FROM THE PAGES OF PNW GOLFER: The Prodigal
Golf is once again music to Lani Elston’s ears
(From the pages of the November 2015 issue of Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine)
by Tom Cade, Editor
This past July, Lani Elston made a par on the 18th hole in the final match to win the PNGA Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship, held at BanBury Golf Course in Eagle, Idaho. Her mother, Gina, was caddying for her.
It was a full-circle moment for Lani. After eight years of being away from the game, she had returned to the winner’s circle.
Elston, you see, had won more than 80 events as a junior golfer, having started playing competitively when she was nine years old.
Growing up in Snohomish, Wash., Lani’s father used to take her older brother golfing, “and I’d sit on the front doorstep, crying, because they wouldn’t take me with them.” Her dad would eventually relent, and by the time Lani was five years old she was an everyday golfer.
Her family moved to Spokane when she was in the eighth grade, and she was home-schooled during her high school years, but played on the golf team for four years at nearby Ferris High School, where she was named the team’s MVP all four years.
In 1999, she won Idaho’s prestigious Dropping Junior Championship and also the Washington Junior Golf Association’s State Championship (setting the scoring record at 2-under par for the three-day event), and was named the 1999 WJGA Player of the Year.
In winning the individual title at the 2001 Washington State 4A High School Championship, she set the state scoring record and won by seven shots over second-place finisher (and future LPGA Tour player) Paige Mackenzie. The following week she won the AJGA’s most prestigious tournament, the Thunderbirds International Junior Invitational, held that year in Scottsdale, Ariz. (That same year, Ryan Moore, the future PGA Tour player from Puyallup, Wash., won the boys division of that tournament.) During those years she was a two-time AJGA All-American and qualified for two U.S. Girls’ Junior championships.
After high school she played golf one year at the University of Idaho before transferring to the University of Arizona, where she played three years on the women’s golf team, being twice named Pac-10 Honorable Mention.
She majored in music at Arizona, becoming an accomplished classical pianist. “I look back and I don’t know how I did it,” she says. “Golf and music both take so much practice.” Her days started at 5:00 am with strength and conditioning (for golf), followed by daily classes, and then five hours of afternoon golf practice followed by five hours of piano practice, then home for schoolwork and more piano practice, with the days usually ending at one or two in the morning.
And then, after graduating from Arizona, it all stopped.
She moved back to Spokane for a while to be closer to her grandparents who were ill at the time, and then took a job in Michigan working in medical equipment sales.
“I guess I felt it was time to take a break,” she says. “I was burned out on golf, and my coaches at the time (at Arizona) were not very encouraging to any of the players. I just wanted to get away from it.”
She didn’t touch a club for eight years. She didn’t play a note on the piano for six years. Five years ago she wanted to sell her golf clubs, but couldn’t even find them.
And then, four years ago, she got transferred by her company back to the Northwest. “I started reconnecting with my roots,” Lani said. “With family, with old friends. I started seeing some of the golf courses where I used to play.”
And gradually, it all started coming back. Her boyfriend plays golf, and that seemed to be the final catalyst. A little over two years ago, she joined Willamette Valley Country Club in Canby, Ore.
And, to complete the return, she left her job in medical equipment and opened up her own piano studio, and now performs professionally as well as gives music lessons.
Other events Elston competed in this past summer included the Oregon Women’s Amateur and Oregon Women’s Mid-Amateur championships. “It’s amazing how the game has changed for me,” she said with a laugh. “All those years as a junior golfer, I was never nervous. The game was such a natural thing for me. But now, I can’t believe how nervous I was on the first tee (of the PNGA Women’s Mid-Amateur)!”
Elston has built a 32-foot putting green in her basement. “I’m definitely back at it,” she said. “It was such an important part of my life for so many years. Not playing, it had really left a void. I don’t think I could ever not golf again.”
And we are luckier for it.