Balancing Act

Stephanie Miller’s 2017 schedule is full, but she’s ready and determined to take on every challenge
By Rory Spears

Courtesy University of Illinois Athletics/Mark Jones

This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Chicago District Golfer.

When she was 10 years old, Stephanie Miller had a life-changing decision to make. Would she continue in gymnastics or golf?

Eleven years later, Miller is on the right course — the golf course, that is — and gymnastics’ loss is golf’s gain.

This spring, Miller will have more major challenges on her plate.

The first is how to help her University of Illinois team qualify, for the first time, into the NCAA Championship at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove. She also would like to win her second college tournament before completing school and graduating with a degree in sports management. There also is the matter of defending her Illinois Women’s Open title at Mistwood. She could do that as an amateur or professional, and then there’s LPGA Qualifying School in August.

The people who know Miller say that if anyone can handle the load, she can.

When she was 4, her dad, Alan, put a club in her hands. At 6 she began to occasionally join him on the golf course, and by 8 she was taking lessons and playing in junior tournaments.

At 11, she started lessons with Jon Reese at Pine Meadow, and in the winter she practiced at the White Pines Golf Dome. The work with Reese, still her swing coach, paid off as she started winning tournaments.

Former White Pines Golf Dome owner Mike Munro remembers Miller’s first visits.

“The dome is 100 yards,” said Munro.

“Stephanie couldn’t hit a ball off the back wall at first. But when she did, there was a celebration.”

Miller isn’t tall like some LPGA stars and claims to be “only 5–2 and 115 pounds on a good day,” which doesn’t stop her from launching long drives. But Miller and her coaches say the best part of her game is her short game. During one round last year, she missed 16 greens and got up and down 13 times.

Last summer, she traveled to Rich Harvest Farms, where she was joined by owner Jerry Rich for a practice round.

Miller filled her phone with notes and tips from Rich while playing from tees built for the NCAA Championship.

Those drives cleared trees and cut corners, and they left the Rich Harvest Farms team rethinking those tee boxes. By the end of the round, Rich was calling Miller’s game “impressive” and Miller was saying the place was the best course in the Midwest she’s ever played.

As a senior, being a team leader is expected and Miller doesn’t mind that, but she admits it helps that head coach Renee Sloan doesn’t pile it all on her.

“We don’t designate any team member as captain,” says Sloan. “We want each member to be a leader, and we want to take advantage of each person’s skills and spread responsibilities among the team.”

As much as every player wants to play in an NCAA Championship that’s so close to campus, members of the Illinois team say they also want to qualify for Sloan, who, says Miller, “always puts everything she has into us and our team.”

Sloan started following Miller at a junior tournament and then the 2010 DuPage County Junior. She never let go. When Miller, then a sophomore, won her first of two state high school championships, college scholarship offers began to pour in.

Courtesy University of Illinois Athletics/Mark Jones

“Almost every Big Ten school recruited me,” said Miller. “So did 10 other major programs. I made visits to San Diego State and Wichita State. But Coach Sloan was there from the start and Illinois was far enough from home.”

When Miller joined Illinois, the women’s team was 125th in the nation. Now it’s a top-25 program. “She has made an impact on our program and made a significant difference in propelling our program forward,” Sloan says of Miller. “She’s helped create a culture you build on.”

“Being part of the first Illinois women’s team to make nationals would be a dream come true,” says Miller. “We want to play in that setting and our team knows we are close to doing it.”

Miller credits Sloan for having the team do community service work, though some might question the requirement.

“Coach Sloan makes us realize how fortunate we are and what we can do,” says Miller, whose volunteer work includes The Daily Bread Soup Kitchen and riding in an ambulance for the Salvation Army, raising funds for the homeless.

“Stephanie has matured as a person during her time at Illinois,” says Sloan. “She’s a person who always brings a smile to your face and does a great job motivating her teammates.”

Last year, Miller took a nine-day cruise to relax before the Illinois Women’s Open, then practiced one day before three straight rounds of 69 left her at 9 under par, three strokes ahead of the field.

“I tried not to be as serious as in past years,” says Miller. “I knew the break wouldn’t hurt my game. I relaxed and played one shot at a time.”

Miller helps grow the game by working at Schaumburg Golf Club as a junior clinic instructor.

“Our staff had an idea to bring in good high school or college players to help with our junior golfers,” says Jon Parsons, Schaumburg’s general manager. “We have two programs that run, ages 5–7 and 8–14. We wanted instructors who play at a high level and have skills that parents like to see. Stephanie really interacts with our kids and they respond to her. Having her has worked out better than I could have ever imagined.”

Few juniors know who Miller is or what she’s accomplished, but those facts aren’t lost on parents bringing their kids into the program.

“It’s great for girls to have someone like Stephanie as a role model,” said Parsons. “The tough part is that we know after college she will leave, and replacing her won’t be easy.”

It will be equally as difficult to forget everything she’s achieved.