Albane Valenzuela took a peek at the leaderboard on Sunday as she made her way up the 72nd hole at the LPGA Drive On Championship and noticed that she was tied for fifth with fellow rookie Leona Maguire and Danielle Kang. She laid up to 80 yards on the closing par 5, and then knocked a 53-degree wedge to about 12 feet. In her mind, Valenzuela told herself there was no way she was going to miss that putt.
The closing birdie gave Valenzuela a solo fifth-place finish in her second start of the season and a $62,882 payday. Kang, who dropped to a share of sixth, told Valenzuela that she had to buy dinner next time.
“(Danielle is) one of my really good friends now,” said Valenzuela, “but I was really happy to beat her by one, honestly.”
It wasn’t long ago that Valenzuela, 23, wondered if she’d even be able to play golf in 2021. A dreadful rookie season—her first of two since LPGA status was frozen last year—left her spending more weeks in bed than at tournaments late in 2020.
“I definitely hit rock-bottom low in the past five months,” said Valenzuela, “physically and mentally in a really bad spot. … a lot of pain, a lot of tears.”
The pain in her right shoulder first started last Augusta at the tour’s Arkansas stop. Week by week it kept getting worse, transitioning into nerve pain. She downed painkillers and received treatment from the tour’s physical therapists on the course.
The pain eventually traveled from her neck all the way down to her fingers. It was likely a brachial plexus injury, she said, and it was acupuncture that ultimately brought her relief.
While Albane was competing in the ShopRite LPGA Classic in October, her brother Alex, a freshman at SMU, had an emergency appendectomy. Albane had her appendix removed one month later.
She recovered from that only to fall ill again in January with COVID-19.
Even at the Drive On event in March, Albane experienced what she called brain fog. She barely practiced early week, felt dizzy, worn down and overall not as sharp overall. It felt similar to when she suffered a concussion after a bad bike accident at Stanford.
But even though she wasn’t 100 percent, the 2016 Olympian and former Cardinal standout couldn’t stop smiling. It wasn’t long ago that she thought she might have to take a medical leave from the LPGA. Now she’s looking to see if she can play her way into the year’s first major, the ANA Inspiration.
In a way, her father Alberto said, the time off was a blessing in that it got her away from the technical side of the game that had cluttered her mind. Before the break, she’d pushed herself too hard physically, too.
Alberto, a fine player in his own right who played collegiate golf at UCLA before going into finance, helped his daughter get back to a simpler approach. Brad Faxon helped her to have fun on the practice putting green.
“Slowing down has been the best thing I’ve done for my golf game so far,” said Albane, who had dad on the bag her first two weeks back.
The Valenzuelas had great family history at Golden Ocala, as Albane looped for her brother for the first time at a U.S. Junior qualifier, where he shot 68 and won in a playoff with birdie.
“It was the most nerve-wracking day of my life,” she said.
There was a friendly competition within the family about whether or not Albane could beat Alex’s score. A third-round 66 earned her a cup of coffee.
Alex’s time caddying for Albane at the 2017 U.S. Women’s Amateur is what ultimately led him to talk publicly for the first time about his battle with autism. The feedback Alex received about the journey he took from being a nonverbal child to a teenager who speaks three languages, encouraged him to launch Alex for Autism or “A for A,” a foundation that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars toward autism research.
Alex teed it up in his first collegiate tournament the same day Albane played in the final group of an LPGA event for the first time. The tight-knit Valenzuelas had much to celebrate.
“I think in my family we’ve always seen adversity as an upside,” said Albane, who used her unexpected downtime last winter to go to work for one of her sponsors, Slync.io. The Stanford grad with the perfect GPA worked as a personal assistant to Slync Co-Founder and CEO Christopher Kirchner, getting an up-close look at the logistics software company.
Golf has always been at the heart of the Valenzuela home. Alberto first met his wife Diane at Evian Golf Resort while competing in an exhibition match in 1991. Alberto, the reigning French Amateur champion, was competing in the event while Diane, a 10-handicap, was working in the export department for Evian.
When Diane faced brain surgery earlier this year, it was family golf connections that helped bring her to Dr. Ali Jalali at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center. A golf-ball sized tumor was removed from Diane’s pituitary gland on Jan. 25, a delicate 4 ½-hour procedure that was dangerously close to the eye nerve.
“She was very courageous,” said Alberto.
A trait that runs deep in the family.