Thursday November 8, 2012Lendl Taps Into Vast Potential to Start Senior Season
Gators senior Isabelle Lendl won back-to-back tournaments this fall.
Gators senior Isabelle Lendl won back-to-back tournaments this fall.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Isabelle Lendl finished her junior season at UF by walking off the course last spring at the NCAA Championships after carding a 66. It was the best round of her collegiate career and 16 shots better than her first-round 82 three days earlier.
Lendl’s final-day performance helped her climb the leaderboard more than 50 spots into a tie for 51st. Still, Lendl had much more in mind when she arrived at the Vanderbilt Legends Course in Franklin, Tenn., for the season's final event.
A slow start and fast finish had been Lendl’s modus operandi all season. With her college season over, Lendl, motivated to tap deeper into her potential, returned home to Connecticut and rarely put her clubs down. A few days after the NCAA Championships, Lendl played in the Connecticut Women’s Open, shooting back-to-back 73s in the two-day event.
There was suddenly urgency in Lendl’s game that she felt had been missing. She decided to seize an opportunity to improve her game and spent the summer on the golf course.
Lendl won the Women's Eastern Amateur in York, Pa. She advanced into match play at the North & South Women's Amateur in Pinehurst, N.C., and then claimed medalist honors in qualifying for the U.S. Women's Amateur in Brookline, Mass.
When there was a break in her tournament schedule, Lendl spent most days at the Torrington Country Club, her family's home course in tony Goshen, Conn.
She created her own tournaments to stay sharp, focused on developing a newfound edge, a killer instinct from her first swing of a tournament to her last.
"My summer consisted of a lot of one- or two-day tournaments,’’ Lendl said. “I either found them up North or I would make tournaments with my friends. I would gather up a bunch of my friends and we would play either a one- or two-day thing where we would all trade scorecards and make it all real cheesy and make these funny prizes.
"You cannot get off to a slow start in two-day tournaments. If you shoot 80 the first day you are done.”
When Gators coach Emily Bastel took time out from a recruiting trip in August to watch Lendl play in the U.S. Women's Amateur Championships in Cleveland, she saw the same Lendl she saw three months earlier at the NCAA Championships.
Lendl was fixated, on top of her game and had a presence about her that hid in the shadows at times last year.
"She kind of walks with a purpose when she is playing well,'' Bastel said. "Her head back and held high. I can just sort of watch her walk and I’ve got a good idea how she is playing without seeing the scoreboard."
Isabelle, 21, is perhaps more like her famous father than any of her four sisters when it comes to her competitive nature. Former tennis great Ivan Lendl and wife Samantha, married in 1989, raised their five daughters between their 10-bedroom home in Connecticut and their residence in Vero Beach.
They lived in Connecticut during the summer and Florida in the winter, spending much of their time on the golf course when the girls decided tennis wasn't for them.
Isabelle's older sister, Marika, was her teammate at UF the past three years. However, Marika has graduated and is working in public relations for IMG in Miami. She still plays golf occasionally but mostly for recreation.
Daniela, the second-youngest of the Lendl girls and whom the family has called Crash since she began to charge into things as a toddler, is a sophomore on the University of Alabama women's golf team.
Isabelle's fraternal twin, Caroline, is the only Lendl girl who opted not to play golf. She followed in Samantha's footsteps and competes in equestrian. Nikki, the youngest daughter, has played golf but is more involved with horses like Caroline and their mother.
Isabelle began to blossom on the links in 2004 when at 13 she was the youngest player to qualify for match play at that year's U.S. Women's Amateur.
In a recent post on his Golf Digest-affiliated blog, David Owen, a Lendl family friend, author, avid golfer and writer for The New Yorker, recalled how talented Isabelle was at such an early age.
"I first saw her play two or three years before [the 2004 U.S. Women's Amateur], when she was already proficient at a shot I’ve never seen an adult amateur pull off: a low, short chip that bounced once or twice on a firm green sloping away from her, then spun to a stop right next to the hole,’’ Owen wrote. “In Florida once, Isabelle was hitting balls on a driving range while a pro watched her. After she had methodically worked her way through one large basket of balls, she moved to the next station, kicked over the basket sitting next to it, to spill out the balls, and went to work on those.
"The part of her game that impressed the pro the most, he told me, was the kick: she had clearly done this many times before.”
Owen profiled Isabelle and her sisters in a New Yorker story headlined "Title IX Babies" in May 2006. The story provides insight into Ivan Lendl's role in producing such talented and competitive offspring.
While Lendl's wealth from his tennis career provided the girls with material goods and an affluent lifestyle, he made sure they earned their rewards in competition.
"I have told the girls since they were little babies that if they ever beat me they will know they earned it, because I will never give them anything,’’ Lendl told Owen. “I hate to lose, even to my kids.”
Lendl grew up in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, the son of the No. 2 female tennis player in the country. He finally beat his mom in tennis at 13 and soon left home to travel the world as one of the game's top stars in the 1980s.
He currently coaches Olympic gold medalist and Wimbledon finalist Andy Murray. Having developed into an exceptional golfer in his post-tennis career, Lendl tutored his daughters in golf as they grew up.
He maintains close contact with Isabelle about her game.
"My dad is always looking toward the future,’’ Isabelle said. “He watches my scorecard when I play. If he sees a double- or a triple-[bogey], he’ll ask what went on. He’ll notice patterns. He helps me that way and keeps me grounded.”
Bastel, a top collegiate golfer at Michigan State a decade ago, understands Isabelle is a unique player considering her background.
She also considers Isabelle a coach's dream.
"She is very realistic,’’ Bastel said. “I don’t feel she is one of those athletes that have been coddled at all. I love working with her because I can just tell her how it is and she is receptive to that. You don’t have to sugarcoat anything with her. It’s helped our relationship. What you see is what you get with her.
“I know she gets that from him. She really understands what it takes to be successful at a high level.”
When Isabelle returned to UF for the start of her senior season this fall, it was as if she walked straight off the course at the NCAA Championships and onto the next hole.
She shot a 67 in her first round of the fall season at the Cougar Classic in South Carolina. She finished tied for fifth.
The following week at the Dale McNamara Invitational in Tulsa, Okla., Isabelle did something she had never done on the collegiate level: she won outright. Isabelle shot rounds of 71, 67 and 72 to win the individual title.
The only other time she had won a tournament for the Gators was her freshman season when she tied for first at the Central District Invitational in Bradenton in only the fourth event of her college career.
"She was in position to win at the Cougar Classic and she didn’t finish as well as she wanted to on the final day and was disappointed,’’ Bastel said. “She kind of used that and turned it into determination. You could tell a few days later when we teed it up in Tulsa that she was ready to go.”
After her up-and-down career, Isabelle savored the victory.
"It was nice because I knew I was playing well coming in,’’ she said. “It was very rewarding for me.”
Isabelle didn't waste any time before winning again, this time taking the title at the Tar Heel Invitational in North Carolina. She opened with a 70 followed by rounds of 71 and 69 on the way to her second consecutive tournament title.
She closed the fall season nine days ago by helping the Gators win the team title at the Betsy Rawls Longhorn Invitational in Texas, finishing 10th overall as teammate Camilla Hedberg claimed the individual title.
Lendl credits several factors in her recent turnaround. She started working with a new swing coach earlier this year. She has worked countless hours on the mental part of her game, more in practice rounds than on the range. As a result, she has tapped into the potential that everyone who has ever watched her play knows was there.
"You could see the confidence building,'' Bastel said. "She has been there before, so it’s not a surprise. You don’t ever have to worry about her giving up. That is something she never does.
"You almost judge people when they are playing well by how good their mistakes are,’’ Bastel continued. "That is one thing she is doing well. Even when she makes mistakes, which is inevitable in golf, they’re a lot better than they were before, a lot better than they were last year. When your mistakes are good, it’s a lot easier to hang in there for 18 holes.”
In that New Yorker profile a few years ago, Samantha shared how Ivan would have the girls climb the stairs in their home to see who could get to the top first. Isabelle won her share of those climbs.
It was then when some of Isabelle's competitive drive first started to emerge. In the years since she has developed her golf game to a point where she is expected to play on the LPGA Tour soon after her Gators career concludes.
That's no surprise to Owen, who closed his piece with an anecdote about playing a round of golf one day with Isabelle when she was still a pre-teen. Her sister Caroline attended a birthday party that day, an event Isabelle had little interest in.
She wanted to be on the golf course. As Isabelle and Owen finished their round that day, Owen told her that the great thing about golf is that it's a game for a lifetime, even after you grow up and move on to other interests.
He then wrote:
I told her about my brother, who was the captain of his golf team in high school and in college and now works as an advertising executive in New York City and sometimes gets to play with clients.
"No," Isabelle said firmly, as we walked up the fifth fairway, "I'm going to play on tour."
Years later, Isabelle appears well on her way if her recent play at UF is any indication -- a hot streak that can be traced back to that final round of her junior season.
"I think any time a player shoots a number like that in a competition like that … I think it gives them confidence,’’ Isabelle said. “There’s a difference between knowing you can do it in practice or hitting good shots on the range and doing it in competition. A round like that just gives you a lot of confidence that yeah, you really can do it.”