When Paige Spiranac won her first professional tournament June 1, she posted a picture of herself on Instagram and Twitter, sporting her trophy, an ear-to-ear grin and the hashtag #CanActuallyBreak80.
Spiranac was poking fun at herself, and at the critics of the golf world, but she was also telling the truth; she broke the heck out of 80 at the Orange Tree Golf Resort in Scottsdale that day, shooting a final-round 68 to get into a playoff. Then she beat Hannah O'Sullivan, the world's top-ranked amateur, to win the 16th Cactus Tour event of the season.
It was the justification Spiranac needed after bombing her first sponsor's exemption at the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters in December, where she shot 77-79. It was validation after the onslaught of disapproval she received after appearing on the cover of the May issue of Golf Digest in a tight-fitting silver suit. And it was the realization of a dream Spiranac had harbored since she was 6 years old, when LPGA star Juli Inkster flipped her a ball at the Kraft Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. The gesture so enamored Spiranac that Inkster became her athletic role model and inspiration.
So it hurt a little more when it was Inkster who spearheaded the criticism charge when Spiranac, now 23 and trying to make the LPGA Tour, appeared on that issue of Golf Digest. Spiranac, as you see, grew up to be a rather attractive woman and, after graduating from San Diego State University in 2015, became a near-overnight Instagram sensation because of her posting of sexy selfies and equally sexy golf shots.
"You look at what Lydia Ko's doing, and why isn't she on the cover?" Inkster told the Golf Channel. "I know that stuff sells, and they are in the business of selling magazines, but I think people could learn more in an article about Lydia."
Spiranac was crushed.
"Juli has always been one of my sports idols," she says. "It was definitely hurtful because she's someone I look up to so much and is such an influential person in women's golf."
Certainly, a cover feature on top-ranked Ko would be insightful and it's a shame Golf Digest hasn't done one yet, but there is a lot to learn in the story the magazine did do on Spiranac, if you look past the photo. The article in the "Innovators and Influencers of 2016" section of the "Futurists" issue was very specifically about how social media is changing golf, and no LPGA Tour golfer can boast more Instagram followers than Spiranac and her nearly 700,000.
Spiranac's social media popularity earned her a brand ambassador gig with Callaway Golf, making appearances and doing media events. Most notably, she hosted a behind-the-scenes look at The Links at Petco Park, when Callaway transformed the San Diego Padres' stadium into a nine-hole golf course.
"To make a bad baseball pun, Paige knocked it out of the park," says Jeff Neubarth, Callaway Media Productions executive producer. "At Callaway, we like to work with people like Paige who are content creators. She has a great audience and great energy, is super-willing to take direction and she has an amazing swing."
Spiranac's internet celebrity also earned her that sponsor's exemption in Dubai, which both drew the desired extra attention to the tournament and put Spiranac into the crosshairs when her scores didn't stack up. A tournament can do whatever it wants with a sponsor's exemption, and in the world we live in, celebrity -- internet or otherwise -- opens doors. It's up to the athletes to prove they belong inside.
"Dubai was really hard on me," she said. "I came into it not knowing what to expect; I had never been out of the country, and it was my first big pro event. Afterwards, there was a ton of criticism and I was reading everything and crying in the bathroom. At first, I thought: I don't want to do this anymore. But I took a few days off, and, in the end, it motivated me so much more. I learned to put the phone away and not listen to the haters as much. My skin is a lot thicker now, and I'm a lot more motivated to do this for myself."
Among those who reached out to Spiranac after Dubai was LPGA player Natalie Gulbis, who is also known just as much for her looks as she is for her golf game.
"Natalie told me do what makes me happy because you have to be happy with who you are," Spiranac says. "I'm called rude things, and people say nasty stuff. It's disrespectful, and as women we don't deserve that. But if I feel comfortable swinging in a short skirt or shorts, if I feel athletic and strong and confident, I can do that, and you shouldn't call me certain names for it."
Spiranac is a self-proclaimed introvert. She was home-schooled through high school to accommodate for eight hours per day of training as an elite gymnast. She had designs on the Olympics, but, at the age of 12, a twice-broken kneecap forced her to quit. It was then that her father, Dan Spiranac, who was a free safety on the 1976 University of Pittsburgh national championship team, really got her into golf. She loved it immediately, and it took just five months for preteen Paige to beat her dad. She then became a regular on the junior golf circuit, qualifying for the Junior PGA Championships four times. In 2011, she accepted a scholarship to play golf at SDSU.
"It was a hard adjustment my freshman year in college," Spiranac says. "I was so shy and nervous and had always been around only adults, and then had to be around kids my own age."
Look at Spiranac's Instagram, though, and it's hard to believe she was ever a shrinking violet. She maintains she has no specific social media strategy, posting failed trick shots, swing improvements and yes, those alluring selfies, whenever she sees fit. "I post for my friends," she says. "If I think my best friends will find it cool or funny, I'll post it."
Spiranac does, however, have a specific strategy for golf. She is playing as many events as she can on the Cactus Tour -- equivalent to a minor league in baseball -- to earn respect and LPGA Tour rankings points. She also plans to play in the LPGA's first-stage qualifying school in August. And since Dubai she has been working extensively with former PGA Tour player Tyler Hall to improve her swing mechanics and maintain them when it counts. "My weakness is hitting it straight under pressure," she says.
Hall has changed Spiranac's mental and physical approach to the game and has helped her regain the confidence she had always felt on the golf course.
"With Paige's talent and skill set, I think the LPGA is absolutely an attainable goal," Hall says. "She is such a dynamic athlete, with a lot of raw power and flexibility, and, over the years, she let that explosiveness take over her golf swing. We are trying to work on the connection between her arms and her body to tighten her up and eliminate the left side of the golf course."
And, in the process, eliminate the critics.