Tom Mortellaro flipped on the television to the Golf Channel, new to the airwaves in the mid 1990s, intent on improving his game and learning more about the swing. Without fail, daughter Kayla, a toddler, would grab her plastic club and emulate the swings she saw on the screen.
“I’d mimic everything the instructors were doing,” Kayla said. “I was learning the whole time he was trying to pick up the game.”
Soon Kayla and her dad were hitting balls on the driving range at Shalimar Country Club in Tempe, Ariz. Tom noticed Kayla had a habit of hitting balls straight. One day Kayla asked if some of her friends could come along. No problem, Tom thought, he’d give Kayla’s friends some swing tips but he noticed they rarely hit a ball straight.
A friend encouraged Tom to put Kayla in an LPGA girls club program. She finished third in her first tournament, second in her second event and won her third one. After that, Kayla began winning a lot of junior tournaments.
“It started out being a fun thing,” Tom said, “and then it started rolling down the road.”
When young Kayla attended an LPGA Tour event in Phoenix, she was hooked.
“The players were really nice to me. They would talk to me,” she said. “The whole atmosphere and idea of playing golf, I wanted to be a pro golfer from that moment on.” She was 5.
Mortellaro is now 22. And she’s a rookie on the LPGA Tour.
The Phoenix native rose through the junior ranks, winning 45 events from ages 7-16. At 14, she became the youngest to win the Arizona Women’s State Amateur. She won the event again three years later.
Her success continued at the University of Idaho with 10 wins, three Western Athletic Conference player of the year awards and 32 top-10 finishes in 43 events.
Last April she won her second straight WAC championship. Less than eight months later, Mortellaro shot 79 in the first round at LPGA Tour qualifying school and she was near the bottom of the 119-player field. She came back with rounds of 69, 69, 72 and 67 to move up 101 spots on the leader board and into a tie for 11th, earning a tour card for 2013.
Her dream had come true. The work was just beginning.
“It’s exciting and it’s interesting,” Tom said of having a daughter on the tour. “The excitement is that she’s there and we always felt she could be there. The interesting part is how to make it all keep working and going. There’s an economic side and a playing side that both collide.”
Whole new world
The first LPGA tournament was in Australia in February, Mortellaro’s first trip out of the U.S.
She got off the plane Monday and immediately played a practice round to begin learning about a course she’d never played before. She played a practice round Tuesday with former Washington State Cougar Kim Welch, who tied with Mortellaro for 11th at qualifying school.
Mortellaro’s schedule seemed to coincide with Karrie Webb’s. They crossed paths on the driving range, putting green and on the course, with Webb always offering a friendly greeting. Juli Inkster commented on the way Mortellaro marked her golf ball with large red arrows.
“Being in the locker room and walking side by side with players I grew up watching on TV or with someone who had thrown me a ball (at the LPGA event in Phoenix) … now I’m standing next to them and playing in the same event,” Mortellaro said.
She was ready for her LPGA debut.
“I actually slept really well the night before and it didn’t feel all that overwhelming,” Mortellaro said. “It was kind of nice to tee off.”
Her playing partners went first and both hit lousy drives on No. 1. Mortellaro drove it straight down the middle, just like on the range at Shalimar. She carded a 1-over 74, but followed with a 78 the next day and missed the cut.
At the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup in her hometown of Phoenix, Mortellaro shot 1-under 71 in the first round, but missed the cut following a second-day 76.
The next week in Carlsbad, Calif., Mortellaro made the cut and finished tied for 70th. It was an eye-opener how much the course changed from day to day, thanks to different tee boxes, pin placements and weather conditions.
Her first LPGA paycheck was worth $3,387.
“I wish there were a few more zeroes behind it,” she joked, “but it’s all a process.”
Three tournaments have helped Mortellaro understand more about that process and her game. She teed it up with Lexi Thompson in Carlsbad and her drives occasionally came to rest 75 yards behind her playing partner. They tied on the scoreboard after four rounds.
“I really dialed in on my putting as well as my short game (leading up to the tour season),” she said. “I felt those were areas I could really save strokes as well as make up for some errors along the way. Now that I’ve been out there for a couple of events, my ball-striking has to be crisper and my course management needs to get better.
“Everyone is really good at this level. One mistake can cost you. You have to play fearless golf but you have to be cognizant of the choices you’re making.”
Mortellaro pointed out that in college, “I was a phenomenal ball-striker. On the tour, I need to get better.”
She’s already making progress.
“Like anything you start to figure out how to move up the ladder,” Tom said. “Many of the girls she grew up playing against at various times are on the tour. There’s always a learning curve, no matter how good you are or what you’ve done before.”
A family commitment
Tom handles the scheduling, travel, hotels and away-from-the-course details so Kayla can focus on her game.
There is no entourage of swing doctors, fitness gurus, sports psychologists, PR agents and managers that surround some tour players. She has her mom, a physical therapist, and dad, who carried Kayla’s clubs in Australia but has since given way to a family friend because of a troublesome knee.
“He’s like my manager,” Kayla said.
When she needs instruction, Kayla turns to two people who have helped her since she was a youngster: Craig Johnson, co-founder of Tour Masters and a long-time teacher, and Mike Wright, pro at Vistal Golf Club in Phoenix.
Vistal, Shalimar and Ahwatukee golf courses have been instrumental in Mortellaro’s development. Vistal will be the site of a May 9th fundraiser for Mortellaro.
Fundraising is a vital component for young players, who need considerable backing to play a full schedule. Mortellaro hopes to play in 14 events, but that could change depending on her success and bank account.
She has an apparel sponsor – Royal and Awesome – but nearly every other dollar comes from Team Mortellaro.
“It’s a two-to-five year process to really make it or decide it’s not going to happen to the level you’d like,” Tom said. “We didn’t know which tour she would be lined up with – LPGA or Symetra – at Q school but each has a cost associated with it. I started knocking on some doors. It’s a slow process.
“You don’t want to destroy everything else. How far are you willing to try? That’s the tough part and we’ve talked about it. She’s already made it, proven the biggest part of her goal since she was 5. And now as an adult, we have to figure out a way to stay out there.”
Kayla noted the financial side “can get a little overwhelming at times.
“My family is paying for everything so we have to go as cheaply as possible. We don’t stay at the nicest places,” she said. “I plan on playing in everything I can. It’s great experience and I want to keep my card for next year.”
Mortellaro has another reason to play well. Shortly after turning pro, one of her first priorities was establishing a fundraiser for the Special Olympics State Golf Games, an event she’s supported as a volunteer for years at Vistal.
After wrapping up a 30-minute phone interview, she asks if it’s possible to mention her Kaboomin’ Birdies for Special Olympics campaign.
New kid on the tour
Many of the players Mortellaro followed as a youngster at the LPGA event in Phoenix are no longer on the tour, but at a recent tournament she was paired with a familiar face, a player who’d tossed her a golf ball a decade before.
“I didn’t tell her the story,” Mortellaro said. “I felt like it might make her feel old.”
Carrying for another
Tom’s game improved back in the mid 1990s, but he eventually gave up the sport, in part to assist Kayla when golf became her passion.
“My wife and I are really not very good golfers at all,” he said. “A friend once asked me if I was really sure Kayla was my child because most of the time one of the parents is very competent at golf and we aren’t.”
He couldn’t be happier to have put away his clubs.
“Kayla always hits the ball,” he said, “but there are a lot of people behind her.”
No breaks, even when on break
With a break in her LPGA schedule, Mortellaro has some free time in Phoenix, but she plans on spending it practicing. She wants to be on top of her game when the tour reaches Hawaii in mid April.
While her dad organizes the fundraiser, Kayla is trying to trim another stroke or two off her score.
“I’m going to get back on the course as soon as possible,” she said. “It’s the only way to get better. And I have plenty of areas to keep improving.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.