An Ozark Girl’s Golf Odyssey
Wed, 03/17/2021 - 11:52am admin
With the Masters golf tournament just around the corner, and my last article about the transition of women’s high school sports still in the back of my mind, I thought of golf professional Jo D. Duncan Armstrong. You haven’t heard of her? Just keep reading.
In the 1960s, WSHS had a boy’s golf team, with classmate Jimmy “Tee” Thomas usually leading the pack, but no girls played on the team. Perhaps that lends credence to the notion that golf is an acronym meaning: Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden.
For the record, that adage wasn’t true on the old 9-hole course with sand greens on Pine Grove Road in Willow Springs. In the 1960s, Celia Burns, Ruby Tetrick, Freda Lovan, and other women were ardent and accomplished regulars. Celia once told me the ball would go farther if I didn’t swing so hard. I often recall her advice, after swinging like mighty “Casey at the Bat.”
Nor was that the case in 1984 at McDonald County High School in Anderson, MO, where Jo D. (“Jody”) Duncan was a senior. That year, MCHS added golf to its varsity curriculum.
With moxie and pluck, Jody joined the team as the only girl. Moreover, she was the only female in the Big Six Conference (now, Southwest Conference) to complete on varsity boys’ teams. And compete she did. She had the second-best scoring average on her team.
One local publication called her a trailblazer and reported that her coach, David Riffle, was glad she was on the team, regardless of her gender, because she was one of the better players in the area.
In the 1980s, before joining the high school team, Jody played golf at the Elk River Country Club near Noel, MO. She says of the old nine-hole course, “Along holes 2 and 3 there was a cow pasture, so there was a lot of entertainment.”
Nevertheless, her golfing skills earned her a scholarship at Southwest Missouri State University. Remarkably, playing in college marked the first time she competed against other females.
After graduation from college, she taught at several schools in southwest Missouri before becoming the head basketball and golf coach for boys and girls at Metro Christian Academy in Tulsa, OK, in 1990.
In the early 1990s, she returned to golf fulltime and sampled life as a playing professional. But without sponsors, driving from tournament to tournament is a tedious and expensive grind. Ultimately, she found her niche in golf as the Director of Instruction at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis. It some ways, Norwood provided the best of both worlds. It enabled her to teach—her first love—and allowed time to play in tournaments.
In November 2005, Jody hit a long shot when she secured a spot on The Golf Channel’s Big Break V, a reality television show that would be filmed on Oahu’s north shore in Hawaii. Select women golfers would be pitted against each other in a five-day skills competition for professional tour exemptions and prizes, including a new Chrysler Crossfire and a year’s travel expenses for tour competition.
Reality TV shows are common, but imagine the odds of actually making it on one. Jody emerged from over 4000 applicants as one of eleven women receiving an expense paid trip to Hawaii and the opportunity to compete.
Of the fierce competition, Jody says, “The finalists included two first-team all-Americans; a U.S. Women’s Amateur champion; and a two-time Australian Tour champion. I was the dark-horse candidate . . . and the oldest.”
The application process took four months, from May to September, culminating with an interview in Maryland that included an “on-command” skills demonstration. Jody says, “It wasn’t just swinging a three-wood a few times, we were told to hit a high fade or draw so many feet to the right or left of a target. It was a lot of pressure. If you were having an off-day it was too bad.”
With this level of intensity and competition, how was she able to gain an edge? This wasn’t her first exposure to national television competition. Jody competed in the World Long Drive Championship for several years, and won second place in 2001. Her longest competitive drive was 315 yards. I suspect with today’s advanced equipment technology, it would have been longer.
She also thinks her application video helped distinguish her. Playing up her Ozark heritage, she appeared wearing a gingham blouse in lieu of a golf shirt. She said, “I stopped short of using a corncob pipe as a stage prop.”
The contestants received a huge surprise before they had unpacked their bags. They were shocked to learn the application process wasn’t over yet. There were eleven women, but accommodations for only ten.
A series of contests ending in a sudden-death play-off would send one woman home. “I couldn’t believe it,” Jody says, “We had to play our way into a bed.”
The first play-in challenge involved chipping balls to break glass panels bearing the names of contestants. When a woman’s panel was broken, she was eliminated from that challenge. The last unbroken panel designated a “bed-winner.”
Clearly the star of the glass-breaking challenge, Jody broke five panels—twice as many as anyone else. One of her competitors said, “Jody seemed unbeatable.” But, with only two players left, a woman who hadn’t broken one panel managed to hit the corner of Jody’s panel, winning immunity for herself and leaving Jody to compete for a spot on the show.
Jody is good, but no golfer is immune from the fickle ways of the Golf Gods. She went from being the first-round leader to missing the final cut. In the sudden-death finale, she was eliminated when her putt stopped a few feet short of the cup.
Another surprise. Jody wasn’t really sent home. She was hidden from the others in a hotel and later would be given a mulligan—a chance to play her way back into the contest.
While the other women were anguishing over flubbed shots, Jody was being escorted around Oahu for several days as a tourist. She says, “Being eliminated first, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I saw much more than the other girls. I went to Pearl Harbor and toured the U.S.S. Missouri and the Arizona Memorial—I really wanted to see that.”
The mulligan didn’t pan out, but the highlight for Jody wasn’t about herself. She says, “My proudest moment was winning $5000.00 for The Brain Injury Foundation of St. Louis in a chip, putt, and drive contest involving local junior golfers.”
How will they keep her “down on the farm” after seeing Hawaii? Jody says, “I’m lucky. I got to come back to the greatest job in the world. I love what I do.”
There’s a twilight on a golf course defined not so much by the sun, but by the solitude. The members have gone and the caddy shack kids can get in a few holes. The driving range is empty, but after a day of instructing others, that’s where you’ll often find Jody, working on her game—and she’s got game.