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There’s something amazing about Mariah Stackhouse. On the golf course, she’s focused, in control, powerful and fierce, but in real life, she’ll quickly tell you: She’s not your superwoman. She’s humble—and she’s human.
“I can remember back to my first tournament. I was 6 years old and I told my dad, I’m really scared.” Stackhouse was playing in a junior tournament against 9 and 10-year-old girls who were much bigger. To calm her, her dad told her the story of David and Goliath. “He reminded me David was small, but he was also mighty. And he had faith that he would overcome,” says Stackhouse, who tied for first place with a 10-year-old in that tournament. A tradition of mind over matter was born. “Ever since that day, I’ve marked my ball with a capital M and a little D, to remind me that little David is always with me, and I can do it,” she says.
But like most pro athletes, whether they admit it or not, Stackhouse says she has days where she still feels like that trembly, little 6-year-old.
Never mind that she’s heading into her sixth year as an LPGA Tour veteran. Forget that she started hitting golf balls with a homemade club at the age of 2; that she was proclaimed a prodigy at 6; that at 17, she was the youngest Black woman to earn a berth in the U.S. Women’s Open field; that she set records and was a four-year All-American at Stanford University; that in 2014 she was the first Black woman to compete on the Curtis Cup team, which the U.S. won that year; and that at 27, she is the only Black woman with Tour status this season, and only the seventh Black woman ever to play an LPGA Tour in its entire 72-year history.
Somewhere along the way, she settled into a sea of complacency, and subconsciously, it may have undermined her game. With five career top-10s, but no career victories to her name, Stackhouse confessed that she’s struggled mentally and emotionally at times. “The battle is really all in your mind," she says. "Sixty percent of winning happens there.”
She says she spent most of last season frustrated because she just couldn’t get things to go right on the course. Her mind had become her new Goliath. "Early in the season, I started to feel out of sorts on the putting green, but I didn’t address it," she says. "And when you don’t make a mental reset when you need to, thoughts sneak in and attack your confidence, and the next thing you know, you’re spiraling out of control.”
The world watched that scenario on repeat with several other Black female athletes last year. Four-time major champion Naomi Osaka skipped press conferences at the French Open and later withdrew from the Paris major and then Wimbledon to prioritize her mental health. Simone Biles suffered from the twisties at the Summer Games and was forced to miss part of the Olympic competition to focus on her mental well-being. U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was barred from competing in the Tokyo Olympics after admitting she smoked marijuana after the death of her biological mother sent her into an emotional panic.
“I’m so happy Simone prioritized herself,” Stackhouse says. “I felt like bullies tried to force her to compete in spite of what she was feeling, but for a gymnast, it’s really dangerous to perform when you’re mentally off balance."
Stackhouse spoke with the same compassion about Richardson, who almost became a social pariah following her mental health struggles with grief and depression.
“Sha’Carri is young, and mistakes happen,” Stackhouse says of the 21-year-old track and field star. “As an athlete, I understood the pressure she was feeling in that moment and the burden she was carrying. She may not have made the best decision, but I have grace for her, and I can't wait for her return because we all know Sha’Carri’s a talent. She's got confidence and this sauce and swag, and the world is full of opportunity.”
Battling pressure, anxiety, self-doubt, depression or any other mental health issues can easily derail an athlete’s career if left unchecked. And by not taking the necessary steps to deal with her own challenges early last season, Stackhouse seemed to be heading down that path.
“It’s really easy to let positivity distract you from what you’re struggling with,” she says. “You keep telling yourself: I’ve got time. This will pass.”
But it didn’t.
The 2021 LPGA Tour season proved to be one of her toughest. Stackhouse played 16 events, was cut from 10 and finished the season ranked 150th in the Race to the CME Globe. It was her worst showing as a pro, and by the close of the season, her LPGA Tour Card was on the line. The only way to protect her status for the upcoming 2022 season was to finish in the top 45 of the LPGA Q-Series.
“Q-Series is where you end up when you didn’t have the season you wanted, and now you have to go back and earn your Tour card. That’s a grind,” Stackhouse says. “Once the official season ended in November for everybody else, I had to keep going another month to prepare mentally and physically for Q-Series.”
During Q-Series, nearly 200 amateur and pro lady golfers play a marathon 144 holes in just two weeks. It’s a grueling process and may be the most intense focus any of the players will ever experience. Stackhouse says some days, her putting game was still shaky.
“My dad tried to talk to me, my agent tried, I worked with a putting coach, but I knew it wasn’t technical. It was mental,” she says. “My athletic pride just wouldn’t let me talk about it.
“During the third round of Q-Series, I was staying with my college teammate and best bud Lauren Kim when I finally opened up. She told me she’d gone through a similar experience once, and the way she got over it was to write a list of all her fears, and then next to each one, she wrote all the reasons why they were silly. And that just clicked for me.”
Stackhouse says after making her own list, she started making putts the next round and birdies before the day was over.
“Sometimes it’s simple like that. I was feeling better on the greens than I had in over a year and a half,” she says.
Stackhouse’s breakthrough was so strong she earned her Tour card and is looking forward to the 2022 season and beyond. And she embraces Osaka’s example of normalizing the need to relieve pressure and take a stand for yourself.
“This past season was transformational. Going through one of my biggest golf lows, and then coming out at the very end of it, having found myself and my confidence again, was the push I needed to fight harder and not take anything for granted,” she says. “In three years, I want to be top 30 on the money list. I want to be an LPGA winner more than once, and within five years, I want to win a major championship and make the Solheim Cup team.”
Stackhouse says her new mindset has rejuvenated her and she’s excited to chase her goals.
“There's nothing I'll take for granted again because I know how that goes,” she says. “Now, I’ve got a hunger that’s deeper than it’s ever been. I'm just really ready to go get it and not look back.”
Madelyne Woods is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.