Samantha Widmer – elite golfer, business woman and role model – on balancing her career and passion for the game of golf
Hailing from a group of islands in the Caribbean, the Cayman Islands, Samantha was introduced to golf casually at the nascent age of 10 by her next door neighbour (later her lifelong coach and mentor) along with her two brothers.
Self-taught and applying her naturally competitive nature, Samantha became talented enough to attain a scholarship to high school in Canada and later the United States, where she continued her passion for the game and spent four years on the NCAA Division 1 university women’s golf circuit. Twenty years later, 35 countries travelled, two bronze medals at the World Island Games, and numerous amateur ladies and junior golf titles under her belt, her love for the sport still remains a thriving part of her life.
The road has not always been easy for Samantha, having lost her mother to cancer some years back and her father earlier this year. Her family has always been a source of inspiration, support and motivation, and she wants to continue making them proud. Now as she explores new career and sporting opportunities in Hong Kong she hopes to share her love for golf with as many people as she can.
Did you always know you were going to have dual passions i.e. a corporate career and play competitive golf? Did you ever want to focus solely on your golfing career considering you were playing at such an elite level and have won numerous regional golfing titles?
I have always felt that my career interests and sporting abilities went hand in hand. When I was young, I pursued both my passions of academics and golf which allowed me to receive scholarships to boarding school and university. Maintaining the balance between hard work in the classroom and competing on the playing field (or course in this case) helped me gain confidence in myself, pushed me beyond my limits and opened doors that I never imagined were possible. I gained the ability to excel in multiple endeavors and learn skills that I can apply both inside and outside the workplace, allowing me to handle tough situations with a strong mental attitude, be well-organized, set realistic and achievable goals, and become someone I am proud of.
I’ve always wanted to have a strong professional background and studied accounting for its technical rigor, partly because my mom always told me that no matter where I end up, as a woman, people should never have to question my abilities. I was lucky that I was never made to choose between academics or sports, but encouraged to put my greatest effort forward in all areas of my life which would allowed me to become my best self and achieve my goals.
My natural ability to build relationships with all sorts of people has been a result of years of competing, mentorship and ambassadorship through my sport. It has helped me maintain some great friendships over the years and also a confident attitude in my career, through client negotiations, public speaking and team work. Golf has given me a creative mind to think outside of the box and battle tough situations with positivity and self-assurance.
What, in your opinion, sets apart good golfers from great golfers? How do you deal with nerves on the golf course?
It’s a couple of things.
Mindset – A focused mindset is vital. You need to have strict control over your mind, so that no matter what your last shot was, good or bad, you are able to approach the next one as a completely new event that has the possibility of being better than the last. You can’t feel sorry for yourself after making a mistake, but need a strong mental capacity to look forward and be positive.
Hard work – Long training hours aside, golf is a sport all about calculations. It may surprise most of people, but on the golf course, a good player has already calculated how far it is to the tree, to the bunker, to the front of the green, to the back of the green, to the water hazard and eventually to the hole before they even step up to a shot. They’ve already visualized the ball’s motion in their head and have the ability to almost see into the future and plan exactly where the ball should land. The most impressive and talented golfers are also creative – they can think outside the box such as using an unpredictable club for an impossible shot to get back into the game.
Luck – You can’t argue that one. There have been times when I know that luck was on my side and took me by surprise. You cannot hope for a lucky bounce to happen – it usually appears when you least expect it and leads to an enjoyable rest of the hole.
As for how I deal with nerves – when I’m about to hit, I’m thinking “Come on Sam, come on girl!” It’s my parents’ voice, looping in my head, which I have heard all throughout childhood. These motivational messages help you bring up your confidence level. Just know, you can never be completely without nerves in anything challenging, that’s life and you just have to trust your gut.
Your thoughts on why golf is construed as such an elite sport in our culture? How can we make the sport more accessible to the public?
Golf has always been known as an elite sport, but even more so in Asia where access to the game is quite restricted. Especially here in Hong Kong, there is an accessibility issue – you need to drive to most golf courses, the clubs have steep membership fees, and many are member-only. The gear is not cheap either. I was lucky to start out young and even though there was no golf course at the time, my parents set up hitting nets and AstroTurf putting greens for us to practice in the garden which allowed us to become introduced to the sport at a young age.
On the North American side of the globe, where I have played most of my life, the idea of playing golf recreationally by the wider public is not alien. Golf courses are in abundance. I imagine the accessibility issue, lack of enough junior programs and the fact that the status-quo has been maintained for years, is why the game is not as widely played in the Asian region.
I would like to see golf become more accessible to general public by suggesting more affordable junior participation and tournament options, corporate sponsorship of golfing events and promotion of charity golf days. These are three fundamental areas I believe could be developed in Hong Kong, even though green space is limited, and have a positive impact on the sporting industry and number of people playing the game in the region.
GOLF is a misleadingly popular acronym for ‘Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden’. Can you talk about some of the personal challenges you’ve faced in this regard in your golfing career?
Golf has always been a predominately male denominated sport both from the popularity of the game among business men, and rules and regulations on female memberships imposed by certain golf clubs. Coming from the Caribbean I was lucky to have been brought up in a society that promoted junior golf and have parents that were supportive throughout my golfing career. I believe things could have been a lot different had I not had the strong parental support, opportunity to play in international competitions and a group of people behind the scenes that believed junior golf was an important thing for kids to be involved in.
Throughout my 20 years of playing the game, I have received comments like the “Ladies’ tees are too easy, you’re going to play from those?” Because of the level I’ve played at and my golfing abilities, many of my male playing partners expect me to play from their tees (when I’m playing recreationally). While I happily accept the challenge and have done so for years, I do think it’s important to remember the reasons why there is a distinction between the tee boxes. Technically, women are supposed to play from the front tees because they are positioned in accordance to our physical capability to drive the ball to a certain distance.
You were also crowned Miss Earth Cayman Islands in 2010 and represented your country at the international Miss Earth pageant in Vietnam. What did you take away from that experience? How relevant are beauty pageants in today’s society?
The prospect of being an ambassador for your country has always excited me and the Miss Earth pageant was a way for me to represent my country on a different platform. Not only did I have a significant responsibility to present the Cayman Islands on a global scale, but I also learned a lot about myself in the process. It was one of my first experiences in Asia and getting to see all the amazing opportunities and aspects the region has to offer.
Holding the title for Cayman Islands was very relevant as Miss Earth is an advocate for environmental protection campaigns and the entire Caymanian tourism industry, our culture and people’s values are built on that. Through Miss Earth, I was able to be part of campaigns that raised substantial money for charity and spread global awareness on campaigns that need funding to continue doing the important work necessary to keep our planet healthy and environmentally safe. I was able to visit places and meet people that gave me a real appreciation for how lucky I’ve been to grow up in the Caribbean and give back to organizations that need it the most.
I think beauty pageants will continue to be relevant in our society. There is this notion that beauty pageants are superficial and that beauty pageant participants are dim-witted. But that’s a very shallow view. You have to understand that the participants hail from varied backgrounds. Some women in fact enter the competition to change the lives of their families and communities. It’s certainly not entirely about physical beauty and I have seen that first hand. Beauty can be power. If you are beautiful, smart and confident – that gives you the power to make an impact in your own life and on the people around you.
Increasingly, beauty pageants are now showcasing the stories of women – their lives and what they’ve been through, personal and professional pursuits, the charities they support, and the influence they can have on the women around them. Having lived with the participants of the Miss Earth pageant for 5 weeks, trust me when I say I have met some of the most incredible women who are now life-long friends and continue to be role models in the lives of many young girls.
Words of advice to aspiring women who want to get involved with playing amateur / pro golf or other sports?
Small steps lead to big rewards.
It boils down to doing something every day that will get you one step closer to your dreams and goals. There is no assurance that if you start a sport at a young age that you are guaranteed to end up a professional athlete. However, there is always the possibility and it’s important to keep the mindset that you can achieve anything you want.
There are many parents out there that want their kids to achieve stardom like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, even if it is not what the child ultimately wants. From expensive lessons and teachers, long hours of practice, over involvement from the parents and banning fun time with friends, sometimes the parents can go too far. I believe there should be a fair balance between pushing your kids to achieve their best and allowing them to enjoy the journey, without pushing them to the point of burnout. I was lucky to have parents that were supportive and saw the talent potential in their kids. There were moments when I found the grueling practice and travels schedules difficult, but my parents always reminded me about what it takes to be good at something and that I should go out there and enjoy myself.
I also advise young athletes to never be ashamed of your sport or passions. Growing up, I heard people saying “Oh golf isn’t really a sport, all you do is like walk around, ride a cart, drink beer and hit a ball.” The ignorance will always be there, not matter how hard you fight it, so it’s important to associate yourself with people that supportive. As an adult, I know many golfers that wish they had started as a young child and was given the opportunity to game they now find fun and exciting.