Despite some bumps, Stephanie Meadow’s road leads to Rio

Hilton Head's Meadow, 24, to tee it up in Rio

Hilton Head Island LPGA golfer Stephanie Meadow is set to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this month. The 24-year-old, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, plays out of Berkeley Hall Golf Club in Bluffton. That's where we caugh
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Hilton Head Island LPGA golfer Stephanie Meadow is set to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this month. The 24-year-old, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, plays out of Berkeley Hall Golf Club in Bluffton. That's where we caugh

Stephanie Meadow might have had the chance to get to the Olympics another way.

Growing up in Northern Ireland, young Stephanie rode horses competitively for a time. She wasn’t yet a teenager, and Ireland has been a regular in Olympic equestrian since the 1940s, so perhaps with a little...

Then came one day when she took a tumble off her mount.

“My dad got particularly mad,” Meadow recalled. “He said, ‘golf or horses,’ and I picked golf.”

Wise move. Meadow’s talent led her family to Hilton Head Island, where she earned a scholarship to Alabama, won an NCAA title and was a four-year All-American. She’s now an LPGA pro, albeit still trying to qualify for a full card.

The Olympics, though, were restricted to binge-watching on TV every four years. “I just thought I was in a sport where I wouldn’t have the opportunity to go,” she said.

Instead, she’s a trailblazer of sorts. In two weeks, Meadow will stand as one of 60 golfers to tee it up in Rio de Janeiro in the Olympic women’s tournament.

“I go to tournaments every week, play golf every week,” she said. “But this is the Olympics. The chance to be around the other athletes is special.”

Meadow will represent Ireland, where three-time major winner Padraig Harrington is a teammate on the men’s side. She’ll stay in the Olympic Village, mingle with athletes from other sports and other continents and see if she can tap into the magic that produced a third-place finish at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open.

“A couple of people on our (women’s) side have come out and said this would be better than winning a major,” said Meadow, specifically noting top American Lexi Thompson.

“For women’s golf, it means a lot. We definitely benefit more than the men will. They’re already well known and get a lot of TV time, but this an opportunity for us to build the ladies’ golf brand.”

And possibly garner some new fans herself along the way. No sporting event draws more global eyeballs than the Olympics, which is why golf officials pushed hard for the sport’s return to the Olympic program.

Even if several top men will be missing, thanks to crammed scheduling and health fears related to the Zika virus, there’s only one Olympics. And when Olympic medals last were presented in 1904, women’s golf was not on the program.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Meadow, who just last week received her housing information and official Team Ireland attire. She made her own travel arrangements, holding off until next week before jetting from Savannah to Orlando to Rio.

Her mother, Louise, also is making the trip after the International Golf Federation helped with arranging late accommodation. Meadow originally wasn’t part of the Olympic lineup, but was added nearly a week later when Dutch Olympic officials held back their two qualifiers.

Meadow got the call after her opening round at the LPGA’s Marathon Classic. She called her mom right away, though the reaction might have been a little underwhelming.

“She was really excited,” Meadow said, “and then — ‘What about Rory (McIlroy) and pulling out because of Zika?’ ”

Ah yes, Zika. McIlroy was among the first men to take his name out of the Olympic lineup, later joined by world No.1 Jason Day, U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.

The women, meantime, have seen just one such withdrawal. Not that it hasn’t been a concern among the LPGA pros.

“I go to dinner with them a lot,” Meadow said, “and a couple of Europeans were talking about their pregnancy risks. Some of them are married and want to have kids soon. They were all worried about it, but at the end of the day they decided that they’d (more than likely) be fine.”

A conversation with Ireland’s Olympic medical chief also put Meadow — and mom — at ease. “She’s 100 percent on board now,” the golfer said.

The only downside is that Robert Meadow isn’t around to take in the Olympic experience. Her father and biggest supporter died of pancreatic cancer last year, diagnosed just as she was about to embark on her rookie LPGA season.

“He would be thrilled,” Meadow said. “He always loved sport and watching golf. I know he would have loved to have gone.”

Robert’s illness and eventual passing resulted in pretty much a lost year for Meadow, who didn’t make a cut the rest of the season after her return. She changed coaches near the end of the year, and work with Florida-based Jorge Parada is starting to show signs of turning the corner.

Meadow has made three of her past five LPGA cuts, including a 66 at the ShopRite LPGA Classic and two other scores in the 60s. Her last start came two weeks ago on the developmental Symetra Tour, where she placed 12th after a closing 69.

“It’s pretty much night and day,” Meadow said, comparing the past two years. “Last year was particularly hard. ... I realized I still love this game; I still love the job. But personal things take a big toll, in any sport.”

The Olympics, though, seem a nice reward for her perseverance. She’ll have to manage her schedule, but hopes to catch a few other events. She and a couple of Irish caddies are particularly keen on seeing boxer Katie Taylor, favored for gold in the women’s competition.

“It’s going to be a great experience,” Meadow said. “That’s part of it — being around all those awesome athletes from all over the world. You don’t get that anywhere else, certainly at any golf tournament.”