The Trials, Tribulations, and Triumph of Gabriella Then
There is a phrase in poker, known as “going all in”. It’s quite common in the “Texas Hold’em” game, in which a player bets on the strength of their hand by “going all in” – raising the bet by pushing all the remaining chips they have into the pot. Strategically, it’s usually done on the basis that a player is confident that the hand they are holding will win.
For Gabriella Then, a professional player from the Los Angeles area of Southern California, she too decided to “go all in” on her professional golf career. The big difference though is that in poker one can bluff an opponent by going all in. In golf, there is no such thing as bluffing an opponent – if anything, golf calls your bluff, exposing a player’s game more often than not.
In 2019, Gabriella, or Gabby as she is known to her friends, had been on the Symetra Tour (now the Epson Tour) since mid 2017. However, after two and half years of competing on the minor tour in preparation for the LPGA, Then crashed out of the LPGA’s Qualifying School at Stage One. Coming into the last hole of the Q-School, Gabriella Then finished with a bogey, resulting in her missing the cut to advance by a single stroke.
“I missed moving on to Stage Two by one stroke . . . it just absolutely crushed me. I said to myself, ‘where do I go from here’ ? I had been planning my entire year around Q-School and now I didn’t make it. So, at that point I had already been contemplating – should I continue playing professional golf?”
Gabby first came to national prominence in 2010 having qualified as a 14-year old player for the US Women’s Open championship at Oakmont – the biggest stage in women’s golf. Previously, in 2008, she had become the youngest ever competitor in the US Women’s Amateur as a 12-year old. On the heels of her 2010 US Women’s Open appearance, Then was recruited to the University of Southern California on a full scholarship, joining the NCAA Division 1 national champions.
Upon graduation in 2017, Then finished her Trojan career as the school’s all-time leader in rounds played, while leading her Trojans to 3-consecutive NCAA National Championship Match Play events. She also finished as an All American in 2015. By the time she was ready to compete as a professional player, Then had enjoyed much success in amateur golf. However, the disappointment at Q-School in 2019 left her somewhat disillusioned.
Gabby Then walked away from the sport at the end of 2019, disillusioned with the entire idea of playing professional golf. But 2020 had even more in store for the world as the SARS-COV2 pandemic spread throughout the world, engulfing it in lockdowns, health restrictions, mask mandates, and more. Even though she had walked away from the sport, for Then, it was an enforced layoff from golf altogether as golf courses across the United States closed in the early part of 2020. She couldn’t even play a recreational round if she wanted to.
Podcast Episode -- Trials, Tribulations & Triumphs of Gabriella Then
Yet, the enforced layoff came with a silver lining, affording her the time and space needed to re-evaluate her personal life, golf, and her goals. It was a period in which she grew as a person, gaining perspective on life and a more mature outlook.
“The lockdown gave me an opportunity to step back in a mandatory way, I guess. All the golf courses closed – no golf. And it took me a while to get to the point where I said, ‘You know what, I think I’m good enough. I think I’m going to try one more time’.”
With that in mind, Gabby Then practically cleaned out her savings and invested it into a year of professional golf with the goal of Qualifying for the LPGA or at least the Epson Tour. In her mind, it was a calculated risk, and in a sport where confidence is so important to success, she bet on herself. In fact, one could argue that she would eventually “double down”.
“So, in 2021, I started playing on mini tours like the cactus tour. Then I got into the Women’s All Pro Tour and then I just kept playing. I just thought that I want to go all in this year and see where it takes me. I didn’t have that many sponsors; I basically took my savings account and just used almost all of it to play professional golf and put myself in these opportunities to raise my ranking in any shape or form because I was starting over.”
It was a gutsy call on her part. And it was one that paid off.
After competing most of the spring and summer on the Women’s All Pro Tour, the WAPT, Gabby Then earned an exemption into Stage 2 of the LPGA’s Q-School, held at the Plantation Golf & Country Club in Venice, Florida. For her, it was a chance for some redemption.
I had such a sigh of relief, a joy that all this time that I spent away from home overseas all came to life at the very end with this wonderful finish.
Stage 2 of Q-School is played over four rounds on two courses, the Bobcat and the Plantation courses, with half the field competing on one course, one day and then the other course the next day. They alternate courses over the four rounds so that everyone plays each course twice.
There is a saying in golf that a player cannot win an event on the first day, but they can certainly lose it. For Gabby Then, her opening round score of 76 ensured that the challenge to advance to the final Q-Series would be all the more difficult. She fought back gamely on Day Two, but by the end of Day Three, she had taken herself out of contention. In order to advance to the season ending Q-Series, she needed a very low score, somewhere in the neighbourhood of -7 or -8 under par. With the maturity of a veteran professional, she finished with a final round 69 (-3), her lowest round of the event.
As disappointing as it was and despite it being reminiscent of 2019, she refused to dwell on the negative thoughts, instead preparing for another WAPT event that week.
“I had to brush it off (the negative thoughts) rather quickly because I had a tournament in St. Augustine, Florida . . . I had to go straight into the next competition mode, so I let go of it really quickly. That’s what you have to do in golf, you have to let go of it really quick.”
While playing in the St. Augustine event, the idea of playing the Ladies European Tour entered into her thoughts and soon afterwards, she registered for the LET’s Q-School pre-qualifying event. Knowing that she would have to fund herself, traveling to Spain, competing for a spot through the pre-qualifier and then the actual Q-School event, Gabriella Then “doubled down” on herself. Lessons learned from her previous stint on the Symetra Tour and in LPGA Q-School would serve her well.
“It’s a valuable lesson I learned at Stage Two because it came up again in Ladies European Tour qualifying, where I was playing the pre-qualifier. I had a decent start to the first round, and I think somewhere on the second or third round, I had a really rough round – a couple over par. I didn’t have the same reaction to shots going wrong. I just took a step back, I analyzed what I did wrong, and I came out the next day even more confident because I already let go of the day before.”
She would go on to advance to the actual Q-School event, and her solid play eventually led to her winning the event, bringing with it full playing privileges on the LET. She had achieved her goal of securing full status on the professional tour, even if it was based in Europe and not on the LPGA.
“I had such a sigh of relief, a joy that all this time that I spent away from home overseas all came to life at the very end with this wonderful finish. I had this new opportunity in 2022 that I couldn’t even fathom. Everyone was saying ‘are you going to go to Europe and just stay there? Are you going to come back home? I said that I can’t event think about that right now. I just want to enjoy this moment.”
While playing golf in Europe comes with some wonderful benefits such as traveling to different parts of the world, visiting new cultures and seeing new sites along the way, there are some significant obstacles that Gabby Then must navigate if she is going to develop her game in hopes of graduating on to the LPGA. The most significant of these is the cost of playing golf on the Ladies European Tour as the amount of miles or kilometers traveled far exceed anything that she would encounter on the Epson Tour.
Her opening return trip from Los Angeles to play the Saudi Aramco event and then on to South Africa to play the two LET events in Johannesburg and in Cape Town has a combined travel distance that will probably exceed the total distance that she would encounter playing a full season on the Epson Tour. She will also have to fund her accommodations as there is little in the way of host families and she will have to fly to her destinations as most of the events are spread around Europe, Africa, Australia and the Middle East.
With a smaller prize pool on the LET, it will be a challenge to earn enough prize money to cover most of her expenses – there will definitely be a funding gap.
“It costs anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 to compete all season long. That’s the expenses that we’re going to incur no matter what. For sponsorships, Callaway and I have a deal where they provide me with equipment. Titleist and FootJoy provide me with golf balls and shoes. For apparel, Cutter and Buck has been providing me with that. Dave’s Hot Chicken based in Hollywood; they’re one of my supporters. Another is Konnect Resources and a new sunglass company called GOODR.”
Despite having some sponsorships to help defray partial expenses, Then will still come up short. To help her narrow the gap, she set up a “GoFundMe” page where people can contribute to her year on the LET. Her stated goal is to raise $40,000 and to date she is about a third of the way to reaching her goal. With her first event slated for the end of March, there is a sense of urgency.
“Going into this year, I knew that I was going to have to raise a bit of money through sponsorships of various means. I’ve been fortunate enough to have these people in these companies help me out, also friends and family are helping me out. But I have created a GoFundMe campaign that I’ve posted online to put out my story. So that is also another way that I’ve used to raise money.”
Other fellow players have rallied around to help Then in her quest to play on Tour this season. Hannah Gregg, playing on both the Epson Tour and the WAPT, sent out a social media post, drawing attention to Gabriella’s situation for 2022.
With her sense of commitment and self belief, Gabriella Then has a good opportunity this season on the Ladies European Tour and with her hard work she will hopefully have the opportunity to play on the LPGA soon.
To learn more about Gabby or her GoFundMe campaign [click here]
An interview with the LPGA (Symetra Tour):