After a jog in the road, Hannah O'Sullivan is back at the Women's Amateur where she belongs

Hannah O'Sullivan starts her freshman season at Duke after a year off chasing the best competition around the world. Photo courtesy of Duke Athletics.

Hannah O'Sullivan starts her freshman season at Duke after a year off chasing the best competition around the world. Photo courtesy of Duke Athletics.

Hannah O’Sullivan felt it as soon as she raised the Robert Cox trophy in 2015. The best way to describe it: “I definitely had a hunger to come back and do it one more time.”

Lots of elite amateur players put together a worldwide competition schedule, but O’Sullivan, 19, has been on nothing short of an odyssey since then. Winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur will open a world of doors, and in O’Sullivan’s case, what followed were exemptions into four LPGA majors plus five more LPGA starts (including second chances at the Evian Championship and ANA Inspiration, two of those four majors).

The opportunities inspired O’Sullivan to change course not once but twice, de-committing from USC as a senior in high school, then following her heart back to college golf. She was already into the second of three stages of LPGA Q-School when she pulled the plug on a pro career and embarked on a year that allowed her to just play golf, travel and be with her family. It was a gap year of sorts before enrolling at Duke for the 2017-18 school year, where she’ll play golf. The wheels are already in motion toward Durham, N.C. – O’Sullivan completed a summer economics course while rooming with a future teammate.

Bits and pieces of the past year stick out, but O’Sullivan’s biggest takeaways were learning how to live life on the road, traveling from tournament to tournament each week, and the people. She references a month spent in Europe in the spring that included amateur events in France and Spain. Her family stayed in the hotel at each respective course, and without a rental car. It was a different experience than staying in a city, and O’Sullivan enjoyed the time spent in the countryside with locals. It’s something she’ll never forget.

There was also a ferry ride to Switzerland across Lake Geneva in the run-up to the 2016 Evian Championship that pulled O’Sullivan out of intense jet lag and into thankful reverie.

“It made me realize how blessed I am and how thankful I was to have these opportunities and experiences,” she said.

That kind of year, in athletic prime, is not the traditional path for a top amateur. Then again, O’Sullivan is not the usual kid. She thinks about things deeply and she watches and considers the factors behind the success of those before her. Over the past year, she also discovered that an education was not something she would sacrifice and that however difficult it is to juggle school and golf, she actually misses having something to think about on the golf course. O’Sullivan scored a 35 on her ACT in high school (the highest possible score being 36).

“I can take bits and pieces from every experience that I see and what I hear,” she said. “There’s so much to learn and it’s such a long process.”

The change in O’Sullivan – even by phone three time zones away – is apparent. She is less reserved, more grown up, perhaps even a little weathered. There is more confidence, and more easy laughter. There are more life experiences and more stories. Now, O’Sullivan says things like, “I don’t really need to rush things. … The (LPGA) tour will be there.”

And it will. O’Sullivan’s zig-zag path there could help other top players realize that it’s OK to step back and enjoy, and to follow your gut.

The biggest question this week, as O’Sullivan plays the U.S. Women’s Amateur for the fourth time in her career but the first time as a past champion, is how her game has changed by spending a year traveling essentially as a professional amateur. Before this year, she hadn’t played an amateur event, she says, since the AJGA’s Annika Invitational in February 2016.

O’Sullivan played San Diego Country Club, this week’s venue, during a Curtis Cup practice session in December 2015. Her best memories are of fast, true greens that are “a lot of fun to putt on.”

The setup feels kind.

“The fairways in LPGA events can get pretty narrow, I’ve noticed, and the rough is not as forgiving in LPGA events as it may be here,” she said. “I like it (here) because it frees me up a little bit. I think I can step up to the tee and try to bomb it down the fairway.”

Mentors and role models have been a huge part of O’Sullivan’s golf experience. She often patterned herself after LPGA veteran Juli Inkster (O’Sullivan’s formative years were spent in the San Francisco Bay area, where Inkster also calls home). Interestingly, Inkster was in the booth for Fox Sports as O’Sullivan’s 2015 Women’s Amateur victory played out. In the past year, O’Sullivan looked to Stacy Lewis (Arkansas) and Gerina Piller (Texas-El Paso), players who were able to parlay four years of college golf into LPGA success.

Whether she realizes it or not, O’Sullivan is quickly becoming one of those role models because of all the experiences the past two years have held. Big amateur events are skewing ever younger. There are 16 players in this week’s 156-player field who are 15 or younger. O’Sullivan is part of the 108-player group between the ages of 16 and 20.

“Now I’m going off to college and I’m one of the older players now,” she said of seeing so many new faces in San Diego this week.

In O’Sullivan, the real difference between now and two years ago is experience making the hard decision, even if it won’t please everyone. Kudos to O’Sullivan for fearing she was going down a wrong path – one that led to a professional career far before she was ready – and having the courage to speak up.

O’Sullivan had a handful of reasons why she ultimately couldn’t bring herself to skip college golf. Chief among them was the opportunity to make lifelong friends. That’s not a surprising sentiment – she has always lived within the tight bonds of a loving family.

“Looking back, everything happens for a reason and maybe if I don’t see it at the moment, when I look back a year later or even a few months later, I’ll realize that I got so much out of this and it really has taught me a great lesson.”