A bumpy ending to a standout college career
Photos by Alan P. Pittman during video chat
Our team was driving to a tournament in March when we heard the season was canceled and that college sports had been suspended because of the coronavirus. Two hours later, we heard the NCAA Championship was also canceled. It was difficult to process. In just a few hours, I went from being in a pre-tournament mind-set to having my senior year end. More than that, my final season with this team, representing the university I love, defending our NCAA title, was over. I became emotional thinking about it and everything I had accomplished.
I came to Duke from Slovenia, a country in central Europe, with only a duffel bag and my clubs. When the airline lost my duffel, an assistant coach gave me some team clothes from previous seasons, so I’d have something to wear. I didn’t see it as unusual until I saw freshmen showing up with truckloads of stuff. But it didn’t bother me. I told myself I could do this. I’d made it to campus, I had my clubs, and I could speak English. I was ready.
I started playing golf in Slovenia when I was 4 or 5. My first set was meant for a teenager. The 9-iron was as tall as me. My parents got me lessons at the closest course, a public nine-holer about 45 minutes from our house. That’s where I played growing up. It isn’t maintained like courses in the United States. The range balls were old and cracked. If you got a bad one, it’d go 100 yards with a driver. If you got a really bad one, it would break apart in the air. It didn’t matter. I won the first tournament I played, at age 7 or 8, and I was hooked.
My dad and I got creative, focusing on building my short game. He would watch Dave Pelz DVDs, and we’d practice on the putting carpet in the living room. Outside, I’d hit flop shots, and he’d catch them with an oven mitt. It was fun, and I got pretty good quickly. At age 12, I made the national team.
When I was in my last year of high school, Duke coach Dan Brooks came to see me play in Sweden at the Annika Invitational. I was leaving the 12th hole when I saw him, and I thought OK, this is serious. Thirteen was a downhill par 3 with water fronting the green. I went with a gripped down, soft 8-iron. It was perfect: my first hole-in-one. Coach Brooks happened to film it. We later joked that it was a sign I was meant to play at Duke.
Parts of that first year at Duke were hard. I came to America speaking six languages, but I was terrified in class, afraid of saying something wrong or that people would make fun of my accent. It helped that I found a happy place in the weight room. I worked with a strength-and-conditioning coach and got into Olympic lifts. I love back squats, bench presses, hand cleans, power cleans. Lifting has helped me gain distance, too. I carry it 245 to 250 yards now.
It wasn’t until my junior year that my parents were able to come and see me compete. My dad caddied for me at last year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur, one of the best experiences of my amateur career. Two months later, our team won the NCAA championship; I went 3-0 in my matches. Seeing our hard work pay off was one of my best memories at Duke.
The NCAA gave senior spring athletes the option to come back and compete in 2021 to make up for the season we’re missing because of the pandemic. I’ve loved Duke and my team, but I’m ready to start living out my childhood dream of being a professional athlete. I majored in statistics and four years of intense study will drain you. I decided to turn pro immediately.
I have full Symetra Tour status, but the tournaments are postponed until the middle of July. I’m in Durham, taking my final classes on Zoom, working out in my apartment and practicing at a local course because Duke’s facilities are closed. I didn’t plan on having this much time off, but with given the scope of our national crisis, I know how lucky I am. I’m safe and healthy.
No woman from Slovenia has ever gotten an LPGA Tour card. It’d be amazing to be the first, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. My transition into college wasn’t perfect, and this is no different. When I told the freshmen on our team about showing up at campus with just my golf bag, they joked that it sounded like I was telling them a story about my grandparents, not something that happened four years ago. I’m lucky to have more than just my clubs with me as I start this next phase, but my mentality is the same: I’m ready. —with Keely Levins
Ana Belac is a former Duke All-American who turned pro in April.
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