Jody Niemann helped Arizona State University win the NCAA women’s golf national title in 1997, but the Rigby, Idaho, native had not claimed an individual championship since her junior days, a drought that was running on four years when she arrived at Santa Ana Golf Club just north of Albuquerque, N.M., in June 1999. A month removed from graduation at ASU, Niemann, 22, repeatedly overcame early deficits in match play to capture the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links title with a 1-up win over Sue Billek Nyhus, 36, of Provo, Utah, in the 18-hole championship match. Niemann turned professional that fall and played three seasons on the Futures and LPGA Tours before injuries – most notably fractured vertebrae from a car accident in 2000 – forced her retirement. She spent 5½ years coaching, including three as the head women’s coach at the University of Nevada, Reno. Today, Niemann, a single mother of two boys (Jordan 10, Jaxon 7), lives in Las Vegas, where she is the group sales manager for Walters Golf, which operates three 18-hole facilities in Las Vegas.
With so many close calls in college, including a two-stroke penalty at the 1996 Pacific-10 Championship for carrying 15 clubs [Niemann lost the title by one stroke], did you wonder whether you were going to win again?
There are times when you think that. My grandpa always told me that things happen for a reason and you don’t always understand the reason behind everything until later. That [Rules infraction] was a learning lesson. You are always told to count your clubs before you tee off. I failed to do so. It was my fault.
When you won the WAPL, you were emotional due to your grandfather’s death two years earlier. Why was he so important to your golf career?
I almost gave up golf when he died [in 1997]. He’s the reason I started playing golf. After school, we would go out shopping with grandma and to the golf course with grandpa. And I hate shopping. My sister went with grandma and I went to the course with my grandpa. He would let me drive the cart. I was 7 years old and I could barely reach the pedal. After driving the golf cart into a tree, I told him that I wanted him to give me a stick because I wanted to play.
You also developed a special relationship with a South Carolina widow in 1997. How much of an effect did Shirley Kosht have?
My grandma forced me to go to this event (Women’s Trans National). I wasn’t originally going to stay with a host family. One of my parents was going to go with me, but when my grandpa passed, they needed to stay home. So, they sent me on my own. So not only was I traumatized by my grandpa’s death – he was everything to me – but now I am going to a golf tournament where I don’t even want to play and I’m by myself. [Shirley] had just lost her husband. She said things to me that my grandpa would say. It was weird. It was almost eerie. We just really bonded.
In every round at the WAPL, you fell behind early, but managed to rally for victories. How did you pull it off?
My caddie, Carl Laib, kept saying I was Tiger-esque, because he had never seen someone never give up and keep fighting. As we were going along, there was never a time when I gave in. And it became a joke. He joked that I should get to the golf course a couple hours earlier so I would wake up [at the first hole].
Carl Laib had caddied for a pair of U.S. Women’s Open champions in Patty Sheehan and Betsy King, but at the time was the head coach at the University of Nevada. How did you meet him?
I knew Carl before. He caddied for [Arizona State standout] Wendy Ward and I met him through Wendy. The plan was that after the USGA events, he would caddie for me at [LPGA] Q-School. He wanted to learn my game before Q-School. He wanted to learn about me personality-wise and where my fears were and where I’m strongest [on the course], which he nailed down. I had a lot of success with Carl.
How did your small town of Rigby treat your WAPL championship?
People knew I didn’t like a lot of attention brought to me. Winning [the WAPL] was a steppingstone. Again, I knew if I was going to fulfill my dreams, I had to do it at Q-School [that fall]. In golf, you’re always trying to get better, so I knew this [championship] wasn’t the end. But they were excited, especially my [swing] coach, Duffy McFarland, in Rexburg. My first day back, I am practicing and he gets on the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome the USGA champion … Jody Niemann.” For the next couple of weeks, I would get stuff like that. They were just so excited. There were banners up and they were doing all these fun things. But knowing how I was, I wasn’t really going to go out and showboat it, because I knew I had bigger fish to fry.
Do your kids know much about your WAPL title?
Not really. I have nothing [golf-related] around the house. They see a little bit, but I don’t have a lot of stuff. But now they are starting to ask more questions. They enjoy golf. Jordan, my oldest, is more into golf than Jaxon. I want to be a good role model for my kids. They are absolutely my joy. They mean everything to me.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.