ANGOLA, Ind. — Sarah Paulson is undaunted by bunkers and ponds — she’s willed her way out of far more harrowing hazards.
The Central senior is her school’s lone representative at the NCAA Championship. To earn the coveted invitation to compete in the year’s biggest tournament, she had to overcome heartbreak, injury and the rust that builds when life supersedes golf.
“I’m just excited to be here,” Paulson said.
After Paulson’s freshman year, the notion of competing for a national title throughout her career seemed all but assured. She set several Central scoring records in her first season, played in the national championship and garnered an All-American honorable mention. She possessed Division I talent — her twin sister, Kristin, plays for Iowa State — but chose Division III so that she could play basketball, the sport her father loved watching her play most. Her trajectory towards athletic stardom and, perhaps, a national championship seemed inevitable.
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But life interrupted. Her father died on July 24, 2009. She returned to school as a sophomore in August saddled with grief and sought refuge on golf courses and basketball courts.
“It was an outlet,” she said.
But that escape was short-lived. While playing basketball that fall, she began experiencing sharp pain in her right knee. Later, a doctor would explain that the joint’s cushioning had slowly been eroding from overuse. Microfracture surgery, a shudder-inducing term in athletic circles, was her only recourse. The hole that had formed in her cartilage was rivaled only by the one lingering in her heart.
“That was a rough year,” she said. “It probably affected me more than I thought.”
She went on to miss the remainder of her sophomore basketball season and her entire spring golf season while enduring the six-month rehab from surgery. The next fall, the Spanish major would venture abroad to study the language in its native land. The aspiring teacher went to Spain to hone her speaking skills, but returned with much more.
“I think it did recharge her batteries,” said her coach Tim Wilkinson, who came to Central during her junior year. “Her golf wasn’t up to par the spring that she came back, but it gave her a chance to shake the rust off before making a charge this year.”
After more than a year away from collegiate competition, Paulson returned revitalized this season. She started at guard for Central, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots and earned second-team all-Iowa Conference honors. Though her golf game has slipped — she averaged 76.7 strokes-per-round as a freshman and 79.5 this year — after so much time missed rehabbing, in Spain and student-teaching, she won four events this season and finished 17th in the nation in scoring average.
Despite the solid season, she said she was surprised that she garnered an invitation to the national championship this year — her first appearance in the tournament since she showed so much promise as a freshman.
“It’s huge,” she said. “To come back here this spring, I wasn’t expecting it at all. It’s a really awesome experience. I’m trying to have fun and enjoy it, but play well too.”
She’s doing both. Her final putt on Wednesday — a 10-foot par attempt — hung on the lip of the cup for a moment before tumbling in. The smile on her face as she strode off the 18th was evidence enough that she’s enjoying her last few laps around a golf course wearing Central red. The scorecard she handed in moments later read 77, putting her only 10-over par midway through the tournament and in the thick of the hunt for the individual title.
“I don’t have control over what anybody else shoots,” she said. “If I can make some more putts, then I’ll definitely have a chance.”
Her smile on 18 was a common sight, Wilkinson said. Sometimes he forgets about the emotional and physical trauma she’s suffered—she doesn’t limp as she scales hilly courses, full golf bag on her shoulders, and never seems trapped by remorse over the premature loss of her father.
“I asked her last year, ‘It hasn’t been that long since you’ve had some tough times, do you ever get sad?’” Wilkinson said. “Day to day she’s got such a great outlook on life. I think that’s what’s allowed her to continue and not just survive, but she’s thriving.”
Though she shows no outward signs of distress, Paulson hasn’t forgotten what she’s been through. A round, metal tag affixed to her bag bears her father’s name. That reminder of him was with her through every stroke this season. That reminder has kept her going when she suffers through recurring knee pain, when she finds herself in a bunker or when the putts simply aren’t falling. That silver disk has never let her give up and has pushed her back to an elite level after she’d fallen so far. It’s why she never once considered putting those clubs away — her father was a part of them.
“My dad was such a huge supporter,” she said. “He loved watching me play basketball and golf … I’d never quit.”