Sandra Day O’Connor junior Amy Bockerstette earned a spot on her team to play in the state high school golf tournament.
Under a scorching sun in August, taking the golf course for the first time with her fellow Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor golfers, Amy Bockerstette impulsively ran through the sprinklers.
Her teammates called her “Sprinkles.”
That was two years ago, when she was a freshman and allowed to tag along with the varsity players during matches and occasionally play a hole.
Now, they call the 4-foot-9-inch junior with Down syndrome “inspiring,” as she arches her driver back and, with steady hands, swings through and launches the ball nearly 200 yards off the tee.
“It’s pretty amazing to watch her play, watch her hit a ball,” O’Connor golf coach Steve Casey said. “She has a really good swing.”
This is her second year competing in high school matches. Bockerstette was granted allowance from the Arizona Interscholastic Association to have a caddie during match play.
She has qualified with the team to compete in the state tournament, which runs Wednesday and Thursday for Division I girls at Aguila Golf Course in Laveen. Bockerstette is the team’s fifth golfer, shooting a best nine holes of about 50 this year.
Her swing coach, local pro Matt Acuff, who works with some of the top local juniors, will be on her bag and in her head as he steers her through the biggest tournament of her life, a journey that nobody but Bockerstette, her coach/caddie and those closest around her ever thought possible.
“It’s awesome,” she said.
Casey said that Bockerstette has been his team’s No. 4 or 5 golfer all season.
“She beats people,” Casey said. “I know the first time I saw her hit it off the tee box, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was pretty amazed. She probably hits it about 180 yards. She hits it straight. She doesn’t make too many mistakes.
“When she gets in trouble, like in the bunker, where you have to have finesse, it gets to her. But Matt is there with her walking the course. He gets in her head, keeps her on track.”
Jenny Bockerstette, Amy’s mom, said it is a challenge for children with Down syndrome to build muscle tone and strength and it can be tough walking two to three miles for nine holes, about six miles for 18 holes. But Amy presses on and plays with passion and intense focus.
Acuff, who is head of golf instruction for Palmbrook Country Club in Sun City, treats Amy like his most prized golfer.
She has become a project four years in the making, ever since Joe Bockerstette, taking lessons from Acuff, asked if Acuff would be willing to check out his daughter’s swing.
Joe and Jenny Bockerstette exposed Amy to many sports, including baseball, cheerleading and soccer as a child.
They were looking for a high school sports that would allow their daughter to have a greater experience than sitting on the bench and being a team manager.
She was the team manager of the girls volleyball team in the seventh and eighth grade. Once in awhile, she would get put in a match and teammates and parents would get excited for her.
But that wasn’t enough.
“She was not content to be a team manager,” Jenny Bockerstette said. “She loved being around the girls. But it was hard for her to be on the bench when the other girls got to go out and play.
“We saw she had some potential by participating in some charity golf things with my husband and my daughter and son-in-law. We decided, let’s get lessons and go out for the golf team and see what happens.”
There were no cuts at Sandra Day O’Connor. After her freshman year, Bockerstette worked as many as five times a week with Acuff on her game. Before her sophomore year, the goal was to play in one varsity match by the time she was a senior.
She competed in the Juniors Golfers program at the Futures Course at the 500 Club in Glendale. A Ryder Cup format was used in one of the tournaments, and her team, called the Red Rodents, lost to Team White.
Bockerstette was named her team’s MVP by scoring the most team points, winning both her singles and doubles matches, according to her mom. Jenny Bockerstette added that the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf of Phoenix welcomed Bockerstette in with the other elite golfers, allowing her a caddie. Her dad is her caddie in that program.
This is the first year she has competed in nine varsity matches for O’Connor.
“We challenged them every week, had all of the girls play and whoever had the best scores would play,” Casey said. “She was in the top five every week. I think Matt’s done a great job with her.”
As much as Bockerstette’s game has improved, Acuff, now in his fourth year working with her, said she has made him a better teacher.
“I never treat her as having a disability,” Acuff said. “I try to have her as normal as possible. I’ve always encouraged (her parents), ‘She is capable of more than we realize.’ They have given her the love, the atmosphere, the financial means, the activities that she is involved in to really expand and not just be stuck at home.
“I really have to applaud Sandra Day O’Connor, because they have been active in her progress, to have special needs kids in the regular classroom. She is 80 percent in regular classroom.”
Bockerstette also is involved in the school’s theater and dance programs.
“She’s like a celebrity,” Acuff said.
Bockerstette inspired senior golf captain Madison Loos, who won’t be able to compete at state because of an injury.
Loos took Bockerstette under her wing when Bockerstette was a freshman. Now, she’ll be rooting for Bockerstette at state.
“She brought a smile to my face from the first day I saw her,” Loos said. “She’s like my little sister. I love Amy as a teammate, as a person, as everything.
“She hits it better than I do most days. Her consistency is immaculate. It surprises people. When people are partnered up with her, they’re skittish a little bit. But when they see her hit the ball, it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got some competition today.’ ”
Acuff, who caddies twice a week for Bockerstette during the high school season, is putting no limits on how far the 18-year-old can go in golf.
“I’ve recognized, ‘Look, we can push the boundaries here a little,’ ” Acuff said. “I’ll throw it out there. If she plays next year on the team, there is a valid chance, if she maxes out her potential, I think she can qualify for state individually, not with the team aspect. I think she can shoot mid-40s (for nine holes) and qualify for state, which would be phenomenal.”