On a sun-splashed mid-March morning at Desert Pines Golf Club just northeast of downtown Las Vegas, a chant goes up in the grill room. Still a few hours away from lunch, the spacious restaurant isn’t quite teeming with customers. But a few staff members spot a popular employee and yell, Jody, Jody.
Jody Niemann accepts the acknowledgement with a smile. Although the 37-year-old has recently been promoted from head professional at Desert Pines to group sales manager for Walters Golf, the management company that oversees three popular 18-hole facilities in Las Vegas, Niemann has developed a fondness for the restaurant staff.
The restaurant staff, I know very well, she says after greeting an out-of-town visitor.
For Niemann, who is 15 years removed from winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship at Santa Ana Pueblo Golf Course just north of Albuquerque, N.M., life is quite good.
She’s happy, healthy and enjoying a harmonious lifestyle.
And that hasn’t always been the case for the Rigby, Idaho, native, who has been dealt plenty of bad lies over the course of her golf career.
Two years before winning the WAPL – the biggest championship of her life – Niemann lost the one person who she adored more than anyone: her grandfather.
On the golf course, a Pacific-10 Conference title in 1996 slipped through the cracks when a fellow Arizona State University teammate accidentally placed a club in her bag prior to the final round. The two-stroke penalty was the difference in a one-stroke defeat.
A couple of weeks later, a suitcase fell from an overhead bin, striking her shoulder and keeping her out of the NCAA Championship.
A few years later as a professional, an automobile accident caused a fracture of her L4/L5 vertebrae and although it wasn’t a career-ending injury, her game was never the same.
Then there was her father being diagnosed with cancer and having a heart attack in the same year (2009).
And three years later, Niemann finalized a divorce to her high-school sweetheart, Bryan Dansie Jr. She has custody of their two boys, Jordan (10) and Jaxon (7).
Through it all, Niemann has maintained a positive outlook and remained strong.
My grandpa always told me things happen for a reason and you don’t always understand the reason behind everything that happens until later, said Niemann.
Niemann certainly would have expected a better outcome on the golf course after winning the WAPL a month after graduating from Arizona State. It was her first win since her junior golf days, a drought that lasted four years. She was a member of the Sun Devils’ consecutive NCAA Division I title teams in 1997 and ’98, but played a secondary role. The stars of those teams were 1998 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Grace Park and two-time USA Curtis Cup competitor Kellee Booth. Individual success had eluded Niemann. In 1996, the same year she nearly won the Pac-10 title, she lost in the semifinals of the WAPL to college rival Heather Graff (Arizona).
So the WAPL triumph in 1999 came as a bit of a shock. Even today, Niemann is startled by what she accomplished that week in New Mexico, rallying in all six of her matches to take the championship with a 1-up victory over Brigham Young University assistant women’s golf coach Sue Billek Nyhus, 36, of West Valley City, Utah.
The following year, Niemann was playing the Futures Tour and traveling with, ironically, Graff when the minivan Niemann was driving encountered a construction zone on the other side of some railroad tracks. The two were on their way to an event in Texas when they got lost. This was long before GPS technology became the norm, so Niemann was unsure where she was driving. On the flip side of a small hill, she never saw the poor road conditions. The van’s impact was hard enough to cause serious injury to Niemann. Graff came away virtually unscathed – a stiff neck – but Niemann fractured the L4/L5 vertebrae, essentially ending her season.
Graff wound up being the tour’s leading money winner and gaining an automatic LPGA Tour card for 2001, while Niemann went to Las Vegas for rehab. Her godfather, Keith Kleven, helped her through the process, but Niemann admittedly tried to return too soon. With LPGA Tour Q-School slated for that fall, she insisted on playing. While she earned conditional status for the 2001 season, she missed 10 cuts in 11 starts.
Traveling from site to site was painful.
Being in a hotel, being in a car, being on a plane … I didn’t have anyone there to prepare me, said Niemann. It was just me and a caddie at every stop.
And Niemann never could find the right caddie, except for Carl Laib, who was on the bag for her WAPL triumph and a select few professional events.
Laib, then the head women’s coach at the University of Nevada, had caddied for Patty Sheehan and Betsy King when they won their U.S. Women’s Open titles, and Niemann had befriended him through Arizona State alum Wendy Ward. But without full-time status, Niemann couldn’t guarantee Laib enough money to make his caddie gig financially worthwhile.
I knew I could trust him, said Niemann. I had a great friendship with Carl. We still talk today.
Without LPGA Tour status for the 2002 season, Niemann sought out other employment opportunities. By then she was pregnant with her first child. She was teaching at the Fiesta Inn Resort in Tempe when then-University of Arizona women’s coach Greg Allen called and offered her an assistant coaching position. Niemann jumped at the opportunity.
Two and a half years later, Niemann, in 2004, was offered the head women’s golf coach positionat the University of Nevada.
Everything was going well in Reno until Niemann’s resigned in 2007 for family reasons. Two years later, she moved back to Idaho after her father developed cancer and had a heart attack in the spring of 2009. Being close to her family, Niemann and her husband ran the grill at Jefferson Hills Golf Course, the public facility that had nurtured her game, for a couple of years until Niemann made a crucial life decision.
With her marriage starting to dissolve and seeing no way to reconcile the problems, she chose to start from scratch. In 2012, she moved with her two children to Las Vegas. Kleven helped with the transition and Niemann landed the head golf professional position at Desert Pines, a title she held until her recent promotion.
Instead of 10-hour days running the shop, she now has more of a 9-5 day that features meetings with executives.
They moved me over to their corporate office, said Niemann. No more [working] weekends. I can get [my kids] to school and have my weekends off. It’s nice.
In her new position, Niemann is charged with drumming up more business, specifically corporate outings.
Overall, golf is in decline, said Niemann, who works closely with many of the area’s casino properties as well as targeting CFOs and COOs. I’m pushing for more females to get into the game. I encourage them to bring their staff and have an Appreciation Day on the golf course. I tell them to make it a scramble, so it is fun. I try different things to get them there.
As for her own game, Niemann hasn’t had much time to practice. She entered U.S. Women’s Open qualifying last year and shot 77-75 in Arizona.
I missed three or four of those tap-ins, she said. The tap-ins weren’t really tap-ins. I just went up and putted without taking my time. You forget that you have to mark your ball and go through your routine. I couldn’t have hit the ball any better. My short game was rusty.
Between her job and caring for her kids, there simply isn’t a lot of time for practice or play. But Niemann hasn’t ruled out a comeback. As her children get older and more independent, Niemann might decide to take a mulligan on competitive golf.
It’s something Juli Inkster did, said Niemann of the Hall of Famer and five-time USGA champion. She always said, ‘Don’t lose sight of your dreams.’ You can raise your kids and be a mom, but don’t lose sight of what you love to do. Golf is my passion.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.