ORLANDO, Fla. — Professional golfer Joanna Coe loaded her clubs onto a cart and was heading to a remote section of the Faldo Golf Institute before the sun rose over Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World.
The 22-year-old Mays Landing, N.J., native and Oakcrest High School graduate was still there when the sun dipped behind Hogwarts, the castle at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter inside Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure.
Thousands of tourists spent that 80-degree Saturday strapped into thrill-filled rides at the “Happiest Place on Earth” or sipping Butterbeer before staggering back to their hotels.
Coe, however, may as well have been in North Dakota.
She was preparing for her inaugural season on the Symetra Tour, formerly known as the Futures Tour. LPGA stars Cristie Kerr, Lorena Ochoa and Karrie Webb all got their start on the Futures Tour — a 16-stop circuit that’s sort of a minor league for the LPGA — and Coe hopes to repeat that success.
The Symetra Tour begins March 19-25 in Winter Haven, Fla., and the top 10 finishers on the money list at the end of the season earn automatic berths on the LPGA Tour in 2013.
The odds are slim. LPGA events feature about 150 players from all around the world, and only a few have been from New Jersey. Diana D’Alessio, of Morris County, played on the tour from 2000 until 2010. Angela Oh, of Maple Shade, Burlington County, played on the tour last year.
Golf becomes work
But that hasn’t stopped Coe from practicing — hour after hour she hit wedges ranging from 30 to 100 yards, picking out minuscule targets to hit instead of greens. She needed six shots to hit a hubcap-sized patch of dirt about 60 yards away.
On a dare, she took aim at a metal box at the edge of some woods 50 yards out. Five lob wedges later, a ball dented it with a loud “clang.”
By the time she was finished, she had emptied three giant buckets, each containing 120 range balls. Her golf glove was soaked with sweat, as were her socks.
“Sometimes I’ll come here with my friend Sandra (LPGA Tour rookie Sandra Changkija) and we’ll have short-game contests against each other, like you do with H-O-R-S-E in basketball,” Coe said. “Some days, I’m out here for seven hours. That’s what pros do. This is not a game for me anymore. It’s my job.”
Coe seldom takes a break. She actually cut short one practice session in early January to spend a day at Universal Studios — only to be admonished on Facebook by Julie Garner, her coach at Rollins College in Winter Park.
“I was kind of kidding, but in a way I wasn’t,” Garner said. “The tours are filled with a bunch of people as good as you, so you have to outwork them. Championships are won when nobody’s looking.”
The hard work has started to pay off. Coe shot 69-72-68 to finish tied for second with LPGA Tour member Amy Yang at a Suncoast Series event — sort of a preseason tour for Orlando-area pros — in mid-January. Only Anna Nordqvist, who won the 2009 McDonald’s LPGA Championship, finished ahead of her.
On Feb. 7-9, she tied for second in a Suncoast tournament by shooting 72-70-76.
Close with sisters
Coe lives with her older sister Kristen in a townhouse Kristen bought two years ago in the Windemere section of Orlando, a popular home for professional golfers, including Tiger Woods and Paula Creamer.
The two are now the best of friends, but they didn’t always get along. During Kristen’s eighth-grade graduation party, Joanna drew Kristen’s ire when she told their mother about seeing Kristen kiss a boy during a game of spin the bottle in their basement.
Years later, Kristen got her revenge. When Joanna was going on her first date, Kristen greeted the boyfriend at the door and subjected him to a lengthy interview. She then waited up for Joanna, and when she was going for her first kiss, Kristen started banging on the window.
“We didn’t speak for years after that,” Kristen said with a laugh.
Joanna is the youngest of Kathy and Mike Coe’s three daughters, behind Kristen, 26, and Monica, 27.
All three sisters played golf for Oakcrest. Monica, who now serves as Joanna’s business manager while also working for the education company Kaplan, played for Rutgers University. Joanna earned a full scholarship to Rollins and won the NCAA Division II individual title as a freshman. Kristen attended Boston University but didn’t take golf so seriously.
Joanna and Kristen were teammates at Oakcrest for one season. At the end of the year, they both qualified for the state girls tournament at Seaview resort in Galloway Township and discovered that the top two scores from each team would win the state championship.
Although it rained the whole day, Joanna played well and finished second overall. Kristen, who didn’t know the rules, chose to hit balls out of water on the fairways and putt through puddles on the greens and shot “somewhere in the 130s.”
“Joanna was so mad at me because we only missed the team title by a few strokes,” Kristen said. “If only I had known the rules of golf.”
Kristen, a food and beverage manager at Metro West Country Club in Orlando, said she likes to think of Joanna as a combination of herself and Monica.
“Monica has always been very serious, and I’m the party girl,” Kristen said. “I don’t bother with sports too much. After work, I go out drinking. I feel like I almost have to because of my job. I consider it field research.”
By contrast, Joanna is a huge sports fan, especially when it comes to Philadelphia pro teams. One of her main goals in life is to throw out the first pitch at a Phillies game, preferably when Cliff Lee is pitching, since they share the same birthday — Aug. 30.
From ages 11-15, she competed in the NFL’s Punt, Pass & Kick competitions. In her final year, she qualified to represent the Eagles in the national contest that was held in Pittsburgh during a Steelers AFC playoff game and placed third.
During halftime, they brought the contestants onto Heinz Field for a throwing exhibition. When Coe was shown on the giant video scoreboard screen, she proudly pointed to the Eagles logo on the sleeve of her Donovan McNabb jersey and was roundly booed by the crowd.
“Boy, they really booed me,” Joanna said. “My mom was like, ‘Yeah, that’s my baby!’”
Coe got a late start with golf. She first started playing at 11, but it was her second-favorite sport behind soccer.
Up until her junior year at Oakcrest, when she started to gain attention from colleges for golf, she dreamed of playing soccer for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even while at Rollins, she would sometimes venture over to the soccer field and sit in the stands to watch the school’s team.
She also played point guard for the Oakcrest freshman girls basketball team but was so short she “got every shot blocked.” Her basketball career ended after she jammed a finger and couldn’t hold a golf club for two weeks.
She arrived at tiny Rollins — the oldest liberal-arts college in Florida, with an enrollment of just about 1,730 — in part because of alumna Peggy Kirk-Bell. Coe was participating in a junior tournament in high school at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C., when Kirk-Bell, who owns the course, spotted her on the range.
The 90-year-old woman climbed into her custom golf cart, drove over fairways and greens to where Garner was standing and immediately proclaimed that she had “found our girl.”
She was right. Coe enjoyed a terrific college career at Rollins. She won the Division II championship as a freshman and was a four-time All-American and Academic All-American before graduating last spring with a degree in political science.
But not everything worked out with her golf game at Rollins.
Battle with injury
During her senior year, she developed painful bone bruises in her left wrist. Her game began to suffer. Although she won eight college tournaments for the Rollins Tars, she was shut out as a senior. Her confidence started to sag.
“I actually reached a point where I didn’t want to do this anymore,” Coe said. “I wasn’t playing well, and I was starting to think, ‘I’m not good enough to do this for a living.’ But then I felt that if I didn’t turn pro, people would think I’m a loser.”
A pep talk from her family and friends helped, as did a session with noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella. She also got a huge boost from swing coach Bruce Chelucci, who has been working with Coe at Blue Heron Pines in Galloway since she was struggling to break 100 as an 11-year-old.
She resisted the urge to switch to one of the more famous golf coaches, such as Hank Haney, Butch Harmon or David Leadbetter, who operates a school in Orlando, reasoning that Chelucci knew her game — and her personality — better than anyone.
“We got together and I told her to write down all the things that were stressing her out and we would talk about them,” Chelucci said in a phone interview. “She listed her college career, the local media, friends, money and the future, among some other things. I took them point by point and eventually got her to look me in the eye and agree that she had nothing to fear.”
But it was not an easy or quick process. Chelucci said it took about four months to get Coe to believe what he was telling her and another four or five months to get her confidence back.
“The hardest thing was to convince her to be a good person, but when it’s time to lace them up (and compete), to be confident to the point where she’s bordering on arrogance.” Chelucci said.
Gradually, her wrist and psyche improved. She qualified and eventually played in the U.S. Open last July in Colorado Springs, Colo., which helped her get over a tough experience in her first professional event.
She opted to make her pro debut at the ShopRite Classic last June. Her rooting section was every bit as large as the one for the No. 1 player in the world — Yani Tseng. When announcer Dick Ireland introduced Coe on the first tee, hundreds of friends from her high school and college days cheered.
Her gallery included college coach Garner and Aspen Fox, one of Coe’s best friends from Rollins. The two met their freshman year, when another freshman noticed they shared the same affinity for the movie “High School Musical.”
Coe and Fox even developed a special handshake as a tribute to Zac Efron and have attended two Miley Cyrus concerts together as self-admitted “total dorks.”
This past Halloween, Fox showed up at a costume party dressed as Coe. The two are so close that when they exchanged holiday gifts, they had unknowingly given each other a jar of marinated artichokes.
“I flew up from Orlando for the ShopRite,” said Fox, who helps students make the transition from high school to college at Rollins. “When they introduced her and people were screaming her name and cheering, I started crying because I thought it was so cool.”
But the pressure and expectations proved to be overwhelming. Coe shot 87-79 to miss the cut. She admitted to feeling embarrassed at first but quickly chalked it up to a learning experience.
Chelucci said that in retrospect it was probably not a good idea to make her pro debut so close to home.
“If she had played well, it would have been an amazing story, but her game let her down,” Chelucci said. “She was embarrassed by her scores and some of her shots, to the point where it left her paralyzed mentally and emotionally.
But that’s the kind of experience Coe will have to deal with on the pro tour.
“The hardest thing to learn is that if you shoot 87 one day you can still come back and shoot 67 the next day,” Chelucci said. “Once she really believes that, she’s going to take off because she has all the tools to play on the LPGA Tour. And I’m confident that she not only will make the tour, but she will dominate.”
Work off the course
When she’s not practicing, playing or working out, Joanna also has a side job. She spends three or four nights a week pouring water and champagne as a banquet server at Falcons Fire Golf Club, one of the most well-known courses in Orlando.
The waitressing job is not a necessity. She graduated from Rollins last spring without any debt. Her sister Monica does not charge her for helping to arrange her schedule.
Chelucci does not charge for lessons, and because Joanna also works for Marriott, she gets range time for free.
But she has yet to land a sponsor, so she has to cut some corners. Once on the Symetra Tour, she plans to carry her own bag rather than pay the $100-a-day fee for a caddie.
She hopes to either stay with host families or in deeply discounted hotel rooms at each stop. The money she’s earning at banquets is targeted for gas. Coe is planning to travel to most of the tournaments in her black 2002 Ford Escape with 127,000 miles on the odometer.
She will not get rich on the Symetra Tour. None of the 16 tournaments has a total purse of more than $150,000. Most events have $100,000 purses, which means a $14,000 check to the winner.
Last year’s top money leader, Kathleen Ekey, made $66,412 and was the only player to top $60,000 in earnings. Compare that to the LPGA Tour, where money leader Tseng made $2,921,713 last season. Brittany Lincicome made $225,000 for winning last year’s ShopRite Classic in Galloway.
Missing the little things
After whipping a visitor by about 20 shots during a friendly round at Falcons Fire, Coe changed out of her pink hat, gray-and-black shirt and pants, and golf shoes in favor of a cute dress and flip-flops that showed off her “golfer’s tan.” Like most golfers, her ankles and feet were pale.
She then gave a tour of Rollins before dinner. The group headed toward a huge lake that featured mansions on the other side that were once part of “Mr. Rogers’” real neighborhood. Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, was a 1951 Rollins graduate.
Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, is a part-time student there taking courses in psychology.
On the way to dinner, Coe walked past a vast green lawn in front of some dorms. A half dozen guys were trying to run with brooms and mops between their legs while playing a form of Quidditch, the fictional game featured in the Harry Potter movies. On the other side, more students were tossing a Frisbee.
Coe paused for a moment, sighed, then kept walking. She had to get home early to rest for the next day’s practice session.
Joanna has a boyfriend, whom she politely declined to name, but admitted that long-term relationships are difficult to develop as a professional golfer because of the long hours.
All of her attention, all of her dedication, all of her focus, is geared toward golf.
“Sometimes I miss doing the little things,” Coe said. “But I’m sure the sacrifices will be worth it in the end. The (Symetra) Tour is going to be good for me. It’s going to give me a chance to get my feet wet and get better. I’m really looking forward to this.”
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