Amy Bockerstette's viral moment reveals an invaluable lesson about golf—and life
The most engaged video ever on the PGA Tour’s Facebook page does not include Tiger Woods. Or Rory McIlroy. Or Jordan Spieth. Or even Ho-Sung Choi. It does not feature a PGA Tour player hitting a single shot.
No, its subject is a 20-year-old girl hitting a 6-hybrid from 117 yards into a bunker, and its three minutes dare you not to cry through your joy.
Viewed across multiple channels and platforms millions of times over the last 10 days, Amy Bockerstette’s par on the 16th hole during last Tuesday’s practice round at the Waste Management Phoenix Open was a revelation. Defending champion Gary Woodland was overwhelmed by playing partner Amy’s inspiring performance and impressive record, which includes two appearances in the Arizona state high school championship and an athletic scholarship to Paradise Valley Community College, all despite having Down Syndrome.
“I’ve had a lot of good memories in my life, but that’s one I’ll never forget,” Woodland said. “I've been blessed to do lot of cool things on the golf course but that is by far the coolest thing I've ever experienced. She was phenomenal. And then to step up in front of all the people and the crowd and everything and to hit the shots that she hit and made par, I never rooted so hard for somebody on a golf course and it was an emotional, emotional really cool experience.”
But viewed in another light, Bockerstette’s performance was more than another of the sweet vignette viral videos we’ve seen play out on SportsCenter Top 10s over the years. It was a master class in human possibility, a teachable moment in the power of positive thinking, a lesson on how flimsy assumptions and limits are in the face of self-belief. Her self-talk of “I got this” echoed Dad Joe’s gentle reminder of “You got this,” and she moved confidently, joyfully from tee shot to bunker shot to eight-foot par putt. It showed us how easily we sometimes overlook the obvious, that the game might not be as complicated as we make it.
For Amy, though, it was just fun.
As her father said, “People asked me if Amy gets nervous. My answer is, ‘Amy doesn’t get nervous. She gets excited.'
“She absolutely savored the moment.”
"People asked me if Amy gets nervous. My answer is, ‘Amy doesn’t get nervous. She gets excited.'"
Where many are uncomfortable on any stage, let alone the raucous coliseum that the TPC of Scottsdale’s 16th hole can be, Amy “wants to be a rock star,” said her teaching pro Matt Acuff.
“She has dreamt and thought of and pictured in her mind and imagined that type of stage. So to be there in front of that huge crowd, which would make just about anybody else buckle, that was her element. I can hear her saying, ‘They love me, they’re here to see me. And I know how to do this. I’ve hit this shot a whole bunch of times.’
“I know some of the guys struggling to make it out there can get a little nutty sometimes, a little head casey. They could learn some very valuable lessons from Amy as far as how not to do that.”
Of course, Bockerstette’s accomplishments, which also go beyond golf to dance class and theater and high school graduation speeches, are not by accident. She’s worked the last five years with Acuff to go from barely making contact to earning an athletic scholarship. It’s been a lot of positive talk, a lot of belief from those around her that’s become her belief, too. It is a gift that is the other side of Down Syndrome, something noted sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella has seen first-hand.
“I have worked with children with Down Syndrome for several years, and I would say in general they are the happiest, most positive, upbeat human beings on this planet,” he said.
It’s a lesson Rotella and every other performance coach has hammered into our heads since the first time anybody ever used the expressions “pre-shot routine” and “staying in the moment.” But it’s not that Amy or any person with special needs doesn’t feel pressure. It’s just that they might be better listeners when it comes to learning how to deal with it.
“Individuals with Down Syndrome use self-talk a lot,” said Dr. Nicole Baumer, director of the Down Syndrome Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It is a very common way for them to deal with difficult situations, learn new skills and process things. Amy’s using really productive, confident self-talk.
“They do feel pressure, and individuals with Down Syndrome have to work a lot harder than other people to achieve similar things. But I do think that there is this inherent level of optimism that can really help them in situations where they feel that pressure.”
Watching Amy makes you wonder what we’re all so agitated about, what purpose is served by the flood of anxiety over first tee shots at the company golf outing or the member-guest chip-off or even that five-footer on 18 when nobody’s watching.
“She’s not burdened with self-doubt,” Joe says. “She’s gotten a lot of positive reinforcement, but it’s just not that complicated for her, and that’s part of the genius and brilliance of Amy.
“She doesn’t keep score so the notion that the next shot is the only shot very much resonates with Amy. Whether she’s trying to chip in for a 9 or putt for a birdie, we’re all about making sure she knows that the next shot is the only thing that matters. She’s just not hung up on whether she needs this next shot for a 6. Is she a better golfer than me? Well, she’ll never know because I’m the only one keeping score.”
Joe introduced Amy to the game and caddies for her in Special Olympics events, but he asked Acuff to start teaching her five years ago with the idea that golf might be a game she could play for the rest of her life. Acuff, director of instruction at Phoenix’s True North Golf School and a noted junior instructor, has worked extensively with Amy and caddied for her through all her high school tournaments. He’ll tell her before every swing, “butt back, chest up, hands down, hands in front of you, small step left, large step right, turn back low and elbow down and then swing through hard to the target.” Amy follows his lead, gets the target and goes. That is, of course, if she wants to. Sometimes, Amy’s focus is on other things.
“She continues to teach me not to sweat the small stuff,” said Acuff, who concedes he still wants Amy to do well because he’s seen she has enough talent to break 90 this year. But he also knows that simply being on a team and riding in the van to a tournament with the other girls is just as often what Amy loves about golf. “Small stuff for her is like, ‘Are we going to Rubio’s for lunch?’
“I’m blessed to teach Amy, and I hope that I have helped Amy or been an influence on her life just a little by comparison to how much she has helped my life and made me a better teacher. She lives one shot at a time. She has a blast. She doesn’t get upset. The more I live from that place, the better off I am.”
The Amy Bockerstette-Gary Woodland video resonates obviously because Amy makes an incredible par. It’s repeatedly viewed because it overflows with joy, both Amy’s embrace of the moment and how Woodland, playing partner Matt Kuchar and caddie John Wood are genuinely overwhelmed by her success. But to Dr. Baumer it’s more than a sweet golf story. It’s hope made real in a critically important way, showing what Down Syndrome really means, paving the way for new possibilities.
"The notion that the next shot is the only shot very much resonates with Amy."
“It’s really a very inspirational story, especially for young families of individuals with Down Syndrome,” she said. “I do think Amy is extraordinary and is clearly the product of being privy to people all along the way having high expectations of what she was capable of and believing in her. She clearly believes in herself. That didn’t just happen.
“When we see families with Down Syndrome we tell them that if they have high expectations of their children, their children will do better.”
But that same lesson for families of kids with special needs ought to resonate for golfers, too. There is a game plan for self-belief and Amy personifies it. Amy’s “I got this” may be touching, but it should be instructive, too. It’s entirely positive, and it’s a delight. As a final touch, when Amy blows kisses to the crowd and hugs Woodland, her smile glows as much as it did after holing that final, nerveless eight-footer, maybe more.
“I’ve never seen her in a bad mood,” Acuff said. “She lives exactly what the game is supposed to be, the enjoyment you’re supposed to have and the fellowship of the day and not all that other stuff.
“Golf is very good for Amy, but Amy is very good for golf.”