This story appears in the Crookston Times’ May 27 Community Connections issue.

There’s a sort of cruel irony that Dani Boyle didn’t get to finish her high school golf career on her own terms.

When Boyle plays golf, she doesn’t think of it as competing, necessarily. She’s out there to shoot her best and have fun. It’s just her and the course.

Her head coach, Jeff Perreault, describes her style of play as “fearless.” Some golfers prefer to play it safe and take whatever the course gives them. That isn’t Boyle. She won’t settle for that. She tries to dictate the terms, rather than letting the course do so. It’s been that way ever since she started playing competitively.

“There were times where you would see her in a position to make a safe play,” Perreault said. “That just wasn’t in her DNA. She was going for it.”

In golf, that’s both a strength and a weakness. Some days, the ambitious shots pay off. Some day, they result in an eight or nine on the scorecard. But over her high school career, Boyle sanded down the rough edges in her game, and by the end she had grown from a raw, athletic seventh-grader into the best golfer in the North Fore Conference.

Even at the beginning, Perreault could see that potential.

He could tell Boyle had played a lot before joining the Crookston golf team as a seventh grader — indeed, Boyle had been playing since she could hold a club, at four years old. Her swing was athletic even back then. She drove the ball well, and could get herself out of tough spots. Over the years, Perreault and his coaching staff never made so much as a tweak to her swing.

It was the flip side of that, though, that needed to be refined: when your swing enables you to hit every shot in the book, that’s what you try to do. And sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.

Perreault and Boyle had many conversations on the course. Are you sure about this shot? Are you sure you want to use this club? He stressed to Boyle, a naturally quick and decisive player, about the need to sometimes slow down. Take a breath. Think. Remember that golf is more than whacking the ball around for a few hours.

“We really worked to try to get her to slow down around the greens, because that’s where she was leaving strokes,” Perreault said. “She would three-putt when it just wasn’t necessary, because she was playing too quickly.

“You can always tell the kids that come in that have played a lot of golf like she had, because everything came very natural to her. But it’s the thinking aspect, it’s the slowing down, it’s the course management that takes time. There are adults to this day that don’t manage the course very well.”

But Boyle’s seriousness about the game made all the difference.

She knew that putting wasn’t her strong suit, and went all in on improving. She arranged tees in a circle around the hole, placing balls at each, and tried to knock each one in. She also frequented the ladder drill: placing balls in a straight line out from the hole, the putts lengthening in three-foot intervals each time.

Progress came gradually. Perreault doesn’t remember a specific time where things just seemed to click for Boyle. Slowly but surely, the conversations between coach and athlete began to make sense, and slowly but surely, Boyle’s scores began to drop.

Last spring, the breakthrough came.

Boyle hadn’t envisioned making it to the state championship as a possibility before. But 2019 was different. She always had all the tools. In 2019, she understood how to use them.

She was named to the All-North Fore Conference team, with her nine-hole average of 43.3 the best on the team. In five of the Pirates’ six meets, she posted one of the team’s two lowest scores.

“The scores just became more consistent,” Perreault said. “You could rely on scores being low and didn’t need to worry about so many blowups. … When she really had her game going, she was tough to beat.”

And she peaked when it mattered most. After carding a first-round 92 at the Section 8AA Tournament in Bemidji, Boyle finished her final round in 84 strokes, the best score of her career — and one that snagged her the section’s fifth and final individual berth to state.

Perreault remembers sitting down with Boyle during her freshman year and telling her that she had potential to make it to state. Her hard work, and his coaching, had made it a reality.

“She’s just a competitive kid,” Perreault said. “She’s always wanted to get better, and worked very hard to get to that level where she’s competing with some of the best players in the state. You have to give an athlete credit. As a coach, that’s all you can ask is for them to work as hard as they can, and she did that.”

Boyle described the trip to Sand Creek Golf Course in Jordan for state as pressure-filled, and ultimately, felt that she could have done better. Her goal there was to finish in the top 50, and with rounds of 90 and 97, fell two places shy. This spring, her goals reflected how far she’d come. Not just qualify for state, but place higher once there.

Everything was in place: the talent, the drive, the maturity, the experience. But the COVID-19 pandemic ended Boyle’s high school career, just before all of those ingredients could come together.

“I was upset and sad, but … I just had to tell myself I couldn’t do anything about it,” she said. “Life brings you unexpected things that you can’t do anything about. I kind of realized (that) right away.”

Added Perreault: “You feel for her, someone who has put a lot of time into her game and finally has things figured out. And just not getting that shot. I feel bad, that’s all I can say.”

Boyle, though, appears to have come to terms with being denied one last season. She’s received interest from college coaches, per Perreault, yet her ultimate plans are up in the air. She’s already looking forward to the summer, when she’ll be able to go out and golf for fun.

“Just knowing that it’s not just me going through it,” she said. “I just have to take what life gives me.”

In effect, she’s accepting in life what she doesn’t accept on the golf course.

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