class in the first semester, which was a challenge, but has since taken classes such as modern dance, jazz and Zumba.

Despite articles and a video of Amy signing her scholarship, Keel wanted to keep her out of the media. He didn’t want it to feel like he was exploiting Amy for the benefit of his own program, so he didn’t tell the rest of the team until a few days before their first practice and didn’t tell opposing coaches until the first tournament.

“It kind of caught me off guard,” PVCC freshman Lacie Skelton said. “It was a surprise. I guess I just thought like she’d just be another teammate, but I thought we would have to help her out more.

“She’s more independent than you expected.”

Amy broke 100 for the first time this past spring, and her season average for 18 holes was 108.5.

Playing golf seemed to be the easiest part of Amy’s transition to college. She also instantly hit it off with her teammates.

“She’s always like a support system to the whole team,” said former teammate Nidia Valenzuela, who graduated this spring. “We can laugh all day in the van on our way to tournaments or on our way back to school. She was always cracking jokes.”

Skelton thinks twice before doing things, wondering what Amy would say.

“Whenever any of us girls are upset or mad, she’s like, ‘Don’t be mad, don’t be upset, I love you. It’s OK. Life’s going to be OK, because I love you.'” Skelton said. “She always says, ‘I love you.’ I think it’s just so uplifting.

“It changes your day. It puts a smile on your face.”

Yes, Amy’s swing and overall golf game have improved immensely since they first started working together, but to Acuff, that’s not the measure of what golf has brought to his pupil.

“The thing that she’s been able to improve so much is she’s been able to build these relationships, these experiences,” Acuff said. “She’s met the girls from the other teams that she’s been playing with in college.

“She’s been able to go from the person that was probably not able to qualify to the person that did qualify, the person that has excelled, the person that has earned the right to be there and now is looked up to instead of being an outcast or pushed to the side.”

Lesson learned

Woodland can’t go anywhere these days without being reminded of Amy.

Whether it’s on the course during a tournament, when he’s out to dinner or when he checks his social media messages, Woodland hears or reads “I got this” from fans on a regular basis.

And he’s good with that.

“That kind of gives me that positive reminder,” Woodland said. “It is contagious. Golf’s a game where you can be not positive and get negative really quickly. And she doesn’t have that in her, and that’s a treat. It shows why she’s successful. She has all the positive energy in the world.”

Woodland, 35, said he hopes one day to teach his children the lessons he’s learned from Amy: Be positive, work hard, earn everything. Woodland never expected a relationship with Amy to grow from that Tuesday afternoon in Phoenix five months ago. But Amy has become more than a friend to the U.S. Open champion. She’s become a part of Woodland’s story.

“I was excited to meet her and play the 16th hole with her,” he said, “but I never imagined the impact she would have on my life.”