Mary Lawrence’s golfing life has come full circle.
As a teenage prodigy in Northern New York and her hometown of Canton, she honed her game on area fairways. Lawrence then advanced to become one of the top amateurs in the country, gaining All-American status in college, before competing at the highest level of the professional ranks on the LPGA Tour.
And then, when the competitive side of her waned, she returned to her roots to teach and coach and help advance the game with her vast knowledge of what it takes to succeed.
These days, more than 30 years removed from winning the New York State Junior Girls championship, Lawrence spends much of her year molding the student-athletes on the St. Lawrence University golf teams into men and women. Preparing them to take on life and all it brings, whether that is on the golf course or in a post-graduate career.
“Being around the kids has kept me young. It’s been a joy to work with them,’’ said Lawrence, a 1974 graduate of Canton High School who returned to the North Country to resurrect the St. Lawrence men’s and women’s golf programs in 1999.
“I try to give them a basic overlook of life and what it will be like three or four years down the road,” Lawrence added. “And teach them a little about golf and how to respect the game at the same time.’’
Lawrence’s resume is certainly outstanding. Besides winning that state junior crown in 1973, she captured the 1977 New York State Women’s Amateur.
She was a USGA Women’s Amateur medalist and a Florida Intercollegiate Champion. Then, as a four-year performer at the University of Miami, Lawrence was a first-team All America in 1977, and was part of two NCAA national championship teams.
Lawrence has played in nine Women’s U.S. Opens, and the 1994 Women’s British Open. She competed on the LPGA Tour from 1978-83 and was the winner of five professional events.
Before returning to Canton and taking over as golf coach, she was assistant golf professional and head teaching professional at San Luis Rey Downs Country Club in Bonsall, CA, and was special events coordinator at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill.
Lawrence has settled into her job at SLU, becoming one of the few coaches in the country to lead both the men’s and women’s teams. She gives lessons several days a week at the St. Lawrence University Golf Course and runs the St. Lawrence Indoor Golf Center, which helps her teams and individuals their game sharp when the course is not open.
Lawrence said she doesn’t really miss the day-to-day competition while playing professionally.
“It’s a grind, and anybody that says it isn’t is lying,’’ she said. “I kind of go by the Jack Nicklaus theory — if you can’t play at the level you are accustomed to, why play at all.’’
These days, her only on-course work comes while instructing her students and demonstrating the basics of the game. She does participate in some “fun’’ team events with friends. Other than that, her days of playing 18 holes are a rarity.
With the 2014 Women’s U.S. Open now in session, Lawrence flashed back to when she first competed in the most prestigious of events. And wonders how she ever survived.
“I was absolutely terrified,’’ she said of her first Open appearance at the tender age of 17 in 1973 at LaGrange Country Club outside of Chicago. “I had finished runner-up to (future LPGA Hall of Famer) Amy Alcott in the USGA Juniors. And after the match, I was told I had earned an invitation to the U.S. Open in two weeks. I just about collapsed I was so happy.’’
The first time Lawrence flew was to that Open in Chicago.
“I was so nervous,’’ she said. “And when I got to the course, I noticed the first tee was right next to the clubhouse and that there were tons of people watching. It was like a whole new world.’’
Playing with veterans Hollis Stacy, who went on to win a U.S. Open, and Joanne Prentice, Lawrence said she shot in the mid-80s her first two rounds.
“Hollis was really wonderful, encouraging me all the way and trying to help me through the process,” Lawrence said. “After that, it made me realize that I needed four years of college to work on my game, not just physically but mentally.’’
Lawrence was also fortunate enough to play some practice rounds with a then relatively unknown Nancy Lopez, then just making a name for herself but who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career.
“You could tell she was the real deal and was going to be a star,’’ Lawrence remembers.
After her experience as a teenager, Lawrence was asked what it might be like this week for 11-year-old Lucy Li, the youngest player ever to participate in a men’s or women’s U.S. Open.
“That’s just mind-boggling’’ Lawrence said. “But today’s young players have been competing at a high level for so long, they don’t really feel much pressure. When I started, I had a coach and that was it. Today’s young players have a swing instructor, a short-game teacher, a manager, and agent and so many people in their entourage to handle all the little things. All they have to do is practice and play.’’
As for the women playing the same Pinehurst No. 2 course as the men last week, Lawrence said, “It’s truly exciting for the women’s game. I think economically it makes a lot of sense.’’
She played Pinehurst No. 2 during a North and South Amateur event. “All I remember is the greens were so difficult and the fairways were really hard,’’ she said.
Lawrence said the difference between players of her era and today is startling.
“They are so much stronger, thicker like the men and work out so much more. All I ever did was run to stay in shape. Now they have cardio trailers at every site and there is so much more done to maintain not only physical but mental sharpness.’’
Lawrence said at St. Lawrence her students can work with a psychologist if needed.
“Everybody hits the ball pretty well,’’ she said of her athletes. “But I try to tech them about course management and the importance of the short game. That’s some thing that only comes with experience.’’
Lawrence was Director of Golf at the SLU course for several years. But she gave up that position a few years ago.
“Golf is a tough business to be in these days,’’ she said. “And I wanted to concentrate on teaching and coaching.’’
She is also grateful to be able to help as a care-giver for her aging mother. “To be back home, and to be able to make sure my mom is getting the attention she needs is wonderful.’’
Lawrence’s younger sister, Kathy Lawrence, herself an accomplished golfer, is now running the LPGA’s Symetra Tour, the breeding ground for the LPGA Tour.
“She travels about 20-25 weeks a year and has gained a lot of respect in the golf community,’’ Mary Lawrence said. “I’m very proud of her.’’
Looking back on her life in golf, Mary Lawrence said, “I’d probably do it all again, but maybe a little differently. But I wouldn’t trade what I’ve done or what I’m doing now for anything.’’