There was no lump of fear in her throat or sweaty palms clutching the steering wheel when Leigh Coulter pulled into the parking lot at Hollywood Golf Club for this week’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship.
A case of jangly nerves would have been warranted given that Coulter is competing in her first USGA championship since the 1975 U.S. Girls’ Junior.
But after more than three decades of making critical decisions about the lives of others in military installments and combat zones around the world, the retired U.S. Army colonel arrived here with a greater sense of eagerness than trepidation.
"My goal has been to get here, to do whatever it took to bring my game up to this level and to see how good I can get," said Coulter, 57, of Hopkins, S.C.
That was also her mantra as a child. Her grandfather, William Lincoln Coulter, won the Connecticut Senior Championship multiple times. As kids, Leigh and her twin sister, Alison, would attempt to hit whiffle golf balls with their grandfather’s clubs.
My grandmother would give us a penny every time we hit the side of the house with those whiffle balls, said Coulter, laughing.
Little did she know that golf would eventually take her away from target shooting. At age 9, she started shooting lessons at the Police Athletic League in her hometown of Fairfield, Conn. By 13, she was an accomplished marksman who could deftly handle a bolt-action .22 caliber rifle.
But that was also about the time golf took over, she said. Soon, she began competing in junior tournaments in the tri-state area and looking at college women’s golf programs.
Coulter ended up playing for the Furman University women’s golf team from 1975-1979. She was a member of the 1976 national championship squad with household names such as Beth Daniel, Betsy King and Sherri Turner – all of whom moved on to successful careers on the LPGA Tour – and Cindy Ferro, now one of the nation’s top teaching professionals.
Coulter’s collegiate experience led to her future career path. She took a military science course as an elective during her junior year and later enrolled in the university’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC).
When an Army recruiter convinced her she could continue her career, play golf and join the Army Reserve, Coulter committed to an eight-year term of service. She balanced one weekend a month with the Army Reserve and two weeks of training each summer, while working as a vice president of a bank in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and later as a financial consultant – playing golf whenever she could.
But when Operation Desert Storm required soldier deployments to the Middle East in the early 1990s, Coulter’s life changed dramatically. She was called to help mobilize troops at Fort Stewart, a U.S. Army post in Georgia.
And for the next 20 years, Coulter found herself living and working in such arid and often hostile places such as Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. She was about as far from shaking over 3-foot putts as possible.
"I didn’t see a blade of grass – not even a tree – for a year," she said. "It’s weird, but now I realize that seeing grass and green things growing is very comforting."
She served as the commander of the 724th Military Police Battalion in Iraq, and as the Military Police Brigade Chief of Staff at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait from 2003-2004. From 2009-2010, she was the U.S. liaison officer to the NATO Commander of Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan.
"I was basically the mayor at Kandahar," she said. "I handled everything from housing to the morale and welfare [of soldiers] to provincial reconstruction teams."
Coulter was also an intelligence officer whose job was to gather the intelligence reports that would enable the U.S. military to disrupt or deter enemy forces. She still has a top-secret security clearance from the U.S. Government.
But while Coulter climbed in rank through frequent meritorious promotions, she lived in the same challenging accommodations shared by fellow soldiers in the early years before more comforts were installed.
For a while, she lived in a tent and slept on a cot in Iraq. Temperatures that soared to well over 100 degrees without air conditioning were typical. Sand storms often pummeled her tent in a combined blast of heat and grit.
"I’d wet a face cloth in ice water and lay it on my chest so I could go to sleep at night," she said. "That was air conditioning."
Coulter would go on to earn two Bronze Stars for meritorious achievement in a combat zone in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She also was awarded the Legion of Merit Ribbon, a career award, saluting Coulter for exceptional service over a career.
She also is Airborne Qualified as a paratrooper, making the mandatory parachute jumps at Fort Benning in Georgia for certification.
"That’s one thing, but here, these 3-foot putts above the hole are equally frightening," she said, laughing.
When asked to reflect on the value of her experience as a soldier, the officer’s eyes glistened.
"It was about the opportunity to lead," she said. "I had huge responsibilities that most of the time you don’t get in the civilian world."
Coulter paused and added: "To lead soldiers in a combat environment and to know people have faith in you to be in that position, nothing else comes close. You’re there for each other and you never feel alone even though it’s lonely at the top."
She retired from the Army Reserve in May 2010 after 31 years of service and has worked as a civilian safety consultant for the U.S. Army for the last four years at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. Coulter plans to retire for good in June 2015, which will allow her to devote more time to her golf game.
As much as she is looking forward to playing more golf in the future, her past service has not gone unnoticed.
"In college, we could all play golf, but it takes a very special kind of person to do what she has done," said Turner of her former Furman University teammate. "She’s a true heroine in my eyes."
And as one might expect, Coulter has her own goals and expectations. She believes that courage is a transferable skill and can come in handy for tricky 3-foot putts or challenging shots from undesirable spots.
As for this week’s championship, in which she shot a first-round 82, good for a tie for 45th place, she believes the 20-plus years she missed makes returning to a national championship more meaningful.
"Golf shots are not about life and death," she said. "And just by being here, I’ve already won."
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.