Nigerian teenage golfer, Essien chases her dream at Taft
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight for Iyene Essien, but her initial curiosity and excitement developed into a passion so strong that at age 15 she traveled nearly 6,000 miles to follow her heart.
Essien is still trying to figure things out, but she’s invested and grounded enough to chase her dream of becoming a professional golfer with the support of her family.
The No. 1-ranked junior girls golfer in Nigeria, Essien enrolled at Taft School this year as a sophomore in hopes of using it as a stepping stone to a college golf scholarship.
Essien’s father, Eyo, played golf for fun at his home course in Nigeria, the IBB International Golf & Country Club in Abuja, Nigeria. She began asking questions about the sport, so he took her one day to watch it.
“The day my dad took me for a walk at the country club when I was five years old, I saw a white boy about my age playing golf, and I was really curious and excited to try it,” Essien said.
“She wanted to go practice with the boy right there and then,” her father said. “I told her she couldn’t because she didn’t have any clubs yet, but I promised her I would buy her a set of clubs and hire her the same golf coach the little boy had. She started playing that year and has not looked back since.”
She won her first club tournament at five. By 11, she was representing Nigeria in international golf tournaments, starting with the Africa Junior Golf Championship.
When her game advanced to the point her local coach and dad needed help teaching her, he sent her to Johannesburg, South Africa, to work with a PGA-certified professional coach, John Dickson, to rid her of a slice and improve her putting.
She also outgrew the local competition, so her parents started sending her each summer to tournaments abroad in Scotland, South Africa, Morocco and Botswana as well as the United States, where she played in North Carolina, Florida and California multiple times.
The aggressive approach was fueled by her passion as well as her dad being told by a golf club friend that there were plenty of women’s golf scholarships available at U.S. colleges.
“Armed with that knowledge, we used all our savings and put in a lot of effort to help Iyene’s golf development, and we prayed that she will get an opportunity to have an excellent education while playing golf in the USA,” Eyo Essien said.
Finally, Eyo, who has an MBA from Hult International Business School in Cambridge, Mass., and works as an economic consultant, started looking into other opportunities.
She applied to 13 private schools in the U.S., including Taft at the recommendation of a family friend, and ended up here with help from Taft golf coach Ginger O’Shea.
“Taft really changed my opinion about boarding schools,” Essien said. “I was an A student at my old school and didn’t want to go to a boarding school. You are not living with your family, so in my mind, I exaggerated them as being like hell. But when I came to Taft, I loved it here.”
She has fit in well. While she isn’t the top golfer on the team, she has a winning record as the No. 2 golfer and is enjoying herself.
“It’s really fun because I have someone who is on par with my game and keeps me on my toes,” Essien said.
“(No. 1 golfer) C.C. Kaplan really motivates me to do better and work harder.”
O’Shea has been pleasantly surprised by how well Essien plays despite being only 5-foot-5 and weighing less than 100 pounds.
“She has a natural swing,” O’Shea said. “She doesn’t try to overpower her hips or anything so she has a very smooth tempo. Most junior golfers try to kill the ball, but she plays very much under control. She can put the ball out there, is very good around the greens, and is a good putter. She can shoot par because she doesn’t get in a lot of trouble thanks to a good short game.”
Thanks to one of O’Shea’s golf connections, Essien has a spot in the Kerry Cup, which will be played July 3 to 8 in Waterville, Ireland, to help her gain international and collegiate exposure.
Essien is also slated to play at the R&A Junior Open in Monifieth, Scotland in July and hopes to go to a few college camps and tournaments in the U.S. this summer if she can find sponsors.
She probably won’t be able to go home to Nigeria, but she has family in New York. She’s still chasing her dream of going to college — she wants to study robotics and artificial intelligence — while becoming a more elite golfer, even if it means extended time away from her parents.
“I want to play golf professionally, but you have to have a plan B in case that doesn’t work out,” Essien said.
“So my first priority is to get a college scholarship so I can get a degree. Then I can try to get my LPGA professional card. If that doesn’t work out, at least I can fall back onto my studies.”
• Culled from thezone.rep-am.com