GOLF

Michigan golf coach prepares for return to professional play after life-threatening injury

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A back injury may have forced AJ Newell to retire from professional golf in 2020, but she hasn’t lost her competitive spirit.

The 29-year-old, who just completed her first season as an assistant coach for the Michigan women’s golf team, will play her first professional tournament in more than two years when she plays at Travis Pointe Country Club in June 16-18 for EPSON’s Ann Arbor’s Road Tour to the LPGA, powered by the A2 Sports Commission.

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“I miss the competition,” Newell said after playing a practice round last week. “It’s a super fun feeling for me. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most for the tournament, again this scare of the first start.

The Florida native is grateful to have the opportunity to return to professional golf in the city she now calls home, especially since she was unsure whether she would play competitively again after a second surgery at the back in fall 2020.

Newell played collegiately at Tennessee from 2011 to 2015 before turning pro. She had status on the Epson Tour, the development circuit of the LPGA Tour which was previously called the Symetra Tour, from 2016 to 2020 and also played on the LPGA Tour in 2018.

She always envisioned a long playing career in the sport, but chronic back pain derailed those plans. Her first surgery was as a junior in Tennessee, but she was able to manage the pain with physical therapy and injections in her back during her early years on tour.

Newell played one event in 2020 before COVID-19 put the tour schedule on hold. The stoppage gave her more time to train and work on her game, but it aggravated her injury. Once she started losing sensation in her right leg and couldn’t move her toes due to nerve damage, she said she knew the pain couldn’t be corrected with physical therapy. or infusions this time.

In the fall of 2020, Newell underwent an anterior lumbar interbody fusion — an approach surgery to the abdomen to address disc issues in the lower back. She was not allowed to take a club for six months.

“The first 12 weeks I couldn’t bend or twist at all,” she said. “You have to stay fully upright while the bone starts to fuse together, so I had like a little claw and I had to pick everything up with that. I slept on the couch for six weeks. You can’t like rolling around in the bed or whatever.

During a long and grueling recovery, Newell, who made 13 cuts and placed in the top 10 in 35 career Symetra events, was unsure if she would ever compete in another pro event, and she s was happy with it. She started teaching kids at her homeschool near Tampa, Fla., before taking her first coaching job at Michigan last season (more on that later).

Coaching alongside head coach Jan Dowling and helping the Wolverines win their first Big Ten championship and a top-20 finish at the NCAA Championships in Scottsdale, Ariz., reignited Newell’s competitive fire.

“What I love most about coaching is that it gives me a way to help people,” she said. “I feel like with my back surgeries I could never train as much as I wanted to, so I had to train smarter. I really found a lot of ways to get the get the most out of my golf game through strategy, course management, how to practice effectively and efficiently I feel like with coaching I can help them learn what it took me years to learn, but I also stay competitive by watching them play and competing as a team.

Newell is still eligible to compete in touring events, and with a tournament in her backyard, she jumped at the chance. Newell said his game still hasn’t returned to what it was before his surgery, but just making it to the 150-man squad already feels like a win.

“I’m mostly filled with a lot of gratitude because there were times throughout this where I wasn’t sure I could play golf again,” she said. “The fact that not only do I play golf and am able to do it for fun, but I still have my status and can do it.

“It might be my last event. I might try to play one more later in the year, but it’s kind of like my last time and I feel like I’m closing the chapter, but I’m doing it on my own terms whereas before I felt like it was just taken away from me.”

Few people are as excited to see Newell compete as Dowling, who was an assistant coach at Tennessee in his sophomore season. Dowling said it was obvious early on that Newell had the temper to be a coach if she wanted to.

“I’ve been coaching for quite a long time where some players stand out for their own reasons, but she stood out because she was very coachable, which usually means they’re passionate about the game and want to get better and better. ‘improve,’ Dowling told MLive. “But probably more, she was very thoughtful in how she approached the game, her ownership of the game.” When a position on Dowling’s team opened up last summer, she messaged her former player on Facebook to gauge his interest in the position.

Luckily for Newell, she had just redownloaded Facebook to her phone that morning, and Dowling’s post piqued her interest. However, Newell and her fiancé, Dan Lavin, had just bought a house in Florida and were happy to live near their family. But Lavin, a firefighter who will caddy Newell for this month’s event at TPCC, encouraged her to pursue her coaching career.

Newell is glad she did. Not only did she discover her passion for coaching, but her role also expanded for about four events while Dowling was on maternity leave.

“When I came to fall, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. It’s great fun. I’m happy for this opportunity,” said Newell. “When I’ve had those few months to take on this role, it’s helped my goals become a bit clearer. That’s what I want to do. I’ve loved coaching alongside Jan and I’m really determined to what we were building a great program here.

Dowling said Newell was integral to Michigan’s success last season. Although this is the last professional event for Newell, Dowling believes the experience will only enrich her coaching career.

“I think her playing experience played a big role,” Dowling said of Newell’s impact on the team. “She’s a fabulous forward-thinker, so she can kind of put herself in the shoes of the players. She is young and can identify very well with our players thanks to her experience as a player.

“It will only help AJ in his coaching career because the further away you get from competitive golf tournaments, the more likely you are to forget how difficult it is. You never want to forget the feeling that you feel playing competitive golf. It’s not like playing with your friends on a Friday or Saturday.

Newell won’t be the only Wolverine on the field either. Senior Ashley Lau, the program’s first-team All-American, received a sponsor exemption to compete in the event. Tournament week begins with practice rounds on June 13 and 14 before the pro-am on June 15. The competition runs from June 16-8 and entry for fans is free.

“We’re both very excited,” Newell said. “It will be a great opportunity for her. If anyone’s game is ready to compete on a professional level, it’s Ashley. She’s a fantastic player and a great girl. She’s super fun to work with on the golf course. It will be fun to compete with her.

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