U.S. WOMEN'S AMATEUR
Neisen Undeterred by Family Tragedy August 13, 2015 | Portland, Ore. By Lisa D. Mickey

Kenzie Neisen can put life and golf in perspective after losing both of her teenage brothers to Hunter syndrome. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

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Kenzie Neisen knows all about navigating through challenging times.

And she’s learned that things such as high-level golf competitions are more about opportunity as opposed to something to be dreaded or feared.

Neisen, 20, of New Prague, Minn., proved that this week at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship when she moved into the match-play draw Wednesday morning via a 16-for-10 playoff.

And in Wednesday’s Round of 64, Neisen – 3 down after six holes – had to dig deep once again to hold off No. 5 seed Maria Fassi, of Mexico, in 20 holes.

At the Big 12 Championship in April, the Oklahoma State University freshman once again made up her mind to outlast her opponent and won the conference title on the second playoff hole. And in her first U.S. Women’s Amateur three years ago, she needed to survive a playoff to qualify for match play.

But Neisen’s stories of extra holes and added effort are less about golf and more about life – specifically, about the fragility of life and the preciousness of loved ones who didn’t have the same success overcoming their obstacles.

Neisen has lost two brothers to Hunter syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that occurs when the body is missing a critical enzyme. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no cure for Hunter syndrome, a progressively debilitating disorder that occurs more frequently in males.

Nothing appeared unusual when the boys were born, but as her brothers became toddlers, the Neisen family watched helplessly as the disorder took away the boys’ ability to walk, eat or talk. They still operated as a loving, caring family, watching movies and trying to make the best of their time together, but the clock was always ticking.

Older brother Samuel died in 2009, at age 16. Neisen’s younger brother, Thomas, died this past March at 15.

“It’s been really tough this year,” said Neisen. “I’ve stayed busy at school and haven’t had a whole lot of time to really think about what has happened.

“Everything happened super-fast. Maybe it was a good thing that I was distracted because I don’t live very close to home when I’m away at school.”

Neisen was blossoming as a young college star  when many other freshmen were still trying to find their way. The two-time Minnesota state high school champion won the 2014 Minnesota individual state championship before she headed to Oklahoma State.

When she got to college, Neisen immediately earned a spot on the playing roster. She posted a runner-up finish after a final-round 69 before collecting all-Big 12 honors with her first individual win at the conference championship.

But that bittersweet victory came one month after she had traveled home to say goodbye to Thomas. Neisen didn’t understand a strange sense of calmness that enveloped her as she headed into the Big 12 Championship. When she won in a playoff, Neisen and her family – together for the first time since her brother’s funeral – embraced and wept in the moment.

“For whatever reason, playoffs hit me hard after they’re over, probably because I won the Big 12 in a playoff right after Thomas passed,” Neisen said. “But then again, there’s something very comfortable about a playoff – maybe because of how I won with our family circumstance. It’s just an odd feeling.”

Following her brother’s death, Neisen received tremendous support from others as she completed her first year of college away from home. Coaches, teammates, academic advisors, professors and friends stepped up to help. Even alums living in the area that played on the men’s golf team opened their homes and invited Neisen for dinner or to attend church with their families.

“That definitely made it a lot easier,” said Neisen, who has an older sister, Steffi, who played college golf for the University of Nebraska. “They helped me look at the bright side and think that everything happens for a reason. They helped me believe that both of my brothers are now in a better place.”

Dabbing tears after her round Wednesday, Neisen credited her parents’ strength after losing their second son. And she praised their ability to stay strong and positive, even in extremely difficult times.

“I think we tried to make the lives of my brothers as good as possible,” added Neisen. “We prepared ourselves well because we knew the time was going to happen. In the end, everything was peaceful and good, and there was no struggling or suffering.”

Neisen, her mother, Angie, and Steffi, all wear the same necklace with a small medallion engraved with “S (Heart) T” – in memory of her brothers. Because their family is smaller now, Neisen admits it is “different coming home” and it’s also been an adjustment for the entire family.

But she knows the importance of moving on. She’s done it repeatedly in life, as well as in golf. She came home after school and faced the empty space where her brother once lived.

She also returned home and became the first woman to win both the Minnesota Women’s State Amateur Championship (by 12 strokes) and the Minnesota Women’s State Open (by five strokes).

Neisen will leave her family and return to college later this month, but regardless of what happens this week at the Women’s Amateur – with her family here to watch – she knows the trials of life and the challenges in the game she loves both require tenacity and effort.

They’re different and similar, sometimes rewarding and heartbreaking.

“There have been so many times I have told myself to stay positive, to not give up, to just keep grinding and to understand that anything can happen,” she said, pausing, and gently touching the tiny medallion around her neck.

“I know my brothers are here with me and I really think they made our family who we are.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.

 

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