Heroes

From potato fields to Pinehurst: How a boy from America's poorest reservation became a hero to his people through golf

The boy must leave the reservation to play. He pilots an old Toyota Camry, what he affectionately refers to as the “Red Rider,” to drive 90 miles round trip, 50 of which are on dirt roads. Tack on 30 minutes if a storm has turned the dirt into mud. There are mixed-grass prairies and sand dunes and pine trees emitting from fault scarp, and state lines are crossed. It is not an easy drive, Lance Christensen says. Yet Lance is a golfer, and a golfer needs a play.

“It could be three hours away, I don’t care,” Christensen says, a 17-year-old senior-to-be on the eve of the 2020 High School Golf National Invitational at North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort, beginning Aug. 3. “I just want to golf. I’d do anything for it.”

On the surface, Christensen is your standard prodigy. As a toddler he swung a plastic club in his grandfather’s potato fields. As he got older, he was known to find the nearest broken tree branch in order to work on his grip. His father, Lance Sr., collected a garbage can full of balls and gave him a patch of grass in the yard to call his own. By 7, Lance was entering, and winning, junior events in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.

“There was this sense of composure,” says Rob Mendoza, Lance’s golf and basketball coach. “He would make a couple bad scores, so I’d go up to him to see how he was feeling. He’d go, ‘I made three bogeys but watch, I’m about to turn it on.’ And this was at 7 years old! From the beginning, everyone knew, This kid is going places.”

But to appreciate where Christensen is going, you must know where he started.

Christensen lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation. To the outside world, Pine Ridge is known for Wounded Knee, the site of an 1890 massacre of several hundred Lakota people by United States soldiers and a 1973 occupation where 200 Oglala Lakota seized the town from the government. Those on the reservation, most of whom belong to the Oglala Lakota tribe, do not define their community by historical footnotes. Theirs is a different plight.

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More than 53 percent of the Pine Ridge population lives in poverty, making it the poorest area in the country. There is no industry or commercial infrastructure, contributing to a 90 percent unemployed rate. The Red Cross discovered Pine Ridge’s infant mortality is the worst on the continent, and the reservation’s death rates are astronomically higher from cancer (500 percent), alcoholism (552 percent), and diabetes (800 percent) than the national average. A third of the houses don’t have electricity or running water, while the reservation says 60 percent of homes have traces of fatal black mold. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought its scars, too, the county just recently lifting its lockdown protocol in late July. The reservation faces some of the most extreme temperatures in the U.S., with highs in the 110s and lows in the negative-50s and punishing winds no matter the season.

The area is particularly cruel to children. An estimated 17 people live in each family home, many sleeping on dirt floors. In the past two decades gang life has infiltrated the reservation, correlating to a school dropout rate around 70 percent. One in four are born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and depression is rampant: Pine Ridge teenagers are three times more likely to commit suicide than their peers.

“Most people don’t have a lot,” says Jay Jacobs, who serves as a counselor at the Little Wound school. “And there’s not much to do. We got one movie theater. There are no outlets for kids. It’s easy to fall into trouble.”

Lana and Lance Christensen Sr. are in the minority of Pine Ridge residents that “come from education,” says Mendoza, and both work at Little Wound. The family stresses that they are not hurt for money. Nevertheless, they are not oblivious to the struggle of their people (Lance Sr. is Oglala, Lana is Cheyenne River Sioux), and their surroundings. It spurred a tough conversation several years back.

By this point Lance’s potential was undeniable. He was a well-rounded kid, but golf fueled his competitive spirit. He transformed his family’s horse pasture into his personal range. He would pitch into buckets and putt into his glasses. (“I’ve lost count on how many coffee mugs have been broken,” Lana says.) Lance’s favorite thing to do was blast full shots, carving balls over, around and through brush. He’d wake early to hit before school then return home to chase the sunset. Lance thought it was paradise. His father thought otherwise.

Lance’s talent was encumbered by the spartan set-up, his father worried. There was no golf course in the zip code, the nearest track a nine-hole layout in Gordon, Neb., almost an hour away. Every match or tournament required hours of travel. College offers could be problematic; most recruiters ignored the region. Lance Sr. believed the family needed to move.

Lance Sr. and Lana are not sure how long the conversation lasted. They remember how it ended.

“We were so into the discussion when another voice chimed in, kind of scaring us,” Lance Sr. said. “It was little Lance, he had to be 12 or 13. He overheard us, and he said, ‘No! I want to stay here. I can do it from here. And it will mean more when I do.’ ”

The Christensen family would stay in Kyle. But for years Lance Sr. would gaze into the yard as Lance practiced and feel the doubt creep in. “I’d watch and think, ‘What if I made a mistake? Did I hurt what he could become?’ ” Lance Sr. says. “You only get one shot.”

Lance was competing at the varsity level by the time he was in seventh grade. He had not physically developed compared to other boys his age, so playing up delivered its share of humblings. Not that Lance Jr. minded. “I liked seeing how my game measured up,” he says. “It showed me what I needed to work on.”

Perhaps he felt comfortable because golf wasn’t the only arena where he was punching above his weight. Thanks to his maturity, friendly demeanor and gusto, Christensen was asked to accept mentorship roles at the school, to give talks at different events. And not just to the tribe’s youth; he often found himself leading groups of adults in prayer.

Jacobs said he’s never seen so many people naturally gravitate to one person, chalking it up to Christensen’s infectious passion.

“I see it on a daily basis at the school,” Jacobs, 39, says. “Even the older kids would follow him or come to him for advice. He’s one of our brightest.”

By the time Christensen was a sophomore at Little Wound in the fall of 2018, he was one of the best golfers in South Dakota. He was still small for his grade, leaving him at a disadvantage off the tee. The rest of his game was so fundamentally sound it hardly mattered. “No one thinks the way around the course like he does,” Mendoza says. “He has a plan for every shot, every hole.” When a plan went awry, Lance fell back on a creativity others lacked, an imagination he credits to the hours at his range.

“They aren’t ‘hero shots’ if you’ve practiced them,” Christensen says. “Plus, it’s fun to be able to pull them off.”

Better yet, Christensen could now drive to Gorman, bestowing more on-course opportunities. The dividends were immediate: Lance won regionals and ended up finishing sixth in state. Before leaving the tournament, Christensen and his dad watched the trophy presentation, where the winner brought up his father for a hug.

“Hey,” Lance told his father, “next year we’re going to do that.”

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It was a prediction put to the test a month later. Playing in a pick-up basketball game, a teammate collided with Christensen, sending him to the ground. “It was a pain I’ve never felt,” he says. Lance suffered a broken collarbone.

The family visited a host of specialists, the injury severe enough where surgery was discussed. Ultimately, the Christensens opted for three months of rest, followed by another four months of rehab. For the first time in his life, the boy who went go-go-go had to stop.

“It was heart-breaking,” Lana says. “For a while, he felt like everything he loved was being taken away from him.”

His motion restricted, Lance couldn’t swing a club. As the days turned into weeks and into months, he was tormented by a sense that he would lose his feel or his swing would be out of whack. He thought of his competitors practicing while he couldn’t, and worried the countless time he devoted to his game would be for naught.

He grew restless, loathing his sedentary lifestyle. Lance blamed himself for his injury, believing it wouldn’t have happened if he had more muscle. Without his outlet, he fought depression.

“I know it’s prevalent on the reservation, but I was never affected by it,” Christensen says of those feelings. “And I always tried to help those who were going through it. Now, I got it.”

With the help of family, Lance was able to overcome these trials. His physical rehabilitation began, with no bumps in the recovery. In hindsight, Lance says the sabbatical was a confirmation of sorts. He never questioned his affinity for the sport, but having it pulled away was cathartic, strengthening his resolve.

The down time also planted an idea. His brush with depression bequeathed an understanding of what others were fighting. He believed he was being called to take up arms against it, and knew how.

“A lot of people were interested in my success at golf,” Christensen said. “And there’s so much talent here, I knew that so many of the younger kids could connect with golf and enjoy what I’ve enjoyed. They just didn’t have an opportunity.”

Christensen wrote a proposal to the reservation’s council, asking for help to start his own golf clinic. He would hold the program on his family’s property, as well as at the Gordon Golf Club in Nebraska. He knew funds were tight, and that clubs and balls and gas money were a big ask. Yet, golf was a gift, and his parents instilled that gifts are meant to be shared, so he pleaded his case.

“Yeah, it’s just a sport. It also can be more than that,” Christensen said. “When I was hurt, I saw my life without golf, and I didn’t like it.”

The reservation approved the petition; Christensen, ending his sophomore year of high school in spring 2019, would get his own program.

The day the resolution passed, Lance was on a mower, cutting a new hitting area with his dad helping install a green. Twice a week, the Christensens, along with family and friends, introduced the children of Pine Ridge Reservation to the sport. Everything from etiquette to fundamentals to vernacular was covered. Lance was mindful of keeping things light and fun; it is a game after all, he says.

He didn’t know if the kids would be interested for more than 30 minutes, but by the end of the program, the sessions were lasting eight hours.

Lance taught with the clarity of a veteran teacher, says Mendoza. Word spread, with adults joining the student ranks. By summer, Lance had a steady group of 30 new golfers.

“I don’t know if he knew the undertaking when he started,” Mendoza says. “But what he did for people here … it showed kids there was more to do than trouble, you know?” Mendoza says a normal drive through the reservation now reveals a handful of kids practicing in their yards, wanting to be like Lance.

The clinic was a wild success. But the teacher was still a player. In May 2019, Lance received clearance to resume play. There was a state championship to be won.

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“Lance had so much pent-up energy,” Lana says, “we had to constantly remind him not to overdo it.”

Aside from trying to return to his normal routine, Lance hit the gym, wanting to protect his body from further injury while hoping for added driving distance. He changed diets, going vegan and quitting soda entirely. The parents pumped the brakes as best they could … but some engines don’t have governors.

Lance insisted the changes were necessary, both in physicality and mentality. The injury would be a delineation point in his life. Every decision going forward had to be in sync with his goal. “It’s that saying, ‘Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I will do what others can’t,’ ” Christensen says. “I can’t afford to be outworked.”

He would head to Gordon two hours before his tee time, working on his short game before 18 holes, then return to the practice green afterward. During this time Lance was blessed with providence, enjoying a growth spurt heading into his junior year. When the South Dakota high school golf season began in the fall, Christensen was ostensibly back in form, medaling in seven of 11 matches. “Regarding his contact, it was as good as he’s hit the ball,” Mendoza says.

However, both Mendoza and Lance say something was off, and neither could pinpoint what it was. He was winning, sure, but his rounds were filled with mistakes and he wasn’t scoring as well as he should. In regionals, the tournament where he was the reigning champ, Christensen finished second to a player he routinely beat by five or six strokes.

In hindsight, the problem was clear. Over the summer, Lance had become a role model to the kids he taught at his camp. His success was no longer his own. “People were always supportive,” Christensen says. “Now I felt what I was doing mattered to more than just my family.” It can be a heavy stick to swing for a 17-year-old.

Christensen still managed to qualify for the state tournament at the Bluffs Course in Vermillion, S.D. Through the first nine at the 36-hole event, Christensen struggled. The drives weren’t straight and putts weren’t falling. Even so, a strong finish led to a 77, good enough for a one-shot lead in difficult conditions. But Christensen was quiet after the round among family and friends, unsure what to make of things. He didn’t feel “on.”

His friend Caleb suggested the group go buffalo hunting for good luck. While packing into their vehicles, Mendoza noticed a Buffalo Wild Wings and decided they had found their “big game.” As the party ate, Lance was mostly reserved, toying with his plate. Near the end, he broke his silence.

“I’m going to do it tomorrow,” Lance announced.

He sensed the full attention of the table. He had a nice bounce back to end the day, but his game was far from polished. This was states; those behind him on the leader board were solid players. But Lance looked at family members, friends and coach, locking eyes with everyone. Or, as Mendoza clarifies, Lance let everyone lock into his.

“Guys,” Lance repeated, “I’m going to do it.”

The fans were turned to 10 on Day 2 of the South Dakota state championship, and the scores followed suit. Mendoza said the winds reached as high as 30 mph. It delighted Lance to no end.

“I saw the other players really have a hard time with the wind,” Lance says. “But it’s the weather I practice in all the time. It was what I wanted.”

Lance was not paired with his nearest competitors; they played ahead, as they were also competing in the team portion of the event. Knowing the wind would bring its carnage, he played conservatively. “I just made sure to take the big number out of play,” he says. After nine holes, Lance was up by four.

Lance told Mendoza and his father not to inform him of the proceedings unless he needed to know, so they kept their distance. After a bogey on 12, however, his lead was down to two, and the 13th featured penalty areas on both sides of the hole. “You’re always afraid of how a kid might react to the pressure,” Mendoza says.

If Lance felt the heat, he didn’t show it on his swing, finding the fairway en route to a par. He played the 14th without incident, and damn near jarred his approach at the 15th. Ahead, his rivals were making a mess of the Bluffs’ closing stretch. Lance knew: It was happening.

He initially played it safe on the par-5 18th, hitting a 3-wood to keep it in play, but he hit it so long that he could reach the green in two. He looked over to Mendoza and waved his wedge, only to put it back in the bag with a devilish grin while grabbing a hybrid. This is a game after all, Lance says.

The eagle putt didn’t drop; the next ran in. And onto the green ran Lana and Lance Sr, the boy delivering the hug he had promised the year before. Lance Christensen had become the first South Dakota state champion from Pine Ridge.

“To see everything he put in, and how he did it, with limited resources,” Lance Sr. says, his voice cut by tears. “I told him he was my hero.”

It is a five-hour drive from Vermillion to Kyle. But good news travels fast. When Lance returned to the reservation, he was met by police cars. The flashing lights escorted him to Little Wound. He walked into the gym doors and was greeted by cheers from the entire reservation.

“He carried the community with him,” Jacobs says. “It was time we returned the favor.”

The memories from autumn remain clear. What lies ahead, not so much.

Like most schools, Little Wound is unsure of its plans amid the coronavirus pandemic. Same applies for the South Dakota High School Activities Association. There is a chance fall sports are canceled, denying Lance a chance to defend his title, to say nothing of his senior year.

He understands there are “bigger things than sports right now,” but acknowledges the ramifications it could have on his future. Lance intends to play at the collegiate level, yet even with the state ring, recruiters are not prone to visit Pine Ridge. Christensen believes another strong campaign would elicit scholarship offers.

However, there is a lifeline with Lance playing at next week’s High School Golf National Invitational. He views the three-day event, with more than 110 girls and 250 boys from more than 40 states competing, as a showcase for his game, for his story. His parents look at the event through a different lens.

“Can you believe it?” Lana asks. “From the potato fields to Pinehurst. Just saying that makes me so happy for him.”

The boy must leave the reservation to play. A 25-hour drive awaits from South Dakota to North Carolina. No matter where he ultimately plays, Christensen wants to make one thing clear.

“The goal was never to make it off the ‘Rez.’ I love my home,” Christensen says. “The goal was to show the kids that we are capable of far more than anyone wants to believe we are.”

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