Jessica Shepley’s golf journey took a dark detour last year. The 30-year-old from Oakville, Ont., was not only performing poorly on the course but was weighted down mentally.
She made just three cuts in 10 starts on the LPGA Tour but, worse, she no longer felt joy for the game or even the other parts of her life.
By December, she decided to retire, just seven years into a professional career that seemed so boundless when she was winning junior and amateur trophies and leading her college team at the University of Tennessee.
“I just wasn’t enjoying golf any more,” she said in a candid interview this week, just prior to playing in the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic in Waterloo, Ont. “I was struggling. I felt I was spinning my wheels in a lot of areas in my life. I couldn’t really seem to put anything together. I don’t know, it was just one of those times in your life that, you know what they say, when it rains it pours.
“I wasn’t really in a good place and I couldn’t really get control of anything.”
So she just called it quits and began contemplating the next phase of her life. She thought about fulfilling a dream of being an elementary school teacher.
But quickly the gravity of her decision hit her, especially after she read a story about her retirement in her hometown newspaper, the Oakville Beaver.
“When I read it and actually heard myself say I was done, I just felt very, very uneasy,” she recalled. “I had not a very good feeling in my stomach.”
So she spent time by herself, searched her soul and concluded she wanted to do more in the game and leave more of a legacy, for lack of a better word. “Did I leave the way that I wanted to leave the sport?” she asked herself. “Had I done stuff that I wanted to do with it?”
Her answer: “I just felt there were so many things I hadn’t done.”
So she did what any athlete with retirement doubts would do – she unretired and went back to work.
In February, she returned to her adopted home of Orlando and changed coaches to Tony Ziegler from Sean Foley. She made simple fixes to her alignment and other fundamentals, but more importantly, she cleared her mind and adjusted her attitude.
“I’m getting back a little more to how I swung a golf club as a junior,” she said. “I’ve got back to playing golf a little more again. I’m just having fun and playing golf again.”
Part of her new approach includes focusing less on what her rivals are doing and more on her own game.
“It gets to be too much thinking out there,” she said, alluding to what Greg Norman once called the “mental gremlins.” “That’s part of the reason I maybe haven’t gotten better results out on tour. I get out there and I start measuring myself against these other girls. Well, we all know it doesn’t matter. All that matters is how you play against the golf course.”
Consequently, she’s made a deliberate decision to ignore the field, score boards and all the other mental noise that deafens a quiet game.
And what a difference a few months and new approach have made.
Shepley has not only returned to tour but she’s found the winner’s circle again. Last week, she captured the title at the PGA Women’s Championship of Canada, the PGA of Canada’s premier event for the country’s touring professionals, club pros and elite amateurs.
She set up the victory by shooting a course record in the first round at The Club of North Halton in Georgetown, Ont. It was her first victory since she won the International at Concord on the Symetra Tour in July of 2011.
Shepley also had a runner-up result in a CN Canadian Women’s Tour event in Windsor, Ont., last month (she lost a playoff) and qualified for her first U.S. Women’s Open.
She has also played on the LPGA and second-tier Symetra tours, and even though her results don’t appear stellar, she was able to grind out some good rounds to make cuts.
“A huge part of that is just enjoying what I’m doing,” she said. “Being happy. I’ve had a lot of people say to me that it’s very evident how much I’m enjoying myself, how happy I am on the golf course.”
At the Manulife Classic this week, where she’s one of eight Canadians in the field, she’s hoping to keep smiling. Shepley says she gets good vibes from the links-style Grey Silo Golf Course and expects to have a good week.
“I love the golf course. I have lots of friends and family coming up this week. I’ve seen a lot of old friends. I’m really excited to get going.”
It’s an excitement that was missing just months ago.