PHOENIX, ARIZONA | The range is always weird this week. Because the LPGA schedule starts with a small-field tournament of champions followed by hither-and-yon opens and invitationals in Australia, Thailand and Singapore, a good number of rookies make their debuts at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. So, it’s not unusual here for veterans to be hitting balls next to two players they’ve never met.
That happened a lot. One player told me, “I walked halfway down the range and didn’t know a soul.”
But one of those rookies has a reputation – one that preceded her to America. When Anne van Dam, a 23-year-old from the Netherlands, came out early on Tuesday to hit balls, players 20 and 30 yards away stopped what they were doing. Most tried to be nonchalant. Water break, back stretch or a slower-than-normal club change. But the intent was clear. They wanted to see if the rumors were true. They wanted to watch Anne van Dam hit it.
No one was disappointed. Van Dam has a golf swing that no less an expert than Curtis Strange called, “one of the best” he’d ever seen. And the power had more than a few spectators here saying, “Whoa!” out loud. Conservatively, van Dam flies a well-struck drive 275 to 280 yards. When she steps on one, it’s north of 300. And not on her toes or with a sling-shot hook. Her tee shots look like they’ve been fired out of a gun: fast, high, long and straight.
The sound is different, too. If you put a blinder over one eye and relied on ball flight and the unmistakable pop of club meeting ball, you’d swear you were watching a PGA Tour player.
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“She’s always been long but has actually increased that distance over the years,” said LPGA veteran Amelia Lewis, a member of the Ladies European Tour who roomed with van Dam while playing that circuit the last three years. “I really wonder if she can get even longer.”
“My coach always told me to hit it as hard as I could because if I wanted to compete, it doesn’t matter if you hit it left or right in your first few years, just hit it hard,” van Dam told me. “But, yeah, I’ve always been pretty long.”
You can see it by the way she stands. A statuesque 6 feet 1, with strong shoulders and back, she not surprisingly was a competitive swimmer who perhaps could have represented her home country in the 1,500-meter freestyle and butterfly. But by age 14, she’d already won two Dutch national junior titles in golf (she would win a third at age 15) so she was invited to play on the national girls team.
“They normally don’t have you on that team until you’re 16,” van Dam said. “But I got an opportunity at 14, so I (gave up swimming) and devoted (myself) to golf.”
“I’ve played my best when I’ve lowered my expectations. So, I’m going to go out every week and see where I am.” – Anne van Dam
As impressive as she is, van Dam might be the least accomplished member of her immediate family. Get into a multi-car pileup on the Ridderkerk interchange in Holland and chances are pretty good that Narda van Dam, Anne’s mother, will pilot the life-flight helicopter that saves you. And if you fly KLM or Norwegian Air, there is a possibility that her father, Rudolf, or older sister Helen will be your captain.
“Everyone but me is a pilot,” van Dam said. “I’ve thought about getting my license. Maybe someday. But (my family) are heroes, all of them in my book.”
She has the swagger of a jet jock and a game that seems primed for the big leagues. A four-time winner on the LET, van Dam has learned to hit the ball straight. And she has learned to win.
“I’ve won four times (on the LET) in completely different ways,” she said. “What I’ve learned is, winning is something you only learn by doing. People told me before that you only figure out what works for you under pressure once you’ve been there and won.
“So, I’ve come from behind and won; I’ve won by a ton; I’ve won where I didn’t have my best stuff and really felt like I won with my B game and I won where I was tied coming down the stretch and eagled 15, birdied 16 and birdied 18 to win by three. Once you start doing it more, you know what kind of shots you can fall back on under pressure.
“You also learn on those weeks where you get close and don’t win. But the only way to learn to win is by winning.”
Her first LET victory came in Xiamen, China. “The LET has a Facebook forum and I was looking for a roommate in China,” Lewis said. “She was an alternate that week but got in. Both of us missed the cut but we stayed together in that same event the next year. She won and I finished third. It was a pretty good week for us and we’ve been together ever since. I’ve seen every single one of her wins on the LET and we’ve roomed together each of those weeks. It was kind of cool to have a front-row seat to her development.”
Lewis, who is van Dam’s best friend on tour, wasn’t in the field in Phoenix. If she had been, she would have told those players trying not to gawk at the shock-and-awe show van Dam put on early in the week what sort of person they were seeing.
“On the golf course, she’s a focused and intense player,” Lewis said. “Off the course, she’s always up for fun. I’ve done some amazing things with her. I’ve gone Formula 1 racing in Abu Dhabi with her. I’ve gone surfing in Australia with her. We toured the Taj Mahal together. We climbed on top of a building in Canada to watch a Guns & Roses concert. We sang karaoke in China. She’s not Beyonce or anything but she makes up for it with her personality. She’s a great entertainer.
“She’s always up to do something fun and does a great job of separating Anne van Dam the golfer and Anne van Dam the person.”
Listening to Anne van Dam the golfer, you get the sense that this is someone special, someone who has a great deal more than raw power. She has perspective.
“In golf I don’t see myself as a young player,” she said. “There are girls who are 21 who have won multiple majors. After four really good years in Europe, the last two years I finished fifth and second on the Order of Merit and won four times. So, I feel prepared.
“If I look back on my first year in Europe, I still had a lot to learn. And I’m glad I stayed there and learned those things on the LET. It gave me the opportunity to play in some majors.
“I’m really looking forward to this year. On the LET, everybody knows me and I have to do a lot of media stuff. This year I can take the underdog role. Every week is going to be new; every course is going to be new. I learned from my first year in Europe that you have to lower your expectations when you first come out, otherwise it won’t work.
“But I’ve played my best when I’ve lowered my expectations. So, I’m going to go out every week and see where I am. I don’t want to say it’s a goal to win – that would be too much – but it sure would be great to get a win in my rookie year.”
Don’t bet against it. And if you see her, don’t walk away without watching. You’ll be glad you did.
Anne van Dam of The Netherlands, pictured during the 2017 Dubai Ladies Classic, arrives on the LPGA Tour with more focus than the average 23-year-old rookie. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
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