FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Stacy Sanford popped in the Pilates tape and prepared for another exercise routine with her youngest child. It was an activity the two had often enjoyed doing together.
But as Karah Sanford, then 10 years old, bent over, her mother noticed a bump in her back.
Her immediate thoughts were not positive.
“Uh-oh, we have a problem,” the elder Sanford muttered to herself.
X-rays would later show Sanford had scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. The condition wasn’t life-threatening, but it was a potential setback to Sanford’s burgeoning golf career.
World No. 1 Stacy Lewis and reigning U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion Julia Potter are two prime examples of golfers who have managed to play through the condition.
“Whether golf is involved or not, it’s her body that’s the most important thing,” said Stacy Sanford. “If our doctors told us she needed to stop playing golf, she would stop.”
Sanford’s doctors prescribed a special elastic brace that wraps around her back. Two straps go around the rib cage and another round her chest. It didn’t guarantee things would improve, but it was the better alternative to a hard cast.
At the time of her diagnosis, Sanford’s curved at 23 degrees. Two months ago, X-rays showed it was at 29 degrees, but the worsening condition hasn’t affected her game or her attitude.
At 12 years and 5 months, the Escondido, Calif., resident is the youngest competitor in this week’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Forest Highlands, where she missed the match-play cut by one stroke, despite an even-par 72 on the Meadow Course Tuesday afternoon. A few weeks ago, Sanford also qualified for next month’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y.
And in April, she was a finalist in the Girls 12-13 Division at the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt (DCP) Championship, conducted at Augusta National Golf Club on the Sunday prior to The Masters.
Sanford, who has never received a formal golf lesson, owns more than 100 golf victories, including a pair of wins at the Callaway Junior World Championship in San Diego. Last week, she claimed the Girls 11-12 division at the Rancho Bernardo Inn, defeating fellow U.S. Girls’ Junior competitor Yealimi Noh in a playoff. She also owns two U.S. Kids titles.
Backs can be a fickle issue, especially for golfers. But so far Sanford has played pain-free, thanks to weekly visits to a Carlsbad-area chiropractor for adjustments. The elastic brace, which she can hit balls with, prevents atrophy. She also hits balls left-handed to counteract the curve in her back, and is constantly stretching and exercising to keep it loose.
Stacy Sanford said doctors won’t know if Karah will require surgery until she is finished growing. And all trends point to more growth. Stacy stands 5 feet 11 inches and Karah’s two older brothers are 6 feet and 6 feet 3 inches. Her father is also 6 feet 3 inches.
“It sounds like I am going to be tall,” said Karah. “I hope it is not a bad thing.”
Both Lewis and Potter had a rod inserted into their spine to control the scoliosis. Lewis red-shirted her freshman season at Arkansas to allow for her body to heal. Now she owns two majors and is the world’s No. 1 golfer.
“Karah has not met her, but I am sure they will meet,” said Stacy Sanford. “I know she will want to meet her.”
Overcoming maladies are nothing new for Sanford, who contracted a virus at 11 months, which doctors believe led to Third Nerve Palsy, an affliction that affected her eyes. Her eyelids would droop and as a result of the condition, she has suffered from migraines since 2. Karah said her nerves weren’t corresponding with her brain. Two surgeries corrected the problem, although to this day, she can’t watch a 3-D movie.
“She’s been through it,” said Stacy Sanford.
Golf, however, has given Sanford something positive. Once she witnessed her dad chipping in the front yard as a 3-year-old, she wanted to play. And the passion has never gone away.
A rising eighth-grader at National University Academy, a public charter school that allows students to take online classes, Sanford is able to do her homework in a timely manner to give her more time to practice on her game. Students only visit the school one to three times a week to meet with teachers.
The rest of her day is spent at Meadow Lake Golf Club, where she hones her skills. Her father, Perry, provided the fundamentals and Karah has taken it from there. The only lessons she gets are occasional tips from a pro or from friends.
Through her unique story, Karah befriended LPGA Tour star and 2010 U.S. Women’s Open champion Paula Creamer. The two have corresponded with each other through various platforms and at this year’s Kia Classic in Carlsbad, Sanford yelled out to Creamer from the gallery. Creamer recognized her and stopped to say hi.
At Drive, Chip and Putt, Sanford met former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and posed for a photo with the Augusta member. Sanford is already on her way to a second DCP appearance at Augusta, having recently advanced from a local qualifier. She still has a sub-regional at La Costa Resort and hopefully the regional finals at Torrey Pines.
“I do feel I’ve got a good chance,” she said. “I’ve already done it.”
Confidence isn’t a word missing from Sanford’s personality. She admitted to being nervous at the first tee here on Monday, but that’s normal.
“It’s because I want to do well,” said Sanford, adding that two bad holes led to the 79.
Sanford is eagerly awaiting her next big event: the U.S. Women’s Amateur. She’s never been to New York City and has plans to see the city and its iconic landmark, the Statue of Liberty.
“It’s just so exciting,” she said.
Perhaps greatness is in Sanford’s genes. Her great-great uncle happens to be John Wooden, the Hall-of-Fame college basketball coach who led UCLA to 10 NCAA titles. She never met the Wizard of Westwood before his death last year and neither had anyone in her family. But Sanford said she dreams of attending UCLA when she graduates in 2019.
And if her body cooperates, Sanford might follow in Lewis’ footsteps as the next great golfer to conquer scoliosis.
“I’ve always wanted to be a professional golfer,” said Sanford, “and it’s slowly happening.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.