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Monica Vaughn: Stepping away from the game, for now

NCAA champion and former PNGA Player of the Year sees a future in coaching

by Ron Bellamy

(originally published on the OGA website)

More than a few times in the recent months, patrons at Houston’s restaurant have recognized the tall young server as she moves between the red leather booths with the dark wood accents in the upscale steakhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Maybe they identify her right away. Or maybe, as she takes their order, or as food is being served, the coin will drop, especially if the conversation turns to golf.

After all, it was just last May that Monica Vaughn won the NCAA women’s individual golf championship and helped Arizona State University win the team title.

“You would laugh, because I get recognized more often than not,” said Vaughn, who was an elite Oregon Junior Golf star and two-time state champion at Reedsport High School, and in 2010 was named the PNGA Junior Girls’ Player of the Year.

In 2010, Monica Vaughn was named the PNGA Junior Girls’ Player of the Year

“I actually had a table, it wasn’t even my table, and they stopped me and asked, ‘Are you Monica Vaughn?’ … I was ‘Yes, can I help you?’

“And they were ‘Oh my gosh, we saw you on TV, we saw you in the national championship, we’re huge Sun Devil fans, that is so cool!’”

At 23, Vaughn said she’s enjoyed her first “real job,” though she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll keep it.

Nor does she know whether she’ll ever play competitive golf again.

“I took a break from golf,” Vaughn said. “I needed a break from golf. I’ve been doing this job for five months now. It was something totally different. I’ve never had a real job before, so I wanted to put myself out there and try something I’ve never done. It’s going real well. I probably won’t be there a whole lot longer; I just needed this as a break period.

“I’m not playing golf, and I don’t know if I will be playing golf in the future. I know one thing I really want to do somewhere down the road is to coach. I know I want to be involved with golf somehow. For right now, I’m enjoying my free time, and my time away from golf, and taking a breather.”

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It’s not the first time that Vaughn has stepped away from golf, or questioned whether she wanted the future as a professional that seemed pre-ordained since childhood, given her talent. After she won the NCAA title, she had an exemption into an LPGA event, and faced the choice of playing as an amateur or a professional; needing to make a decision, she chose the latter course, despite misgivings, and regretted it.

She signed up for Q School in Palm Springs, to earn her LPGA card, and for two small preparatory tournaments; she played the first, and withdrew from the second, and from Q School.

“I said, ‘this is not where I belong,’” she said. “My heart’s not in it. It’s not what I’m passionate about at the moment. It was a really, really difficult decision, but I made the decision to pull out of Q School and go down a different path. I feel good about my decision. I think I made the right one.

“I think golf to me was so important from the team aspect, that when I was out on the road and out on my own and playing for myself it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t as meaningful to me anymore. That’s what made me make the decision. I haven’t had any regrets about it. I know a lot of people think I made the wrong decision … but I feel confident about it, and I know whatever I do down the road will be involved in golf someway, somehow, so I’m not giving it up completely.”

Vaughn has played the game competitively since she was eight, following the footsteps of her two older sisters, who played collegiately at Portland State. She grew up in a home overlooking Forest Hills Golf & Country Club in Reedsport; her father, Chris, taught her the game and coached her, and she won two state titles for Reedsport High School, where she also played volleyball and basketball.

The family’s summers revolved around the Oregon Junior Golf tour.

“I have so many good memories,” she said. “I’ve got so many good memories, and I’ve got some bad, too, but I look back on it that and think that was such a huge part of my childhood, and it being a family thing for us, that’s what we did with our summers, we went to golf tournaments. Mom and Dad were always there, they never missed a tournament. It’s such a big part of our family, golf is, and I did it my whole life.

“It’s a fun thing that we can now do together and laugh about all the good times we had and realize how lucky we were to get to do that. I have a lot of really good memories.”

The good times came with a price of sorts.

Photo courtesy ASU Athletics

“Did I get burned out on junior golf? Of course I did,” Vaughn said. But she makes it clear she has “no regrets about playing Junior Golf. Not at all.

“I loved my Junior Golf days. I mean, yes, I got burned out, because we were gone all summer and I didn’t get to hang out with my friends much. I had to make a lot of sacrifices. When my friends were having sleep-overs, and doing things, I was at tournaments with my parents and my sisters.

“But I don’t have any regrets about it. Some of my really great friends today are people I met through Junior Golf. …. It’s cool that I’ve met so many people that I’ve literally grown up with playing golf since I was eight years old.”

Such is her talent that Vaughn could make the game look easy, especially as she piled up wins and accolades. She was 15 when she won the Oregon Women’s Amateur in 2010, youngest player to ever do so, and that year she won the Oregon Junior Amateur tournament and Oregon Public Links title, first golfer to win all three tournaments in the same year, earning her OGA and PNGA junior player of the year honors. In college, she was a first-team all-American, Honda Award winner and 2016 Curtis Cup member, just to name a few honors.

But golf isn’t easy, and it wasn’t, and she admits to struggling with the emotional pressure, and with the “yips” on the putting green.

“I think the mental part of it was so difficult for me, and it’s one of the reasons I decided to step away from the game,” she said. “I kind of came to a standstill where the negative parts of the game and the parts that got me down far outweighed the good days that I was having.

“I was really, really hard on myself when I would go out and have a bad day, but if I went out and shot four-under, or went out and won a tournament, that was really short-lived. So that became kind of a breaking point for me. I really struggled with that, mentally getting upset and getting down on myself and not being able to pull myself out of it if I was having a bad tournament.

“I told myself I didn’t need to put myself through that anymore.”

Her putting problems went as far back as Junior Golf, she said, and she credits sports psychologist Debbie Crews, who works with golfers at ASU, for teaching her how to deal with the yips, and keep them under control, in college.

“I had the yips had during national championship, when I won, I absolutely had them, but I got the ball in the hole every time because of Debbie,” she said. “But as soon as I left, even as I was trying everything Debbie had ever taught me, I still was struggling. I was striking the ball so well. I was hitting every fairway, every green, it just came down inside three feet and I couldn’t get the ball in the hole. And I was (thinking) ‘this is too frustrating, and I know that I’ve tried so much to prevent this, and I need to take a break.’

“That’s been really tough, but I feel such a weight off my shoulders that I don’t have to go out and struggle and be upset and frustrated all the time.”

With a degree in communications — she graduated magna cum laude — Vaughn would ultimately like to coach at the Division I level, even if that means starting at a smaller school; she’s also open to a career in golf communications, reporting or commentating. Somehow, she said, she’ll have a future in the game.

Photo courtesy ASU Athletics

She’s asked what, in retrospect, she’d tell 8-year-old Monica Vaughn about golf.

“What would I tell myself?” she replied. “I would tell myself it’s just golf. It’s just golf. It’s not something to get all worked up about, or so upset about, and you can move on and be a good person and live a good life and do all these wonderful things even if you had a bad day on the golf course. I think that was something I didn’t learn until I came to college, because that’s something our coaches really instilled in us, and that really helped me, that you can go out and shoot 85 on the golf course and still be a good student and still be a good person and life’s going to go on.

“I think a lot of golfers struggle with that, because I don’t think they were told that growing up. It’s golf, golf, golf and performance and how you do and what’s your score. We lose sight that it’s just a game, and we’re all here to have fun make friendships and become closer with one another. We lose sight of that. That’s what I would tell myself — go have fun and don’t worry about it. It’s not that big of a deal.”

One day, Vaughn said, if she has children, she’ll definitely want them to play the game.

“I think I would love for my kids to play golf,” she said. “I think that would be really fun. I would want them to play good, and want them to want to play good. It’s such a great tool to have, to know how to play golf. Golf will take you so many places, and you’ll meet so many people. You don’t see that with other sports. Of course I want my kids to try all different sports, but golf is something you can play for the rest of your life, and something we can all together, so of course I would want my kids to play golf.”

Ron Bellamy is the former sports editor and columnist for The Register-Guard in Eugene. For past golf writings, visit