JoJo Robertson vividly recalls the first time she laid eyes on the golf swing of Sofia Garcia. The Texas Tech University women’s coach was in the desert of Arizona at an American Junior Golf Association tournament to recruit a player who was paired with Garcia. But it was Garcia who kept Robertson’s attention throughout the round.
Then, as Robertson was about to depart Grayhawk Golf Club for the day, she glanced over to the practice range and there was only one player out there banging balls. It was Garcia.
“I just remember it being so hot and she was chipping and putting and was doing everything you love to see one of your players do,” Robertson said. “Even at her young age you could tell she was a strong person.”
Garcia was just 14 then, so Robertson had to wait a full year in order to begin recruiting the teenager via email. And Garcia wasn’t exactly from a golfing hotbed. Her home country of Paraguay in South America has just six golf courses, and boys and girls routinely play together in junior tournaments in order to fill out the roster.
And Garcia grew up loving soccer, Paraguay’s sport of choice. Golf wasn’t even on the radar in a small nation where large swaths of swampland, subtropical forest and scrubland dominate the landscape, not lush golf links.
“Since I can remember I liked sports, especially soccer, and I grew up playing soccer a lot and I thought I wanted to do that,” said Garcia, one of the promising young professionals on the Epson Tour, the qualifying tour of the LPGA. “But my dad didn’t really see a future in soccer, so we had a lot of conversations between me, my mom and my dad.
“They swayed me instead of doing team sports to try some individual sports. So after a whole year of playing with plastic clubs they convinced me. I was 8 years old. I started playing golf on the weekends. At the beginning I was just trying to hit that little ball and make it fly. But then I had some competition and some success it got me going. It was a whole new world for me.”
At 9 years old, Garcia remembers representing her country in a tournament in Argentina.
“That was a big deal for me,” Garcia said. “Since I was young I’ve always had the ability to look forward and one of the things I liked watching was the soccer games and seeing our team represent our country. So, I looked at golf as a great opportunity to play sports and to compete. Everything kind of pulled together after that.”
Despite not having a rich golf history, there were a few players to look up to back then, including Carlos Franco, who has 25 professional wins, and former LPGA player Julieta Granada, who was the flagbearer for Paraguay in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
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Still, as Garcia’s golf game progressed she wasn’t sure she wanted to attend college in the United States.
“It’s not easy to move away because family is very important to me both culturally and personally,” Garcia said. “So, when I was 14 or 15 I thought to myself ‘I’m going to turn pro,’ and then reality hit because it’s not as easy as it seems. You are trying to play golf in America, and yes competition is competition, and the ball is the ball, but the courses are so different.
“Getting used to living in the U.S. is not an easy thing and college was definitely a transition from the golf perspective. Looking back for me the five years I spent at Texas Tech I grew a lot as a person – both maturity-wise and golf-wise.”
Garcia left Texas Tech last year as one of its best female golfers ever as her career took off, minus one hiccup. In the fall of her sophomore year, she couldn’t resist the desire to keep playing soccer. During a pickup game, she tore a ligament in her knee and had to redshirt.
“A mistake was made, playing soccer, but she learned from it,” Robertson said. “Our head trainer for women’s golf is also the trainer for the football team and his comment was ‘I wish our football players were half as tough as Sofia.’ She never missed a day of rehab and she actually came back quicker than he thought and she played in the South American Olympics, and in her first tournament in over a year, finished third and got the bronze medal. That’s just another example of how determined she is and how willing she is to do the work.”
Hard work is what is required on the Epson Tour, in which travel, lodging and overall focus can be as challenging as the competition.
In the first 10 events of her rookie season, Garcia has three top 10s and is 14th on the money list. However, she has also missed five cuts.
“Her goals are high and she’s a pretty driven person,” Robertson said. “She just has to keep reminding herself that playing on the Epson Tour is the next step, and that’s how she’s going to get to where she wants to be. It can be hard, but she has had a little bit of success and what I see with Sofia is when she has some momentum on her side she can play with anybody. She just needs that little bit of confidence to realize she belongs out there.”
The highlight of Garcia’s year so far was qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open earlier this month at Pine Needles, and then making the cut to finish tied for 60th in her first professional major.
“When I qualified for the Women’s Open I couldn’t quite grasp it until I walked into the locker room,” said the 23-year-old Garcia. “It was really cool. The first professional golfer I saw was Annika Sorenstam. Later on I introduced myself to her. I was like ‘Wait, where am I again?’’’
“When you think about how few golf courses there are in Paraguay and just what she has done it’s pretty remarkable,” Robertson said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she made the LPGA Tour. She is absolutely preparing herself to be the best.”