Interview with Golf Canada’s Morgan Bell

Morgan in the fairway at Sun City in South Africa.

Last week, I had the chance to talk with Morgan Bell. Morgan’s a former professional golfer from PEI, who played for the University of Montevallo in Alabama. Currently, she’s working for Golf Canada as the organization’s Sport Development Communications Coordinator. We touched on many subjects in the interview, including her start in the sport, her abrupt retirement from the professional game and the current state of the sport in Canada.
 
Adam Sarson: Can you give me a quick background on where you’re from, and how you got started in golf?
 
Morgan Bell: Well, I’m from the small East Coast island of Prince Edward Island, born and raised in Charlottetown and I have no shame in saying PEI is the greatest place in Canada to play golf.  I actually love the story of how I started playing golf because it involves french fries, still my favourite food.
 
When I was about six, my family had a cottage in Stanhope, PEI. We lived about a kilometer up this dirt road from the local golf club, Stanhope Golf and Country Club. I had this old green Maxfli bag with five clubs in it and my parents would bribe me with a few dollars and say ‘You can go down to the golf course and get french fries but you have to take your golf clubs and practice’. So, off I’d go, bribed by fries.
 
But the more I was there, the more I liked it and Stanhope was awesome because they gave free Junior lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’d go and take mini lessons from the local pro and then dad would take me down in the evenings and we’d play nine holes on our old 3 wheel golf cart until it became dark! It was such a great environment to learn the basics and make it fun.
 
AS: Did you play any other sports growing up, or was it mostly a focus on golf?
 
MB: I played SO many sports. My parents literally wanted me to experience everything. Dad used to always teach me the fundamentals in the backyard because he didn’t want me to look girly playing sports and I’m still so thankful to him because I can throw a baseball surprisingly hard.
 
In the winter I was a highly competitive figure skater, but I quit at 16 trying to land triples! I also was a competitive alpine ski racer and went to the Canada Games in 2004. I loved ski racing; it was so much fun going fast. I also took ballet alongside figure skating for many years, even though I’m so ungraceful it’s hilarious and if piano counts (Editor’s note: it doesn’t) I did that too until I was 16.
 
In the summertime, I played baseball with the boys (second base and center field) until I was 16. I quit because I realized they were all boys and being 16 and a girl didn’t work out very well with them anymore, so I switched over to softball (Third base), played on our provincial team and went to Nationals for that. I eventually quit softball in grade 12 when I was on the Canada Games team, as my coach told me I had to pick between softball and golf, and in my mind I said ‘I’m not going to be playing softball when I’m 60, nor is it going to get me to school on a full-ride”. Golf became a full-time focus soon after that.
 
AS: At what point did you and your family realize that golf wasn’t just something that you were good at, but something that you could try and make a living out of?
 
MB: I realized it in my senior year of university, pretty late. I was hitting the ball past most people I played against and I won a few tournaments my senior year, but because I didn’t have a car at university, I really actually never got to practice nearly as much as I wanted to. I went back after graduating in 2008 from Montevallo and was the assistant coach on the women’s squad, bought a car and took lessons from Hank Johnson in Birmingham, Alabama. It was then that I kind of realized I could make a run at this, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
 
AS: You mentioned attending the University of Montevallo in Alabama. How does someone from the east coast of Canada end up in Alabama to play golf? Walk me through the process of how you ended up there.
 
MB: A question I get asked all the time! I was recruited through this agency called ‘CAPS’. I was in grade 12 at the time and actually originally went to a school in St. Louis at a place called Lindenwood (that’s why I love the Cardinals). I really disliked that school and wanted to transfer out at Christmas, but had to wait until my freshman year was over. Montevallo was one of the original schools to recruit me, so I called them up when I was done at Lindenwood and asked if they still had scholarship money available, and sure enough they did. So, my parents and I flew down to St. Louis, picked up all my stuff out of storage and drove down to the backwoods, small town of Montevallo.
 
At first glance, I thought to myself ‘What on earth did I just do?’ But Montevallo was the greatest four years of my life, and being a small town person, it was completely perfect for me.  So many of us Canucks end up at so many random places, but these schools needs to meet scholarship/NCAA criteria and there is a huge opportunity in so many sports, not just golf.
 
AS: Further to that, how did your family and friends react to you moving so far away for school? Was it difficult to keep up relationships with them?
 
MB: My parents were 50/50. I think my dad was terrified to send me away, as he didn’t even want me to travel off PEI for university, but I won that battle!!
 
My friends thought it was awesome and thank god for MSN Messenger back in the day because seriously that’s all I used to do. I’ve never been one to have a huge group of friends, so my two closest friends from high school still remain my closest friends today. Facebook also appeared in my second year of university, so that was a big help too in keeping up with everyone’s lives.
 
As for my parents, it was actually a blessing because being so far away I realized how much I loved talking to them. Living at home you take them for granted but after I was away for long enough, all I wanted to do was talk to them every day. I’m still awful for that. I call my mom and dad seriously every day. They might tell me they are sick of me soon.
 
AS: From a golf perspective, run me through a typical day at Montevallo.
 
MB: Oh dear. (laughs) Just keep in mind Montevallo is no D1 Alabama here. I do very much wish it was much more structured looking back. Golf didn’t start until about 2pm. Whenever class was done essentially and we’d recruit drives out to the course, as Timberline was a 20minute drive. We kind of took our own reigns on practice but Coach Palmer was always out at the range or putting green with us, and he was pretty decent golfer himself so he often offered some advice if we needed it. Like I said earlier, practice was my Achilles heel in university. I like to practice, and I’d find myself only staying for an hour or two because my ride wanted to leave.
 
But we’d go up there, hit two bags of balls, chip, putt and then twice a week we usually played 18 on the worst walking course you could ever imagine. We practiced every weekday though. The gym was up to ourselves for my first two years, and after that we had some hilarious trainers who busted our butts.
 
AS: Tell me about the results you had throughout your college career.
 
MB: I had my good tournaments and bad tournaments. College golf really taught me a lot about being a competitor because half the time I had zero idea what was going on with my golf swing. I didn’t have a coach for four years, so I still consider myself a fantastic grinder.
 
When I dedicated myself in my senior year it showed. I won a big tournament in Myrtle Beach against a huge field, shooting 75-73. I won in a playoff and I’ll honestly never forget sinking that 20ft birdie putt on the first hole. I actually have no idea how it went in, but it just smoked the back of the cup and fell in and my whole team came running out onto the green. It was completely awesome.
 

Morgan’s team crowds her after she sinks a putt to win in Myrtle Beach.

I won another one too, but I was always a big advocate that a lot of scores would never win tournaments at other events. So, shooting 77 to win doesn’t count in my books, but I’m proud of Myrtle Beach. It was a tough two days with good girls around me. I always wanted to be better, and I still remember taking two doubles in that 75 in Myrtle Beach and being furious about them even after winning. (laughs)
 
AS: After graduating, you turned pro. What was the process of turning pro straight out of school? How did you get into events? Share anything that you think takes us behind the scenes.
 
MB: You just declare you’re a pro and enter whatever professional events you want. Not too glamorous.
 
I actually waited a year to turn pro because I went back and took lessons for a year and coached my team. I felt then that I had a great foundation after the summer of 2009. I had won every amateur event on PEI that summer, set a few course records, and played well at Nationals despite one terrible round. I felt I could do it, so I went to LPGA Future Qualifying in the fall of 2009 and turned pro after. Getting into events isn’t too hard. Women’s fields need players, so there was always a spot in a mini tour anywhere really.
 
AS: At some point, you decided that playing professionally wasn’t for you. What made you come to that decision? How often do you play now?
 
MB: This is quite a story…
 
Futures the first time around didn’t go too great. I was terrified when I got there, totally felt in over my head. I just wasn’t used to it but I did get status. So that winter I didn’t want to stay on PEI in the snow, so I actually flew to South Africa to practice with a good friend of mine who was a professional on the Sunshine Tour. I actually can’t ever remember playing golf so well. I was over there for 4 months and was ready to come home and play a full season on the CN Women’s Tour, and try to get into as many Futures events as I could. I had so much confidence.
 
Cue vertigo.
 
I flew home sometime in May and after hitting the ground on PEI, I had about a two day turnaround and had to fly out to Vancouver for the CN event, my pro debut. I remember before flying out to Vancouver, I was standing in my mom’s room trying to put a sock on while balancing on the other foot and I fell over, which is totally weird since I have pretty great balance, but I just brushed it off.
 
Anyways, I got on the first tee in a practice round and I felt so weird. I was hitting the ball 40 yards shorter than usual, I was tired, I was just out of it. I thought I was just nervous. So I teed off the next day, and I played I think 12 holes at like +16. At one point, I was standing over the ball and it was moving to my eyes. I felt like I was on a really rough boat ride standing over the ball, and at that point I knew I had to withdraw. I went to the hospital where the doctor told me she couldn’t believe I was golfing, let alone driving…. Awesome.
 
I flew back home and literally spent a month sleeping. I was so tired, but my biggest mistake was trying to play golf to beat it. I should have taken that entire summer off and gotten better, but I was too stubborn. I felt like I had to play, something I’m sure a lot of struggling pros would understand. I played terribly all summer long, hit shots a 20+ handicap wouldn’t even hit. I was going to physio where they do all this wacky stuff to your head and eventually, I’d say about 4 months later, the vertigo did go away but my confidence with golf was shattered and my golf swing turned into some hilarious thing I’ve never seen before.
 
I played for another year but I never got over it. I essentially went back to South Africa, found some good ground, and caddied a ton on the Sunshine Tour, which I loved. I went 7/7 in cuts made for the guy I caddied for over there. Then I came back home and tried to play a few more events, but my mind over the ball in tournaments was just toast. It wasn’t worth it anymore and the fun was gone, so I knew I had to make a change.
 

Morgan caddying on the Sunshine Tour in South Africa.

AS: How much do you play now, and why do you do it? It sounds like you were pretty hard on yourself when you played competitively. Are you still that way now even though you’re not actively pursuing it as a career?
 
MB: I get out to play I’d say twice a month now as it’s just not a priority right now, but when I do I have so much more fun than I did when playing competitively. I actually think I’m better right now than when I was competing as I put way too much pressure on myself. Now I just step up, hit it and and go. It seems I play like a whole new Morgan.  I’m 100% having way more fun now playing golf. I still get disgusted when I hit a bad shot that I know I should be able to hit, but I typically laugh about it now and get over it in under 5 seconds. I still have high standards for myself out there, but I definitely don’t put the pressure on myself to perform well anymore, but it seems like I almost always do. I wish I could have figured this all out a long time ago!
 
AS: You’re currently studying as a grad student at Centennial College, with the ultimate goal of being on TV, talking about sports. How did you end up in Toronto?
 
MB: That story above deserves a few thanks for getting me here, and I’m thankful for it now.
 
I took journalism as my undergrad because sports have always been my passion. I knew if I wasn’t playing them, I wanted to be talking or writing about them. When I ultimately decided to quit competitive golf, I knew I had to make a change and I knew I’d been out of school too long to depend on my undergrad to get me a job. I knew I wasn’t happy where I was and a career in sports was the only solution to my problem.
 
I literally Googled ‘sports journalism grad programs’, up popped Centennial, and I’m going to consider it my lucky break. I have family up here so moving wasn’t that big of an issue, but I couldn’t believe I was going back to school, something I said I’d NEVER do. But I didn’t want to go back for long and Centennial offered this perfect grad program that essentially is under a year and you’re done. Painless in my eyes! I applied in late September, and not long after I was informed of my acceptance, and I had a few months to wrap my head around moving. Again.
 
AS: Do you have a specific goal or dream job in TV?
 
MB: Kelly Tilghman has my dream job in golf, but Erin Andrews has the best sideline reporting job in the world and she’s so good at it. That being said, I love a lot of things besides TV. Truthfully, I just enjoy finding the stories and sharing them. I’m really not sure where I want to be yet, but I do hope it’s in golf because I want to have a voice for our sport and I hope someday I can be an influential person for the sport of golf and it’s development in our country.
 
AS: You recently took a job as the Sport Development Communications Coordinator at Golf Canada. What are your duties in the new job? Why did you end up taking it?
 
MB: Well, I just look at their name ‘Golf Canada’ and I feel lucky to be there. It’s our country’s governing body for the sport I’m the most passionate about. If I want to be in the thick of things in golf in Canada, it’s a great place to be. Earlier in the summer, they let me come and work for them at the RBC Canadian Open. I filmed some videos, interviewed fans and players and it was a fantastic experience. I really found out how much I enjoyed the people I’d be working around, and when the job was offered to me I knew it’d be a great place for me to be.
 
What my job entails though is all things sport development in our country. National Golf in Schools, Team Canada, Future Links, Golf Fore the Cure, Women’s growth, etc. You name it, and it more than likely falls under my window. I’m responsible for writing content and producing videos for all these things. It’s busy and I like it. Even in the winter it’s busy! It’s also neat because I grew up in a few of these programs, so I feel like I can give back a little bit at the same time while working.
 
AS: What are the similarities and differences with this job, and with being a pro golfer?
 
MB: I think being a golfer always helps. I know a lot of the players, I’ve played a lot of the tournaments, I know the etiquette, I know when and when not to push for questions and I also know what it feels like to be in their shoes, except maybe when they win a professional event, but I can certainly imagine what it feels like. It’s definitely an advantage to know the other side, and it gives you a little bit more credibility right off the top.
 
That being said, a desk is not a golf course. Being a professional golfer you have an office, it’s just outside. People glorify professional sports way too much, and golf is just as much of job as what I’m doing now, but I don’t get a tan anymore.
 
AS: You’re an interesting case because you know what it’s like to be on the professional athlete side of things, and now you’re trying to break into the media. Do you have any thoughts on the current state of sports media? A lot has changed in recent years with the way things are covered, especially with the explosion of social media.
 
MB: I love where sports media is going, and aside from the lockouts, sports are healthy in North America.
 
I also 100% think if you’re not in the loop with social media, you are going to get left in the dust. Not only Twitter, but social media is the future of sports. Everything we do now involves live tweeting, athletes reactions on Twitter, fan reactions, etc. It’s the fastest way to find out what’s going on, and as journalists, it’s an incredible source to find information (as long as you make sure it’s right!!)
 
Twitter has been my most beneficial tool in getting my foot into this industry. I’ve met so many great writers and producers through it, and I thank them for all their help and guidance, as they are always there to lend advice if needed.
 
Back to the original thought though. I don’t think social media going anywhere. It’s only going to get more and more integrated into broadcasts in the future, and I think it’s such a unique way to make fans feel included. There’s nothing like it.
 
AS: What do you think about the current state of golf, both in Canada and abroad?
 
MB: I think in Canada, things are finally starting to come together again. We have insanely talented amateurs right now in our country, kids like Albin Choi and Brooke Henderson. They are involved in such great programs that are only going to help them become better, elite players. It’s exciting to watch their progress.
 
I also think it’s fantastic that the PGA Tour is taking over the Canadian Tour, as I can’t think of a better opportunity for the guys in our country to finally have. I caddied on the Canadian Tour for a summer and there are some seriously talented players out there. I hope they are going to find a little more of the limelight they deserve, which hopefully means more recognition, more sponsorships etc.  It’s a great thing and I look forward to being a part of it and seeing it grow.
 
As for the state of the golf worldwide, the men’s tours are bursting with opportunity. Everyone loves watching them and with players like Tiger and Rory healthy, it can’t get much better. On the women’s side, the mystery remains, as I can’t wrap my head around why people aren’t watching. North America needs a bigger presence. Ratings were high when Creamer faced Shin a few weeks back, and I think for the game to grow again in North America, we need more of our stars to step up and put up a fight. The game develops so young in Korea and other places, that I think in North America, we have to start adapting some of their techniques to stay competitive because it’s certainly working for them over there.
 
For more from Morgan, give her a follow on Twitter, and check out her blog. Also, check out Golf Canada’s website and Twitter account for more information on their programs and news on Canadian golf.

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