PROVO — It wasn’t a surprise that Provo freshman Naomi Soifua won the 4A girls golf championship. The circumstances she won under, however, were truly remarkable and inspirational.
The 15-year-old freshman captured the individual title despite the fact that her uncle John Soifua — her golf teacher and inspirational support since she first swung a club roughly eight years ago — passed away Wednesday.
When the young 15-year-old reached East Bay Golf Course early Wednesday, she didn’t want to get out of the car.
Just prior to leaving, she was informed that her uncle had been rushed to the hospital with a serious heart condition. While not entirely unexpected given his failing health, the news had an emotionally debilitating effect on the freshman phenom.
“My Uncle John is the one who got our whole family golfing,” Naomi said. “He isn’t a big-time golfer, but we was definitely a big impact on my golf career. He’s so supportive in whatever I do.”
Soifua took to the game immediately and soon saw herself on the big stage, starring in the Utah State Amateur tournament at only 10 years of age. Since then she’s continued to improve with a strict practice regimen, with Uncle John supporting her every step of the way.
“I practice every day except for Sunday,“ Soifua said.
“What she’s able to do out there doesn’t just happen,” said Provo coach Dave Walker. “She’s a tireless worker who is really dedicated to getting better and being the best golfer she can.”
All the work and talent prepared her to be the clear favorite entering Wednesday’s championship, but the immense emotional strain of her uncle's hospitalization created an incredibly unique and difficult challenge.
Soifua met the challenge by deciding to play not just for herself, but for her uncle.
“I dedicated this entire round to Uncle John and that was all that was going through my head,” she said. “I’m just glad I got to play this well for him.”
In addition to winning an individual championship amid such difficult circumstances, Soifua's efforts helped her school earn a team championship. Provo won with a combined score of 315 in the modified Stableford scoring system. Defending champion Box Elder finished second with a score of 304.
"Our girls have worked so hard for this and it took the entire team," Walker said. "Naomi was huge for us, but it took everyone and we got a complete effort."
Most of Provo's golfers have played for just two years, according to Walker, which makes Wednesday's accomplishment special. "We haven't had great sports at Provo, so we started (golf) just three years ago and most of the girls, they hadn't picked up a golf club until we made this team," Walker said. "All of them had a great attitude, they all worked so hard, and yeah, it's just an amazing feeling and a tribute to all that hard work that we got here."
Individually, Soifua ultimately carded a 71 — four shots better than her next competitor — but with some difficulty.
Her most difficult moment may have come at the 12th hole when she missed a 10-foot birdie putt before turning her thoughts back to Uncle John.
“I started getting down on myself and then (I saw) my uncle’s face up in the heavens and he wouldn’t want me to do that,” Soifua said. “So I smiled, and got away with a par even though my ball went in the water, so that was a good moment for me.”
Unbeknownst to Soifua at the time was that her uncle passed away during the tournament, even as she envisioned him watching down on her on the 12th hole.
Upon completion of the round, Soifua celebrated with her teammates, only to have her emotions complicated considerably by the news of her uncle’s passing.
Through the tears came smiles brought about by her teammates and by one of the best lessons John gave her through the years.
“He’s always taught me to smile and be happy, so that’s what I try and do,” she said. “I thought I did pretty good today. ... Although I didn't do my best, I'm happy with my score.
"I know my uncle would be proud of me."