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Hoffman blends nursing, golf experience in COVID-19 response

Former Grand Valley State golf star reflects on college impact

Sarah Hoffman is used to being on her feet 12 hours a day.

Some days, that means spending all available daylight on a golf course. It’s a routine she developed as a three-time All-American for Division II Grand Valley State from 2008-12. The last few years, she’s refined the practice as a member of the Symetra Tour, the official developmental league for the LPGA Tour.

Lately, however, those 12-hour days have looked much different.

After sports shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hoffman resumed her “offseason” career as a nurse. The past few months, Hoffman has worked long shifts at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor. On Friday, she will return to golf as the Symetra Tour resumes its season with the FireKeepers Casino Hotel Championship in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Hoffman described her recent professional stint as somewhat “eerie.” Michigan Medicine, like most hospitals, has been very limited in terms of visitors because of COVID-19 and, at one time, was swamped with patients infected with the virus. She tried to provide support beyond the nursing norm during this time.

“I try and spend a little bit of extra time with my patients and just kind of talk about things that aren’t even necessarily related to their care, asking them about their support system,” she said. “I was able to talk to a patient and find out she didn’t know how to FaceTime with her family, so I was able to teach her how to FaceTime. I got an iPad — luckily, Michigan Medicine has a lot of resources — for another patient so she could FaceTime her family, just doing things like that where we’re providing a little more emotional support. Obviously nurses do that in their job every day anyway, but I think just spending a little bit of extra time in the room when possible to kind of help tell a joke or make the patient smile or forget why they’re in there for a while goes a long way.”

While COVID-19 created the switch back to nursing before Hoffman planned — she typically does so in golf’s offseason — Hoffman said her sport has provided plenty of valuable experience to allow for a quick transition to nursing.  

“I think walking 36 holes definitely prepares you for nursing,” she said, with a laugh. “I probably take 15,000 to 20,000 steps in a 12-hour shift, so physically that helps.”

There are cognitive connections between the two, as well, Hoffman said.

“I think golf is such a mental game, and you know things aren’t quite going how you want them to. You have to be able to stay calm and focus. I think that prepared me well for nursing, because in an emergency situation I have to take a minute and breathe but also stay calm and focus and be able to communicate clearly with the doctors and nurses what needs to happen for the best outcomes of my patients,” she said. “I think it’s helped me be mentally tough and strong in certain situations.”

Hoffman said her experiences at Grand Valley State set the foundation for her current co-career life, her recent 12-hour days in particular.

Whether it’s being on a local golf course to stay sharp for the return of the Symetra Tour or making her rounds at the hospital, Hoffman tied it back to her college experience.

“It was an awesome time in my life, and I’m super thankful to Grand Valley and my coach for everything,” she said. “Having coaches that truly understand that while they want to be successful and want to do the best they can and want to win national championships, it’s definitely also a time where we’re maturing as young women, trying to find that balance between everything and wanting to have a life after college athletics and not wanting to get burnt out. It was just an awesome balance that my coach was able to create, so I really appreciate that.”

She used an example she frequently experienced in college: Sunday-Monday tournaments.

Saturdays included traveling to the competition site, warmups, a practice round and driving back to the hotel, followed by mandatory study table each night, compliments of her head coach, Rebecca Mailloux.

Sundays were 36-hole days, which could easily last 12 hours. Mondays could be just as long after waiting for awards and making the drive home.

"I think it’s definitely a challenge, and you had to take personal responsibility to make sure you’re doing the things you needed to do to be successful,” Hoffman said. “I was very fortunate to have a coach that valued academics and said that our academics were above golf because we were student-athletes and not the other way around.

“I just think in particular playing college athletics, but especially playing college golf, it definitely taught me the importance of time management and having a plan.”

Hoffman’s plan coming into Grand Valley State certainly did not include professional golf. She broke 80 just twice before college. Nor did it include nursing, for that matter. She did not choose her degree until her junior season.

Hoffman said getting into nursing school while thriving as a golfer gave her an increased level of self-confidence that she still carries.

“I knew I had to do extremely well in those classes if I wanted to get in, so I think it just taught me that if I set my mind to something that I can do it,” she said. “Even if there were no other student-athletes in the program or even applying for the program, I knew that I could make it work, especially with the help of my coach.”

Still, Hoffman’s progress on the golf course made for a tough decision after she won five tournaments her senior season while juggling nursing school, which included a few 12-hour clinical days. She began to wonder what she might be able to do in her sport without school on her plate.

Hoffman and her father even had the conversation after her final season. With her eligibility up and one more year of nursing school left, did she want to turn professional?

“I just really felt like I owed it to Grand Valley and myself to complete my degree,” Hoffman said. “I just really wanted to finish my degree.”

So Hoffman put golf on hold and made school her priority. She said she played golf only about three times during her fifth year, leaving with her degree but also with a plan formed on how she wanted to turn pro.

And it wasn’t right away.

Hoffman instead worked as a nurse to save up enough money to finance her professional golfing dream. In 2016, she quit her nursing job and started chasing that dream.

She hit several bumps along the way to becoming a Symetra Tour member, one step away from the highest level of women’s professional golf in the world.

Hoffman’s grandfather died during her first opportunity at Q-School, a series of qualifying events for both the Symetra Tour and the LPGA Tour. She missed the second of three stages by one shot. Her second time at Q-School, she played through a stomach ulcer and missed Stage 2 again.

Her third time there, in 2018, she reached Stage 2 and secured nearly full-time status on the Symetra Tour for 2019. But even this came with a tinge of disappointment and a serious bout of pain, as one of her ribs popped out of place during her third round and derailed her mission to qualify directly for the LPGA.

“Q-School has not been the friendliest to me,” Hoffman said. “Last year, I had to withdraw from Q-School. I slept on my neck wrong, and I tried to play. But I was having horrible neck spasms.”

Thankfully, Hoffman’s 2019 season on the Symetra Tour — 10 made cuts in 20 events — guaranteed her the same status this season. She made the cut in this season’s first event in March before the Symetra Tour suspended play due to COVID-19. To say she’s eager for the season to start back up Friday would be an understatement. 

“Oh, yeah,” Hoffman said. “I can’t wait.”