PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

The Genius of Amy

March 28, 2019

Photo by Patrick Driscoll

“Amy doesn't get nervous. She gets excited.”

The most engaged video ever on the PGA Tour's Facebook page doesn't include Tiger Woods. Or Rory McIlroy. Or Jordan Spieth. Or even the goofy-swinging Ho-Sung Choi. It doesn't feature a PGA Tour player hitting a single shot.

No, its subject is Amy Bockerstette, 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 nearly 24 million times, Bockerstette's par full of smiles on the 16th hole during a 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 says. “To step up in front of the crowd and to hit the shots that she hit and make par, I never rooted so hard.”

Viewed in another light, Bockerstette's performance was more than another one of those sweet viral videos that flicker across social media and quickly disappear. 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, it was just fun.

As her father says, “People asked me if Amy gets nervous. My answer is, ‘Amy doesn't get nervous. She gets excited.’

“She absolutely savored the moment.”

Where many are uncomfortable on any stage, let alone the raucous coliseum that the TPC Scottsdale's 16th hole can be, Amy “wants to be a rock star,” says her teacher, 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 case-y. 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, aren't by accident. She has worked the past 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.

“Individuals with Down Syndrome use self-talk a lot,” says Dr. Nicole Baumer, director of the Down Syndrome Program at Boston Children's Hospital. “It's 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 glide through the pressure palace makes you wonder what we're all so agitated about, what purpose is served by the flood of anxiety over tee shots on the first tee 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 that is Amy.”

Joe introduced Amy to the game and caddies for her in Special Olympics events, but he asked Acuff to start teaching her 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,” says Acuff, who concedes he still wants Amy to do well because 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. “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.

“Golf is very good for Amy, but really, Amy is very good for golf, too.”