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The Reality of Turning Pro: Monica Vaughn, the NCAA champ who traded tour life for personal happiness

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The time for wallowing was over.

For weeks Derek Radley and his boss had been blubbering messes, devastated they were splitting after helping guide Arizona to victory in the 2018 NCAA Championship. A rising star in coaching circles, Radley had been tabbed to lead Oregon, but his staff was incomplete with the new season fast approaching. Each of his would-be assistant coaches had fallen through. He had to make a hire, soon.

Finally, one day that summer, Wildcats head coach Laura Ianello burst into his office.

“I know who you should hire!” she said.

“Monica Vaughn.”

In some ways, it’d be an inspired choice: An Oregon native, Vaughn would be returning home. A former All-Everything at Arizona State, she was highly credible. An ebullient 23-year-old, she’d be relatable to today’s players. And of course, they had known her for years as intrastate rivals; Radley actually considered Vaughn the least favorite player he’d ever coached against, because she’d always beat them and then afterward would giggle and play with his eldest son.

On the other hand, well, the idea was preposterous. Vaughn was a former top-10 amateur in the world, only a year removed from winning the NCAA individual title. By now, she should have been fast-tracked for professional success – a telegenic American with loads of sponsorship opportunities who wouldn’t stoop to being overworked and underpaid, her days filled with practice schedules and expense reports and other administrative minutiae.

Except that’s not how her career unfolded, not at all.

She’d spurned the pros.

Given up golf.

Gone off the grid.

“The hair on the back of my neck stood up,” Radley says. “And I started thinking, like: What is Monica doing?

BEFORE THAT QUESTION CAN be answered, here’s another, this one more elemental: What did you want to be as a grownup?

That’s a question that’s been asked in grade school for eons, and it’s a question that apparently was answered for Monica Vaughn without any of her own input. 

Growing up in the small coastal town of Reedsport, Oregon, Vaughn was the prototypical star athlete: point guard in basketball, outside hitter in volleyball, state champion golfer. The youngest of three girls, Vaughn grew up in a house overlooking the local country club and was part of an intensely golfy family (her older sisters both played at Portland State) taught by her father, Chris, a CPA who had no formal golf background other than a zeal for the game.

Vaughn’s individual gifts were unmistakable but what she always enjoyed more was the camaraderie of team sports; volleyball was her first and true love, and some of her fondest memories were giddily riding the bus home after matches. “Don’t get me wrong, I was cutthroat and wanted to win individually,” she says, “but to do it as a team was the greatest feeling.” By 15, when she swept the Oregon Women’s Amateur, Stroke Play and Public Links, it was obvious her best sport. Hers was the type of talent that couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be suppressed. Overnight, her options narrowed: Here was a future LPGA star.

“It’d kind of been beaten into me since the time I was young that this was the path I was on,” she says, “even though I didn’t always believe that’s where I was headed.”

Though she primarily played regionally, Vaughn somehow was ignored by her home state university, allowing powerhouse Arizona State to take a flier on an immensely skilled but raw player. Upon arriving in Tempe, 1,200 miles from home, she finally decompressed. For the first time she didn’t have her father pushing her to practice, or working on her swing, or plotting her future. Motivation came from within.

After a solid freshman campaign, she blossomed into a sophomore standout who earned first-team All-American honors. Her strong play continued as a junior, when she cracked the top 10 in Golfstat’s rankings and earned a spot on the U.S. Curtis Cup squad. Naturally, questions arose about Vaughn’s future, questions she’d never even pondered: What are your plans? What do you make of your pro prospects?

A handful of ASU alums remained in the area, and Vaughn took every opportunity to quiz them about the next level. Oftentimes, she recoiled at what she heard.

“She got a very good tutorial in real tour life,” says Arizona State coach Missy Farr-Kaye. “They told her: If you want to take this on, you’ve got to be all-in. There’s going to be times when you struggle and don’t hit it well and are super lonely and want to go home, and you just can’t.

“Mo just always had this hesitation. She wasn’t afraid of the hard work. She was just like, Wow, that’s a lot to commit to.”


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STRESS CAN MANIFEST ITSELF in mysterious ways.

On the course Vaughn was brutally hard on herself, to the point that Farr-Kaye once asked her: “Do you want me to just go ahead and punch you first, since you’ve been beating yourself up all day?”

Other times, it was even darker. During a tournament her sophomore year, Vaughn stood over a 40-footer and chunked the putt, the ball making it only halfway there. She was spooked. “I don’t know what just happened,” she told a coach, “but I don’t think I can putt.” From that point on, she waged a relentless battle with the yips. She tried everything imaginable: Different putting grips. A mental coach. Pre-shot relaxation methods and mid-stroke exhales. Farr-Kaye always thought the issue was less sinister – a product of Vaughn being unable to harness her adrenaline, unlike during her team-sport upbringing – but the result was the same. Each round became a five-hour stress-fest that left her emotionally drained.

And then there was that looming question, about her pro plans. The percentage of top college players who actually make the bigs is shockingly low, but that doesn’t stop them from trying; anyone in the top 25, maybe even the top 50, is practically guaranteed to give it a shot, at least for a few years. With such lofty credentials Vaughn felt that weight of expectation, but a pro lifestyle still seemed unappealing, her hesitation running deeper than any commitment issues.

“This is a really tough one, because financially, I was never in a bad place – I knew my family would be able to support me,” she says. “But I knew that it’d be on their terms, and that was a tough one for me to wrap my head around. I love my family to death, but I had a really good idea of how I wanted things to be done, and when you’re playing with somebody else’s money, it doesn’t always work out like that.” 

Finally, she set a meeting with Farr-Kaye in January 2017, ahead of her final college semester. “You need to decide, right now,” Farr-Kaye said, and that’s when Vaughn told her: She didn’t want to turn pro.

“I was so burnt out,” Vaughn says, “and I felt like, if I’m really going to do it, I better love it. Otherwise, what am I out there doing?”

The decision gave her a sense of closure, if not finality. Fearful of the backlash from her family, Vaughn kept that decision to herself, punting that tough talk for another day.

Freed up, her form peaked. She ripped off three straight top-3s. She won the regional tournament. And then in miserable weather at the NCAA Championship, she strung together one of the steadiest 54 holes of her career, capitalizing on Jennifer Kupcho’s late meltdown to steal the individual title. On the final hole, on live TV, Vaughn faced a knee-knocking 5-footer – “and I yipped that ball into the hole,” she says proudly.


Vaughn wins NCAA women's individual title

Vaughn wins NCAA women's individual title

A few days later, on the final day of her college career, Vaughn accomplished what she’d long set as the most important objective: an NCAA team title.

But the next day, while flying home with the trophy, Vaughn was filled not with adrenaline but existential dread.

“She was like, What the f?” Farr-Kaye recalls. “What do we do now?”


FOR MONTHS VAUGHN HAD been resolute in her belief that she wouldn’t turn pro. That she shouldn’t turn pro. Ping had even reached out, offering her a job in the company’s customer-service department. But now? She was the reigning NCAA champion, one of the most well-known figures in the sport. Invitations were extended. Agents and sponsors reached out. Sticking to her original plan wouldn’t just be unconventional – it’d be unprecedented, at least in the modern era.

“People were going to think I’m stupid for not trying this,” she says. “I had felt good about it. My whole demeanor had changed. And then I won. I started feeling this pressure and this stress and this need to please everyone around me all over again. I started having self-doubt: Should I be doing this? Am I stupid if I don’t give it a shot?

“It was just like, Ugh, I went against my own word. I was annoyed at myself because I had changed my mind.”  

A month later, Vaughn teed it up as a sponsor exemption in the LPGA’s Marathon Classic. It’d been a fraught few weeks leading up to the event. ASU coaches had routinely checked on her, but there was little resolution. Her head was spinning, advice pouring in from everywhere. Vaughn’s voice needed to be the loudest in the conversation, and at times it felt like a whisper.

“She’d just never thought she’d be in that position but because of how it turned out – of course you’re going to give it a go,” Farr-Kaye says. “Everyone had made the decision for her. It was expected of her.”

The reluctant pro arrived at the Marathon amid much fanfare. Though she wasn’t overwhelmed or overmatched – she missed the cut by one – her debut didn’t imbue an intense sense of desire. “I can’t even reiterate how burnt out I was,” she says. “It was cool, but oh my gosh – I started thinking about the lives of those players, and how they don’t have a break, and it’s just the next week and the next week, and it goes and goes and goes. I just wasn’t passionate enough about it at the time.”

Still, Vaughn forged ahead, out of obligation. She signed up for a mini-tour event as a final tune-up before the first stage of LPGA Q-School. For three rounds she cruised, blowing away the field by five shots. In the final round she hit every fairway and green ... but all those familiar demons reappeared. She yipped five putts and imploded.

And that was it.

She was done.

Burned out, frustrated, unhappy.

Just days before Q-School started, she withdrew from the tournament. When Farr-Kaye texted to ask if she was OK, Vaughn simply wrote back: I’m not sure.

“A part of me was heartbroken for her,” Farr-Kaye says, “because if anybody has the talent, it’s her. I just give her so much credit to listening to her instincts and her brain about what she was and wasn’t capable of doing. Just because you spent years devoted to something, this dream has to be your dream. You have to be the one who drives it. It’s your responsibility. And all of it was suffocating.”

The phone call home – the one she’d been dreading for nearly a year – went about as poorly as Vaughn expected. Their connection through the sport was broken. She and her father didn’t speak for a couple of months, their relationship strained even longer.

“I know her family was surprised and saddened by it,” Farr-Kaye says. “It’s hard on every golf parent – it’s a lifestyle that we all love to be a part of, and they miss that, and they’re not ready for it to end. It’s like being an empty nester.”

In desperate need of a break, Vaughn practically disappeared. She didn’t pick up a club again for a year. Others around the college golf community pressed Farr-Kaye for updates, concerned that the budding superstar had gone MIA. Each time, Farr-Kaye would reassure them: She’s fine, she’s good. She’s simply trying to find herself ... only in the most unusual of places.


“WHAT IS MONICA DOING?”

That’s what Radley asked himself in his office that day in July 2018, with the clock ticking on his potential hire. There was only one way to find out, so he opened Facebook and messaged Vaughn:

Monica Vaughn
Monica Vaughn

Mo!!!

How are you??? I’ve had a whirlwind of a month but very thankful and excited for my future at UO. I wanted to reach out to see if you’ve ever given any thought about getting into coaching???

Thumbing through the note, Vaughn shrieked.

Following the sudden end to her pro career, she had essentially taken a gap year. Except she wasn’t traveling or pursuing other passions – the recent NCAA champion was waitressing at Houston’s, an upscale restaurant chain in Phoenix. Instead of chasing LPGA fame, she was memorizing daily specials and salad ingredients, bussing tables and hustling for tips. All for about $35,000 a year – or roughly a third of what the top performers on the Symetra Tour were banking.

“I wanted to do something totally different than I’d ever done before,” she says. “I had the most intense desire to do the most mundane thing possible. Working there sounded so normal.”

It was the first time in Vaughn’s life that she’d worked a real job and collected a paycheck. She didn’t have time for that growing up; her afternoons were spent doing homework, or grinding on the range, or shuttling to events. In college? No way, not as an elite student-athlete at a Power 5 school. But now, improbably, in her physical prime, she had the chance, and that appealed to her.

Once again, she was part of a larger team: asking for help, picking up others’ slack, tolerating a rude customer for the greater good. Other than a few awkward moments when she was recognized by a patron, or her face splashed across the TV screens during NCAA coverage, Vaughn toiled in anonymity. “She’d call me, like, ‘They have no idea who I am – I’m just a waitress!’” Farr-Kaye says.

But by summer 2018, she was feeling homesick and ready for something new. That’s when Radley reached out, extending a lifeline.

“We were both screaming on the phone with excitement like, Is this real?!” Vaughn says.

They agreed to meet halfway, in Casa Grande, for a semi-formal interview. Radley brought along his wife, Sara (formerly Sara Brown), a retired tour player who surely could empathize with Vaughn’s hesitation. Before lunch, they agreed on a signal of Sara’s approval – a knee slap, under the table – and after Vaughn explained why she turned down the pros, and how passionate she was about team sports, and how much more she had to give, Sara practically flipped over the booth.

Vaughn was offered the job on the spot. She was returning home, unashamed of the unorthodox path she’d chosen – or the independent, strong-willed woman she’d become.


Oregon Women's Golf
Oregon Women's Golf


THE FIRST-YEAR COACH and his brand-new assistant took over an Oregon program ranked 54th in the country.

That initial season was predictably chaotic. The coaching staff was trying to find its cadence and establish a winning culture. The players, meanwhile, were left to reconcile why a recent NCAA champion was wearing sweats and not playing for money on Sunday afternoons.

“There’s a big difference between making it out there and making a living,” Radley says. “There’s some people who figure it out, some who don’t figure it out, and others who don’t ever want to figure it out. She knew she was going to be happier not doing it.”

Her family soon recognized that, too, with Vaughn’s new role serving as the transitional step they needed. An Oregon alum, Chris was ecstatic that his youngest daughter had returned to Eugene, still a part of the sport that initially bonded them. “That was a nice way for us to connect again,” Monica says. “He was able to let go of some of that disappointment and frustration of not turning pro, and he could be proud that I was still involved with golf.”

As the assistant at a top program – a position that nets her about 60k – she books flights and maps out tournament schedules. She plans team retreats and handles donor outreach. She orders clothes and submits expense reports. In practice, she guides players through course-management decisions – and, as competitive as ever, rolls her eyes when they short-side themselves or fail to account for a crosswind. Says Radley, “Early on, she was full throttle, and I was like, ‘Mo, you’re a unicorn – not everybody is like you.’”

Yet to the team, she remains the ideal. The most popular Google image of Vaughn is a shot of her in her maroon team polo, collar popped, a Sun Devil sticker on her cheek. Her fist is clenched, her mouth agape. Most assume it’s a photo of her celebrating her NCAA title. Nope. It’s her reaction to finding out that the team’s No. 5 player had clipped her by a shot to win the Sun Devils’ home event in 2017. “I knew then that we could do something special,” Vaughn says, and they did, a few weeks later. Together.

Radley shows his team that photo every year, for two reasons: Because to him, Vaughn embodies the selflessness required to be a team champion. And to remind them they’re in the presence of someone extraordinary.

“Derek hit a gold mine with Mo,” says Ianello, Radley’s former boss at Arizona. “She was a little lost and he gave her purpose. There’s nothing that will make you feel better than helping other people.”

Participating in practice, experiencing collective success (the Ducks now rank fourth in the country), Vaughn’s love-hate relationship with her own game softened, too. She reapplied for her amateur status, and it was almost as if the golf gods rewarded her. In summer 2020, she topped a current Ducks player for the Oregon Women’s Stroke Play – nine years after she first claimed the title, a moment, then, that seemed to signal she’d arrived. A few months later, during the team’s annual fundraiser at Eugene Country Club, Vaughn garnered national headlines by carding a 58. And this past April, at the urging of her team, she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open – the first time she’d ever competed in the most prestigious event in women’s golf.

“Mo is a superhero to our players,” Radley says.

It mattered little that the Open became a crushing reminder of why she quit. Unable to properly prepare, she sprayed it all over Olympic Club and couldn’t escape the thick, gnarly rough. At one point in a second-round 84, she broke down in tears.

“I said to myself, Oh my gosh, I have not cried about golf in a very long time!” she says. Then she spotted one of her players, sprinting over to give her a hug. “I was like, Get it together, Coach Mo! You can NOT let them see you like this!”

She decided there was little need to chase another major berth. This time, fulfillment could be found elsewhere.

MIDWAY THROUGH HER FOURTH year of coaching, Vaughn is like most 20-somethings, still lacking clarity over her long-term future.

She knows it doesn’t involve professional golf. It might not be centered around college coaching, either, even though her players adore “Mo Mama,” and even though Radley thinks she could be one of the greatest coaches of all time. A coach’s life is nomadic – not just because of the nonstop recruiting, but because it usually takes several apprenticeships before landing a head-coaching gig. To Vaughn, that sounds almost as unappealing as a decade fighting for scraps on the Symetra.

The chief difference now is that Vaughn isn’t fretting the future. She’s 26, with a serious boyfriend, with a job she enjoys and a boss she respects, in a place that feels like home.

For now, there’s an outlet for her competitiveness that doesn’t require her to endure all of those yippy flashbacks.

For now, she can stay immersed in the game that gave her everything but an identity.

For now, she can dispense advice to 22-year-olds who are grappling with the same personal decisions she faced just four years earlier.

“We have similar family backgrounds, and she’s helped me on my own journey,” says Heather Lin, the team’s lone senior. “Even though I’m going to turn pro, she helped me figure out why. Because I have dreams of my own. Because I want to achieve them myself, not for someone else.”

That’s why to her younger players, to her coaching peers, Vaughn is not some cautionary tale but rather a source of inspiration. She is secure enough to live without regrets. She is fighting back against a machine that chews up and spits out fledgling pros. And she is living proof that talent isn’t directly correlated to ambition, that personal happiness isn’t tied to a ranking or title.

“What she did was so brave,” Ianello says. “There’s so many miserable players on the mini-tours that are there because they don’t know what else to do, or because they’ve been told that’s what they should do. She chose her own path and probably saved herself so many years and so much agony from being unhappy.

“And look at her now – thriving, enjoying it more than she ever thought she would.”