A golf ball soared from the first tee and traveled into the center of the fairway.
Na-Yeon Choi stepped off the tee box and looked satisfied. Back in 2012, she won the US Women’s Open.
But this wasn’t 2012 anymore.
Kevin Smeltz — Choi’s coach at the time — swears he’ll never forget what he saw next.
He was coaching another player who was paired with Choi at the 2016 US Women’s Open — Sierra Brooks.
Choi was a seasoned veteran on the tour, while the relatively unknown Sierra turned 17 on the second day of the tournament.
Smeltz knew Sierra had potential but wanted to see her match up against elite international competition.
Sierra strided up to the first tee box, stalked the ball from behind and took a hack.
And the ball flew. And flew. And flew.
Scorching down the center of the fairway, the shot landed near Choi’s ball, but it didn’t stop. It hit the turf with a thud, rocketed back up into the air and dribbled down the course another few seconds before halting 30 yards past Choi’s ball.
Choi, the former No. 2 player in the world, gasped. “Coach, how far can that girl hit it?” she wondered.
Smeltz replied, “She can hit it pretty damn far.”
• • •
Brooks, a sophomore transfer at Florida, is one of the best players in college golf this year, as evidenced by her being named to the ANNIKA Award Watch List, which honors the top college golfer in the country.
“Sierra stands out from any golfer I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached some great golfers,” said Cheryl Anderson, Sierra’s former high school coach.
Sierra grew up around golf. Her father and coach, Brent, played at North Florida and had one of the top-20 scoring averages in UNF men’s golf history before playing professionally for three years and then starting a family with his wife, Lora.
Sierra’s resume includes finishing runner-up in the US Amateur Championship, playing on Team USA’s junior team, winning the American Junior Golf Association’s TaylorMade Championship and rising as high as third in the Polo Junior Golf Rankings and fifth in Golfweek Women’s Amateur Rankings. To top it off, she was named Girls’ Junior Player of the Year by the Florida State Golf Association in 2015.
Sierra began her college career at Wake Forest but underwent a tumultuous journey to get to UF, where she has competed in seven tournaments this spring. She has finished first twice and second once. Only twice in those seven tournaments has she finished worse than 11th and only three times worse than fifth.
Anderson can still recall the moment she realized Sierra was a special player at a 2014 tournament.
During the tournament, Sierra found herself in a tough situation during one particular hole.
She had a downhill lie about 210 yards away from the pin and elected to hit a 2-iron to try and carry it to the green.
A 2-iron club isn’t constructed to hit far with a downhill lie because the club is built like a driver. You don’t hit a driver off of anything besides a tee. That’s just golf-101.
But Sierra doesn’t care for your conventional wisdom. She pounded the ball onto the green.
“I have never seen a high school girl do anything like it,” Anderson said. “I said to myself right then and there, ‘This… this is the real deal.’”
• • •
Sierra committed to play college golf at the University of Florida early on in her high school career. Like, really early. Like 14-year-old-freshman-in-high-school early. By the time she was 16, she realized that a decision with such magnitude couldn’t have been properly made by someone so young, so she decommitted from UF to review her options.
“Sierra just found that at the time, (Florida) wasn’t the perfect fit for her when she was in high school,” childhood friend Dreé Fausnaugh said. “I think she just wanted to branch out more.”
In addition to taking another look at Florida, she considered North Carolina, LSU and Wake Forest. After taking a trip to Wake Forest, she fell in love with everything the Demon Deacons had to offer. From the golf course to the coaching staff, it seemed that she fit in. Sierra and her father, Brent, enjoyed the staff and said it was one of the main reasons she decided to attend the university.
“I just fell in love with it,” Sierra told the Winston-Salem Journal back in February 2015. “I think it was about 30 degrees, but I was promised that it isn’t always like that.”
Two weeks after enrolling at Wake Forest, however, Sierra started having problems with her wrist.
She felt clicking accompanied by a pain that seared through the joint like a white-hot flame. Then it got worse.
But she continued to play. Whether she was told to or chose to depends on who you ask. If you ask friends and family, they say she was told to just play through the pain by Wake Forest coaches and doctors.
“She was having some pain and they shot her up with cortisone,” Brent said. “Never even consulted anybody.”
One of Sierra’s former teammates said Sierra made the decision to play.
“She’s so competitive… she didn’t take time off,” said the former teammate, who asked to remain anonymous. “We had another girl who was completely healthy and could have played in the tournaments. People (within the team) were unhappy that she didn’t rest.”
That rift spread further and further over time and caused Sierra to become isolated. She began wondering if she made the right decision by attending Wake Forest.
Moreover, one of her friends and teammates, Mathilda Cappiliez, left the program unhappily in early 2017 and said to Golfweek, “I can’t wait to go home and play golf… go to Q-School (LPGA Qualifying School) in the summer and be happy.”
Doubt snaked its way into the back of Sierra’s mind and strokes of bad luck kept hitting her.
She elected to have a minor procedure on her wrist, Brent said, not to repair it, but to “clean it a little bit.”
The surgery went well and removed the clicking, but the pain lingered.
About a week after the surgery, while participating in college workouts, she fell on a box with all the pressure on her wrist and tweaked it once again. But she continued to push through the pain, both mentally and physically.
“They were definitely some of my tougher times I’ve had as a golfer,” Sierra said, “and as a person, too.”
Her life seemed like it just kept spinning and spinning further down into oblivion. Sierra couldn’t do the one thing she came to do: play golf.
“She needs golf,” Fausnaugh said. “She loves golf. To be away from home mixed in with being injured and not being able to play drove her crazy.”
Her life kept its downward spiral until she met Randall Hunt.
And her faith in Wake Forest was shaken further.
• • •
Randall Hunt was in Florida when he got the call.
Once a Division I golfer at Pepperdine University, he committed the year the Waves won the NCAA title in 1997.
Then a catastrophic car accident left his right arm completely paralyzed and derailed his career. He was told he would never regain use of it and would be in pain his entire life.
But Hunt wasn’t convinced and wound up inventing a system called “Bionetics” that gave him control of his right arm again. He returned to golf.
Bionetics is “an interactive system of assessment and exercise designed to restore and enhance the human body,” according to Hunt’s website.
Sierra had been going to a doctor through the university. As her family’s frustrations mounted, they began to search for other doctors, which resulted in the minimally invasive surgery.
At the same time, tension continued to fester at Wake Forest. Sierra thought her teammates might not believe her story. The notion that she was either faking the injury so she wouldn’t have to play, or that she was forcing herself to play, began to spread.
The powder keg building between Sierra and the rest of the team appeared to be teetering on the edge of explosion.
She decided that withdrawing from the program would be best for both her career and her happiness.
“I think it’s hard to know it wasn’t the right fit and to not know whether I should stay or leave just because I want to be strong-willed and push through,” Sierra said. “But at the same time, it wasn’t the right fit for me.”
Sierra took a step back from everything for a little while: golf, school, life. She wasn’t exactly sure what the next step was, but she knew she needed her wrist to heal first. The injury was public enemy No. 1.
So Sierra sought out Hunt, who she heard was in North Carolina at the time. Hunt analyzed Sierra’s wrist as well as her golf swing.
“I think that she was lifting weights incorrectly when she was at Wake Forest, and she got tight in some areas and her mobility got restricted,” Hunt said, “which caused her to use her arms and hands improperly in the golf swing…Her ribs, or trunk if you will, were not rotating properly in her golf swing and that was putting too much pressure on the outside of her wrist.”
Sierra had just spent the entire season being told by Wake Forest doctors that she might have to play through the pain or just call it a career. But as it turned out, there was a simple solution to the problem.
“She just got misdiagnosed… a lot,” Hunt said.
Hunt found that it wasn’t actually her wrist that was causing all the pain – it was her swing. While looking at videos of her swing from high school and her swing in college, he realized the injury could easily be fixed.
They worked through Hunt’s system of Bionetics and improved the range of motion in her back and shoulders, thus easing the pressure she was feeling in her wrist.
The inflammation vanished, and Sierra was able to play pain-free again.
But why had none of Wake Forest’s doctors or other professionals been able to see exactly what was going on? This question plagued Sierra as her relationship with her former team completely collapsed.
It got so bad that Sierra decided not to play in the final event of the season, the NCAA Regional Tournament, much to the ire of her former teammates.
“Even though she had announced that she was transferring, she said that she was going to play in Regionals,” her former teammate said. “And then she kind of last-minute decided not to play in Regionals, and I think that that kind of hit everybody pretty hard.”
Indeed, it seemed that Sierra had scorched the Earth between Wake Forest and herself. When reached for comment, Wake Forest officials said, “Due to how she left our program, (we) are not comfortable with discussing her time at Wake Forest.”
Sierra was lost. What was best for her?
“Honestly after my first college experience, I was hesitant to go to college,” Sierra said, “because I just didn’t know what it could be like.”
She always wanted to go back and get her degree, but she had no idea where she would go.
So instead, Sierra went to Q-School to try and get ready to start an LPGA career.
But with no time to prepare, the stint was short-lived. Disastrous wouldn’t be the right word, but something close to it. Her results were nowhere near where she wanted them to be.
In that same U.S. Open that she played with Choi, Sierra ended up missing the cut.
She was clueless as to what she was going to do after.
Then, the call came.
That is, Florida coach Emily Glaser called her to gauge her interest in a return to college golf. According to her father, it wasn’t even on her radar.
But Sierra didn’t wait to knock on opportunity’s door. Instead, she took a battering ram to the whole damn thing.
• • •
Sierra’s competitive spirit rivals that of former NBA player Kevin Garnett. Every single person interviewed for this story mentioned Sierra’s competitiveness or passion in some capacity while telling their part.
When she was in high school, Sierra participated in the 2016 Lake Mary Prep High School Powderpuff Game...and would you really expect anyone besides her to be the main event?
No, of course not.
“She always wanted to win,” middle and high school friend Chase Ibbotson said. “Diving for flags, juking people out, doing whatever she can to help her team…she’s very competitive.”
One time, in her high school basketball debut, she fell. To paraphrase one LeBron James, she fell “not one, not two, not three or four, not five.” Six. Six times she fell. And the first five times, it was no big deal. She got right back up. But oh, that sixth fall — that sixth fall did her in.
During that sixth fall, her ankle rolled and turned sideways and her foot rotated to be perpendicular with the hardwood underneath. A nasty ankle sprain. A nasty ankle sprain just one week before she was supposed to play in one of the bigger tournaments of her junior career – the Polo Junior Golf Classic held over Thanksgiving break.
She won the tournament in 2014, and 2015 was her time to defend the title, but now that was in jeopardy. Sierra wasn’t even sure that she would play in the event until the day of, when she decided she was good enough to push through.
She didn’t win the event.
Not this time.
She only finished runner-up. On one good ankle. She could barely walk, but one of the most competitive people on Earth only finished runner-up.
“You know what they always say,” Sierra said. “Beware the sick player.”
As competitive as she is though, there is a quirkier side to Sierra as well.
“She’skind of like really goofy and clumsy,” Fausnaugh laughed.
Not many people see the more embarrassing side, but Fausnaugh assures that it is there.
One example would be the 2015 FHSAA track and field state championship at UNF in Jacksonville.
Sierra’s heart pounded like a cannonball out of her chest. She felt the adrenaline creeping up her neck until every hair pricked up like a mini stalagmite.
She snatched the baton from her teammate and exploded down the lane. The crowd was on its feet and she could hear the cheers and shouts all the way across the track.
She was closing in now, ready to pass the baton after the fierce 100 meters she just tore up. As she handed it off, she could feel her legs whimpering.
They were holding up like a deck of cards buffeting against a heavy wind. She lost all control and went sprawling into her teammate and into the next lane, bloodying up the left side of her body.
“I still kinda have scars on my elbow from it,” Sierra said. “That was pretty embarrassing.”
Not only did Sierra Brooks play golf and basketball in high school, but she also ran track. While taking her 4x100 team to the state final, she fell while trying to hand the baton off to her teammate, disqualifying her team from the race. According to Sierra, it was the first time that Lake Mary Prep had been to state for the 4x100 in history.
As much attention as Sierra has gotten on the golf course, her shenanigans off of it keep her life both interesting and lighthearted.
“There’s a balance to life,” Sierra said. “I feel like I take golf and my training pretty seriously, so I don’t want to take life too seriously.”
As she grew up, she and Fausnaugh spent their childhood together.
“They were bosom buddies,” high school coach Anderson said.
In addition to prank calling people and making music videos, one of their other favorite pastimes involved a golf course – but not playing on one.
“At night, we would go up to the clubhouse and they would let us help them bring in the golf carts so we could drive a golf cart,” Fausnaugh said with a laugh. “That was like our world.”
By watching her on the course, you’d think Sierra was a fierce and serious competitor. But even she would agree with the notion that she possesses a softer personality as well.
“One time when Dreé and I were making one of our music videos,” Sierra said with a giggle, “I accidentally slapped her in the face and got it on camera.”
In high school, Sierra was no normal golfer, but she was a normal person. The Jason-Aldean-loving country girl enjoyed going to get her nails done, hanging out with friends, and going to dinner — especially at Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine in Winter Park, Florida.
Furthermore, Sierra has a superstitious side.
She refuses to take off her rain pants if she’s playing well, even if the rain stops or the temperature rises.
At the SunTrust Gator Invitational this year, the first round was defined by a chill that sat upon the golf course. As the round went on, it began to warm up and the cool, calm course transitioned into warmer, windier weather – but still cold enough to keep pants on.
Sierra bogeyed twice on the first nine holes of the tournament.
Guess who made the transition to shorts on the back nine. Guess who also didn’t bogey the rest of the round.
Another superstition? Tees.
“I only use pink and blue tees.” “What?” “At the first qualifying round (of the college season), I was using pink and blue ones and it went well…so I only use pink and blue tees for tournaments.”
Call it coincidence, call it divine intervention, call it what you will. But whatever Sierra is doing is working.
• • •
Silence stung Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville. The smell of damp golf greens and shredded fairways permeated through the air as golf balls could be seen cruising in the sky from a distance. All eyes were on the Florida star.
She perched up in the corner of a bunker on the 18th hole, trying to figure out how to get out of this dilemma, as she still remained about 120 yards from the hole.
The shot scorched off the club, so much so that no spectator was prepared for the ball to come crashing down to Earth in the stands beside them.
Sierra hurried over to the ball, apologizing to everyone while her face flushed red.
“I hit such a good shot and I was posing and obviously shot it way too far,” Sierra laughed. “I was just hoping everyone was okay.”
Sierra couldn’t help but laugh. It was the final hole of her first home tournament of her Florida Gators career. She finished runner-up, but it wasn’t a disappointing runner-up. Jiwon Jeon of Daytona State, an Alabama commit, absolutely wiped the field, finishing five strokes ahead of Sierra.
Furthermore, it only showcased Sierra’s magical season even further.
You know, there’s a reason she’s on the ANNIKA Award Watch List.
Above everything else, she’s happy and it is visible. Her parents can see.
“It’s reassuring, as a parent, just to see your daughter happy,” her mother, Lora, said. “More than anything, you just want her to be happy and for me, this is the first time I’m seeing that in a long time.”
Her friends can see.
“It’s the perfect fit,” Fausnaugh said. “It feels…it feels right for her.”
Hell, even you can see.
She grins with a charisma that would make John F. Kennedy envious. She carries herself like Simone Biles on the golf course. She looks comfortable.
So, what’s next for Sierra Brooks?
“I’m just sticking with my gameplan which is finishing college golf,” Sierra said. “The next step for me after college is pro golf, but I’m enjoying it so much here and I’m really growing as a person and a player, so I don’t see the need to make any changes.”
Sierra’s journey has seen, in very broad terms, the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes the journey wasn’t what she expected, but if she could go back and change it, she wouldn’t. Without it, she may not have appreciated her time at Florida all the more.
“When it gets tough, keep pushing. Very cliché, but just roll with the punches,” Sierra said. “Always wear a smile on your face.”
Sierra began her college career by committing to Florida. It only seems fitting that she come full circle and end it at Florida as well. Her father is just glad that the wild ride is seemingly over.
“It’s a relief,” he said. “It’s redemption.”