Sophie Shrader overcomes unimaginable tragedy through golf
February 15, 2020
By Stewart Moore, PGATOUR.COM
- February 15, 2020
Sophie Shrader overcomes unimaginable tragedy through golf
On the night of June 30, 2018, Sophie Shrader was one of four girls in a car going for a spin around the block on Livingston Woods Lane in Naples, Florida. Shrader was in the backseat, laughing alongside her best friend, Brooke Rice, when the driver swerved to miss an animal, causing the car to veer off the side of the road and flip.
Rice, a track and soccer standout at nearby St. John Neumann High School, died of her injuries after being transported to Physicians Regional Medical Center following the crash. She was 16.
“I remember we were going down the street and we were just laughing, singing the song that was on. And really the last thing I saw of Brooke was the two of us just looking at each other cracking up,” said Shrader. “Right before we had lost control. So that's something I hold with me – we were happy.”
Sophie Shrader entered that night as one of the top junior golfers in the greater Naples area, with a promising future in a game she loved. She left the evening with her world shattered, yet it was golf that would bring her back from a place no kid should have to venture.
Sophie got into the game by following in the footsteps of her older sisters. Prior to golf, she would sit in the stands watching Sydney and their oldest sibling, Samantha, play basketball, with mom Casey as the coach. The game was a family affair for the Shraders.
“I was basically born in a gym,” joked Sophie, who played basketball through her freshman year of high school.
After watching both sisters tear their ACLs on the hardwood, she re-directed her focus back to golf after starting at First Tee of Naples/Collier in sixth grade. The local chapter is the charitable beneficiary of this week’s Chubb Classic on PGA TOUR Champions.
“When I met Sophie, she was in middle school and played multiple sports, but you could tell that golf was something that came easy to her,” said Derek Clemmensen, Director of Programs for the local First Tee chapter. “Not that she didn’t work at it – she’s always been an extremely hard worker – she just always had a knack for the game.”
While Sydney went off to college, Sophie became a fixture at First Tee, honing her skills on a daily basis at Valencia Country Club in Naples. According to Clemmensen, she would be the first one to practice and would often work on her putting on off days, just to stay sharp.
That inherent commitment to excellence paid off as she finished runner-up in the district as a freshman and was named first-team All-County. As a sophomore for the Celtics, Shrader cemented her status as a rising star in southwest Florida, winning the district title and earning a nomination for Player of the Year honors in one of the state’s golf hotbeds.
Entering the summer before her junior year of high school, she was primed to make a run at Player of the Year that fall. Sophie Shrader was playing some of the best golf of her life.
And then June 30 happened.
The driver, Clare Cuenya, and passenger Jamie Bennett, who both survived, were rushed to local hospitals along with Shrader and Rice.
“At the hospital, they gave me my phone and my mom was like, ‘I don't really want you on it. Don't talk to anyone right now,’” said Shrader. “I had texted one of our friends that was coming to hang out with us at Claire's house, and he was like, ‘Did you hear? Brooke died.’ And I lost it there. That was definitely hard.”
Grief is technically defined as deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death. Sophie Shrader was grieving, and golf was the last thing that mattered.
“She was playing some of the best golf she’d played in a while, and when the accident happened, it truly put her in a different place, as you would expect for any teenager involved in a wreck,” said Clemmensen.
Shrader was released from the hospital with internal bruising and severe back pain. The back injury meant she couldn’t swing a club for at least a month – but the loss of Brooke meant she didn’t want to.
For three months, Shrader did not pick up a golf club. The physical and emotional pain of the accident took a toll on her, but oddly enough, it didn’t curtail her love for the game, and specifically, the First Tee.
“When I first saw her after the wreck it was at one of our summer camps, and you could tell something was different. It took her months to be able to even talk about it. She didn’t want to talk about the wreck or anything,” said Clemmensen. “About three weeks after the accident, she came out to a summer camp with a bunch of 7-, 8- and 9-year-old kids. She still wasn’t medically cleared to swing, she was still stiff and sore, but she wanted to be there, she wanted to be around the kids and at the camp.”
For Shrader, the ability to get away and blend into a group of kids playing golf was almost a sense of normalcy in a reality that had been ripped away from her. It was the one thing she looked forward to each week, where Clemmensen and her friends were supportive, and everyone would just let her be Sophie. In her words, “They were the perfect group to be around during that time. They weren’t questioning anything; they were just there.”
“She felt survivor’s remorse, ‘Why should I be able to do something my best friend can’t do?’” Clemmensen said. “But you could tell when she was there a smile came, or she was more talkative, or she’d find a kid off by himself and walk over to talk to him.”
For kids who are coping with loss, team sports can be a great avenue to blend in and get lost in the commotion of the court or field, cheering on wins and losses. In golf, there is you and the course. There is time between shots to walk, reflect, think and get way too far inside your own head. But there’s also a sense of peace, and at times, a sense of purpose. Golf was exactly what Shrader needed when she began to play again at the start of her junior year.
“A lot of the time I just wanted to be alone. I didn't want people around me, so it was nice going out and just practicing on my own. Kind of taking the time for myself outside and away from everyone,” she said. “And once I got my head straight, it was perfect. I regained that passion. I obviously wasn't playing as well as I was before, but I saw it. I saw that I could get back to it and I was going to push myself.”
Shrader went through some counseling initially, but after growing up in a house where her mom was a counselor for autistic children, she had already heard so much of what any counselor would offer. She knew her diagnosis. It wasn’t until she visited a psychiatrist that she felt as though she was able to make progress.
After 90 days away from the game, Sophie began to play again in preparation for her junior year at St. John Neumann. She was ready to resume a somewhat normal life for a kid.
“Once I got help, I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I'm gonna go practice now. I can think straight. I can hit a golf ball,’” she said.
With the help of her family, her lifelong coach Jeff Jones and his wife Diana, as well as tremendous friendships made inside and outside of golf, Sophie did more than just hit a golf ball after returning to the game. On October 15, 2018, she won her second straight district title and this time, was named 2018 Naples Daily News Female Player of the Year, in turn fulfilling one of her own goals after enduring hell the summer prior.
“Coach Jones continued to push me both on and off the course,” she said. “He has always been a big part of my life and someone who to this day continues to challenge me. I owed a lot of that to him.”
Her stellar play in the fall of 2018 set her up for the chance of a lifetime nearly one year later.
In the summer of 2019, Shrader was one of 78 teenagers selected to compete in the PURE Insurance Championship on PGA TOUR Champions, representing First Tee of Naples/Collier like Sydney did a handful of years earlier. And like her sister, Shrader was paired alongside two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, who taught her plenty about how to prepare for competition inside the ropes.
“Oh, it was so fun. It was nice since we knew that I was going to be playing with Lee. It was just a big privilege to play practice rounds and go out to lunch with him,” she said. “It was just a really good experience, how he treated me and my sister. He’s a very good guy.”
To say Shrader is wise beyond her years would be an understatement. She is on the other side; she is moving forward, and she will use the sadness and devastation of loss to guide her perspective.
Now 18, Shrader plans to enroll at the University of West Florida this fall, where she has a spot on the women’s golf team. At West Florida, she’s leaning towards majoring in psychology so that she can help people who need it most, just like her mom before her.
In her First Tee essay used as an application to compete at Pebble Beach, Sophie Shrader touched on the impact the program has had on her, issues facing young people today and Clemmensen as her mentor. The final question in the application was to describe a difficult obstacle you had to overcome. She finished her essay with the following:
“I would never want to do it over again. But I have learned that the people around me – my First Tee, my friends – are what have helped me keep myself together, even at the hardest times. They continue to give me the strength to heal and to help those around me. I miss Brooke more and more every day. I know that I will battle this obstacle every day and I continue to find peace and happiness. If I could do one thing differently, I would make sure that I told Brooke I loved her a little more often and given her an extra hug before we got in the car.”