It’s funny what can set some people off on a course to greatness.
Pioneer’s Amaya Melendez fired a second-round 76 at the Division 1 MHSAA state finals Saturday on The Meadows at Grand Valley State University and finished with a two-day score of 156. Only a freshman, Melendez placed ninth overall as she successfully teed it up with players older and more experienced.
And to think that her course to the golf course started with her father playing basketball.
“My dad ruptured his Achilles one day when he was playing basketball,” says Melendez, whose enthusiasm for family, friends, coaches, and of course, golf comes through loud and clear. “Because he couldn’t play basketball anymore he took up the game of golf and I would go and watch him play.”
One day, Amaya asked her dad if she could take a swing.
And just like that, the course to greatness was in front of her, and what started out as a long par-five of a course is now slowly getting smaller and coming more into view.
Melendez, now 14, first picked up a golf club when she was just 7 years old. And she still remembers what it felt it like the first time she took a swing.
“The club felt really heavy to me and it was hard to swing,” she said. “But the more I tried, the better it started to feel. I always had good hand-eye coordination and a natural swing.”
A few years later she was competing in tournaments, getting better, and most importantly, having fun.
“The first competition I played in was the Herb Fowler event at Huron Hills and I placed third,” said Amaya, the daughter of Tori and Robert Melendez. “Then I played in a US kid’s tournament at Rustic Glen and I shot a 37 and tied for first. But I lost in a playoff. It was still a lot of fun to shoot a good score.”
That word “fun” is a big part of Melendez’s game. Of course, being so good certainly helps but her love for the game is real. You don’t work that hard and dedicate so much time to something if you aren’t enjoying it, and she clearly enjoys playing the game of golf, whether by herself, with her Pioneer teammates, with her dad or with her younger brother and sister (Robbie, 5, and Mia, 10).
She was excited to take her game to the high school level and not because she felt like she could dominate right away. That’s not the way Amaya rolls.
“I was looking forward to playing with the experienced players on the team and learning from them,” said Melendez, who fired an 81 at Travis Pointe in her first round of golf for Pioneer.
“I started to get better as the season went along,” she said.
She certainly did. She fired a 75 during the league-meet season at Lake Forest Golf Club in Ann Arbor.
At the rainy and cold Division 1 Regionals on Oct. 12 at Lake Forest, the fabulous freshman fired an 84 and qualified for the state meet. The top three individual teams head to the state finals along with the top three golfers from the rest of the field. Pioneer’s Katie Mina Lee was first with an 82 followed by Melendez and Abby Livingston of Novi (both with 84).
Melendez, who along with Livingston beat out Skyline’s Caroline Norton by just one stroke, didn’t realize where she stood on the scorecard as she stood over a 20-foot putt on her final hole of the day.
“I made about a 20-foot putt on my last hole for a birdie and I had no idea that the putt ended up qualifying me for states,” she said. “It was really exciting to find out that putt got me to states.”
Melendez finished tied for ninth overall in D-1 with Traverse City West’s Megan Jenkinson. Traverse City West’s Anika Dy led all players with a 141, shooting 69 on the opening day and then 71 on Saturday.
“I was a little nervous and concerned that I would have trouble with the wind,” she said. “But once I played the course I felt like I could do well there.”
She followed up a solid 80 on Friday with an even better 76 on Saturday.
“After my round (on Friday) I worked two or three hours after just on my putting,” she said. “I made sure I was focusing on my putts. And I think that extra work paid off in the next round.”
And while you may be standing at the tee by yourself or lining up a putt all alone or trying to figure your way around a tree with just your own imagination and a 5-iron, Melendez already realizes that golf is a team game. She didn’t get to ninth place in the state as a freshman by herself.
Her “team” includes several people she places at the top of her scorecard and she talks about their roles and contributions with the maturity of someone who can not only drive a golf ball but drive a car.
There is her father:
“He has sacrificed so much to help get me the equipment I need and to take lessons,” she said. “He’s studied golf a lot so he could me with my swing. He even converted our garage into a golf studio.”
And the great Dave Kendall, longtime and successful player, golf instructor and founder of Miles of Golf:
“He is very patient with me and it’s an honor to take lessons from him,” she said. “He has taught me so much about golf and I couldn’t have done this without him. Before the state tournament he gave me some great advice. He told me to be like a soldier and stay strong for the whole round no matter what happens.”
And Steve Rodriguez, her golf coach at Pioneer:
“He’s been very supportive of me and was a big help to me and everyone on the team,” she said. “He’s given me a lot of good advice and helped me a lot with my game.”
And Katy-Mina Lee, her teammate who joined her this past weekend at the state meet:
“She has a really great mind set so it was great to watch that and learn from it,” she said. “She helped me to stay positive and always told me to enjoy the game.”
But in the end, it’s Amaya holding the club, dealing with the pressure and making that 20-foot putt to qualify for the state finals.
“Amaya is a very talented player,” said Rodriguez. “She has such a high ceiling and great potential for the game of golf. I’m excited to see what the future may hold for her.”
One reason her ceiling is so high is because her love for the game walks the course with her tremendous work ethic.
“I practice every day at Radrick Farms Golf Course and it is how I prepare for tournaments,” she said. “I also get to play there with my younger brother and sister who also plays. We have so much fun.”
And as long as it stays fun, Amaya has a very high ceiling indeed.