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A personal narrative: Why I’m not turning pro and why I’m excited for the future

I began training to be a professional athlete at age 12, dreaming of the day I would become the No. 1 player on the LPGA. I’ve had many setbacks along the way, which, in turn, have led to rewarding triumphs. Adversity is something you accept – even welcome – because that makes succeeding one of the most gratifying feelings ever.

Then last year, my life took an interesting turn.

September 2020, I made the cut in my first major, the ANA Inspiration. I should have been proud of myself, but it was one of the most emotionally draining weeks of my life. I spent every day after the rounds frustrated because I couldn’t hit an iron shot straight or solid. Worst of all, I hated how unhappy I felt. In December, I missed the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open. It broke me. I knew I was good enough to score well, but I got the hooks on the back nine and lost control over my swing.

As a player whose strength is her iron play, this loss of control really affected me mentally and I began to feel anxious over my performance. So much so that I would wake up in the middle of the night during tournament weeks, my heart racing in severe panic about my golf swing or putting stroke. This anxiety seeped into my technique and the months between December and February I could barely break 75. I would step over my shot and only see the worst possible outcome, and that scared me.

But I was ready to fix it. Leading up to my first college tournament for the spring, I practiced harder than ever before. I often practiced twice a day. Whenever I was not doing schoolwork, I was practicing. I was obsessed. I thought I needed to practice more because I had so much to work on in my game. Little did I know it was my internal thoughts that needed to be modified. When I stepped up on the tee for that first tournament, all my anxiety crept back in, and I nearly finished last. After blasting my 8-iron 40 yards right on a par 3, I told my coach, “I can’t do this anymore.” I didn’t want to feel this way. I didn’t want my emotions to be dictated by my golf game.

“I don’t want to turn professional.” I don’t want to turn professional?

Although questions swarmed my mind, saying that aloud released something in me. It was a kind of freedom I had never allowed myself – another choice of what I wanted to do in life. My coaches, Kim Lewellen and Ryan Potter, and my mom were incredibly supportive during this process. They would always encourage me to pursue what I wanted to pursue, not what I thought other people wanted me to pursue.

My life I’ve been passionate about so many things: journalism, community service, marketing, philosophy – and now, with an abandoned thought of playing professional golf, all of these doors opened. I could do anything I wanted. I could leave for a weekend beach trip or spend my Sunday going to church and brunch. I didn’t need to stress about getting eight hours of sleep, eating right, training in a specific way and monitoring every bit of my lifestyle to ensure peak performance. I could be happy with everything I accomplished in golf and start a new chapter.

While this decision freed me, the journey to recover from performance anxiety wasn’t easy. I didn’t know how I would finish the season, and during my next few tournaments, I still feared not performing well. But as I learned to be kinder to myself, I started to redirect my thinking. I would still feel extremely shaky off the tee, but after the rounds I wasn’t as hard on myself. I also started to separate golf from life, something I found impossible a few months prior.

Then, I played in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The biggest title to win as an amateur. Something inside of me sparked that week. When I stepped onto the first tee for the final round, I had no nerves whatsoever. This blew my mind because all year my anxiety had been so excruciatingly high and was a huge reason I didn’t want to play golf professionally. But in that moment on the tee box, all I could feel was pure joy at how amazing this opportunity was. I kept looking back at my mom in her white jumpsuit and getting all giddy inside. This was so cool.

After I signed my scorecard following the final round, I ran to my coach to give her my yardage book. “I have all the pins marked. This will be perfect for the girls playing next year,” I told her, referring to my teammates. Kim looked at me and pointed at the scoreboard. “Hold onto that yardage book, you’re about to go into a playoff.”

When the playoff ended, I replayed the last two shots over and over in my head. Even though I was disappointed, I wasn’t devastated. I had felt such an overwhelming amount of support from all the thousands of people watching. To be able to compete for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur title was a dream come true – especially after everything I had overcome.

A few days later, we left for the ACC tournament. I was excited to compete – until I got the putting yips. It was like spinning in circles. As I felt better over the ball, I now couldn’t make a 2-footer. But unlike before, instead of feeling like I would never succeed, I had the urge and the motivation to figure it out. Then I started to trend well and could see the scores coming together. At NCAA regionals I finished T-6, my highest finish in a regional tournament. The best part of that week was being able to go low again and, more importantly, believing I could do it. I knew I had only one collegiate event left, and I hoped and prayed we would go out with a bang.

Emilia Migliaccio

Emilia Migliaccion (far right) hugs teammates at 2021 NCAA national championship.

But life rarely works the way we want. We didn’t go out with a bang. We had a heart-breaking loss and did not finish in the top 8 to advance to match play. I played well but somehow could not manage to get an under-par round. I made a bogey on the last hole, hugged my coach, and it was over. I wasn’t a collegiate athlete anymore.

Questions of “How do I move forward?” occasionally cross my mind. It’s scary to leave the one thing I’ve always dreamed of and suddenly change course – but that, too, is life. Life is never certain. As I’ve continued to reflect, I’ve come to embrace this uncertainty. There is so much beauty written in the uncertain. I don’t know what my life will look like, but I believe it will be wonderful because I know what it takes to be great, and it was golf that taught me to be great. Golf taught me mental toughness, perseverance and courage – traits I will carry with me for the rest of my life, traits that have allowed me to be resilient through setbacks and achieve success. Today, I step into the unknown with full confidence in my endless opportunities and passion to change the world. Wherever that road leads me and whatever that career may be, I’m ready for it all.