Eloise Healey is back home in England, nearly 4,000 miles from her University of Wisconsin women’s golf teammates and confined to the Liverpool home she shares with her mother amid a strict COVID-19 lockdown that allows residents to venture outdoors only on a very limited basis.
As she peered into her phone during a FaceTime interview, wearing a Badgers sweatshirt, it was clear her heart was back in Madison where she’d been playing the best golf of her college career when it all stopped.
Healey got the word from UW coach Todd Oehrlein via telephone March 12, two days before the Badgers were to leave on their annual spring-break training trip. The NCAA had canceled its winter and spring championships and UW had suspended all travel ahead of an announcement that the Big Ten Conference had scrubbed all conference and non-conference competition for the rest of the school year.
There would be no spring trip. There would be no spring season.
“We didn’t know this whole coronavirus would escalate to the point that it has,” Healey recalled late last week. “We thought if we were in touch with our athletic department about safety and how to deal with it, it was going to be fine. … Within two days, everything changed.”
And it changed fast.
Fearful that European travel bans would make it difficult to get home, Healey “packed my entire apartment” and returned to England four days after the call from her coach. She was so looking forward to having her mom come to Madison in May to see her graduate with an economics degree and, instead, returned home to her. She doesn’t know when, if ever, she will go back.
“I went from hearing that news (from Oehrlein) to spending time with my friends that evening and saying good-bye to so many people,” Healey said. “It’s not like I live locally. One of my roommates is from India. Another one is from Korea. It was such a rushed departure.
“I think it really sunk in that night. I saw so many of my friends and I have to say good-bye because I didn’t know if I’d be coming back. That was the hardest part, I think.”
A spring season to remember
The 17 rounds of tournament golf Healey played during the 2019-20 season were five more than she had played during the first three years of her career as a Badger combined.
Her nine rounds during the 2016-17 season and three rounds in 2018-19 came while competing as an individual. In fact, Healy didn’t play her way into the lineup until her second start last fall at the East-West Match Play Challenge, where her score counted in a collegiate match for the first time. She shot 73-73 at University Ridge in the 36-hole stroke-play qualifying for the event.
“I felt like I worked a lot on my mental game during the winter months,” Healey said. “My mental composure and everything, I had (that) under control this spring.”
Indeed, the last six rounds she played this spring were some of her most memorable.
Healy bettered by four strokes her collegiate career low with a 69 during the first round of the Westbrook Invitational in Peoria, Ariz., to start the spring. The next day, she recorded her first career hole-in-one on the fourth hole of The Vistas Course at Westbrook Village on her way to a career-low 142 at the 36-hole mark. Healey closed with a 71 for a 54-hole best of 213.
One week later, Healey shot 71-78-73 for a career-best, fifth-place finish at the Gunrock Invitational in Sacramento, Calif. UW’s third-place finish was their best of the season.
“I was so excited to … watch her and be near her as she was tearing it up on the golf course in a great state of mind,” Badgers senior Tess Hackworthy said of Healey, a decorated junior golfer before coming to UW. “For that to just come to an end was tough to see and experience."
End of the road … or a fork in it?
That happens, though, when a global pandemic intervenes and spins your senior year like a top.
Healey went from packing for spring break to packing for a break that has no end in sight. She caught a Van Galder from the Memorial Union to O’Hare International, flew from Chicago to London and onto Manchester, where Helen Healey picked up her daughter and drove to Liverpool.
This wasn’t how Eloise Healey envisioned coming home. She had planned to leave Madison in May, diploma in hand, and return to England where she hoped to play a year or two of amateur golf without school getting in the way. Her goal was to enter the Ladies European Tour or LPGA Qualifying Schools in the fall of 2021 en route to her dream of giving professional golf her best effort.
“I’ve gone back-and-forth about it,” Healey said. “I’ve always enjoyed my ... academics as well. I owe it to myself to give (professional golf) a go. You never want to think ‘What if.’ ”
Then again, what if someone gave you back the spring season you lost when you left Madison?
That’s essentially what the NCAA did while Healey was hurrying back to England. It dangled the idea of extended eligibility for athletes impacted by the NCAA’s decision to cancel the spring season in posts on social media and this week clarified that offer, allowing for an additional year but leaving it to each school to work out the financial specifics of how to make that happen.
“When I did redshirt (in 2017-18), I was on track to graduate in four years,” Healey said. “At the time, I looked into one-year grad programs and thought ‘These are going to be very intense.’ ”
Now, with a redshirt year and a bonus year potentially available athletically, Healey last week reached out to her Economics adviser and started exploring two-year post-graduate options.
“Had I finished this season strong, I would have felt like it was complete,” Healey said of her time in the Badgers’ program. But now? “There is a lot to think about.”
Of course, outside of completing her UW coursework online, she has a lot of time to think.
“We are able to go out to get groceries and one exercise per day outside,” Healey said. “Other than that, we’re in our house for the next three weeks. And we’re told it could be extended.
“I’ve been doing a bit of (golf) practice in the garden, but it doesn’t quite compare. I’m trying to work out and do mental (preparation) things. … I still have college to think about (so) … I can focus on that in the meantime. I’m hoping, come May, things will get back to normal.”
The new normal, maybe. It’s a normal Healey and college golfers everywhere have never seen before.