Waynesburg graduate Rohanna gaining footing in world of pro golf

| Sunday, March 3, 2013, 11:28 p.m.

Rachel Rohanna's professional golf career started with a bang.

Just a few days before the Waynesburg graduate was going to compete in her first event on the Symetra Tour — the LPGA's equivalent of the PGA's developmental Web.com Tour — she and a friend were driving in the vicinity of Mesa, Ariz., where the tournament was being held. It was rush hour, and traffic merging onto the freeway had slowed to almost a stop. The car Rohanna was riding in did likewise.

The car approaching from behind did not.

“My friend saw it coming and said, ‘Rach, this girl is going to hit us, so be ready,' ” said Rohanna, who already had battled back and neck discomfort over the previous two years.

Though the vehicles were badly damaged in the crash, the occupants walked away — more shaken than injured.

To that point, everything leading up to her pro debut had gone as Rohanna hoped. She graduated from Ohio State in December, a semester early, so she could get a head start on the 2013 golf season. She took some time off to rest, then gave up her amateur status in January.

And though she does not have full exempt status on the Symetra Tour — she failed to advance to the final stage of qualifying school, which would have given her full status — enough spots were open to allow her to join the field for the season opener last week.

Rohanna, who turned 22 on Friday, shot a disappointing 79 the first day. She admitted she wasn't in the best frame of mind. She had been playing for only two weeks following her layoff, so there was rust. The car accident hadn't helped, either.

There was also the realization that, unlike during her days as an amateur, she was depending on golf for her livelihood.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘I really have to focus and make this putt because this could be the difference in a couple hundred dollars or a couple thousand dollars,' ” Rohanna said.

She managed to put all that aside and rebounded with a 1-under-par 71 on Saturday to make the cut. She wound up tied for 50th and earned her first professional paycheck: $421.

Like all “minor league” athletes, Symetra Tour pros aren't exactly living on easy street. Last year, only 16 players made more than $30,000. To help her get established, a couple of Greene County businesses are giving Rohanna some financial backing. She said there are several others interested in providing monetary aid.

John Garber, Rohanna's golf coach at Waynesburg, isn't surprised by the support she has received from home. She made quite a splash for her school by winning a state title and two WPIAL crowns.

“I think that everyone in Greene County and the Central Greene School District is behind her,” said Garber. “I think our county has supported (all its athletes), and I know that we will do the same for Rachel.”

How long she needs to rely on help from home will be up to her. Rohanna said she'll be able to play in at least the next three or four events. If she continues to make cuts, she can improve her status for when the tour reshuffles its player rankings. Players without full exempt status are re-ranked twice during the season. Players with the best results will get a higher priority in the pecking order when fields are filled out for each tournament.

The next Symetra Tour event isn't until late March, giving Rohanna plenty of time to fine-tune her game. She's still based in Pennsylvania, so she'll spend some of the interim working at the RMU Island Sports Center golf dome under the tutelage of her grandfather and swing coach, Dick Schwartz, a former pro golfer.

Schwartz has been the ideal coach. Rohanna said that if he's not around to see her practicing, all she has to do is pick up the phone and tell him which way the ball is going. He can fix it sight unseen.

“Usually she gets a little quick with her backswing,” Schwartz said. “Tempo is a big thing with Rachel. She's got a good, basic, simple swing. No special moves, nothing that can really go wrong.

“You don't have to tell her anything twice, and she'll go ahead and work on it.”

Before returning to competition on the Symetra Tour, Rohanna will attempt to qualify for the LPGA Tour's Founders Cup, which will be played March 14-17 in Phoenix. The qualifying round for that event will be at Longbow Golf Club — the same course where Rohanna just made her pro debut.

Rohanna has played in two LPGA events while still an amateur: the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 Jamie Farr Toledo Classic. She missed the cut in both.

Playing alongside the best women in the world was a valuable learning experience for Rohanna. But her first event as a pro gave her something even more important than knowledge: confidence.

“I had only been playing for a week and a half,” she said. “I made some really bad shots that I probably wouldn't make in midseason, but I still made the cut.

“Making the cut and making some money, I knew that I could hang with these girls for sure. A couple months from now, as long as I'm still healthy, I think I'll be OK.”

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