'There were a lot of tears shed': Saline touring pro shifts from front lines to front nine

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Trying to make it as a professional golfer, that's pressure.

Or, well, that used to be pressure.

"It's gonna be a little bit less stressful," Sarah Hoffman said. "Nursing helps me with that perspective."

Sarah Hoffman last played a pro golf tournament in March. She then went to work as a nurse at UM Hospital during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hoffman will return to competitive golf this week, as the Symetra Tour — the developmental tour for the LPGA Tour — restarts with the FireKeepers Casino Hotel Championship at Battle Creek Country Club. The Symetra Tour is one of three major professional golf tours restarting the season within a short drive of Metro Detroit, with the LPGA Tour (Toledo) and Champions Tour (Grand Blanc) getting going again next week.

Golf and the rest of the sports world shut down in mid-March, amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hoffman, a Saline native and Grand Valley State alum, didn't exactly use the pandemic to work on her game. In fact, it wasn't at all fun and games, as she shifted to the front lines as a nurse at University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor.

In early March, Hoffman played a tournament in Winter Haven, Florida, and made the cut, and was excited to carry that momentum to the next tournament in California. Then the shutdown happened.

"I had a condo in Atlanta I was living in, and I was waiting for another update for the tour to figure out my options as far as nursing," Hoffman said over the phone this week. "I was looking for short, four- to six-week travel contracts. The pandemic wasn't as bad in Georgia, and they didn't really need six-week nurses. They wanted 13 weeks. But Michigan was starting to get hit pretty hard.

"Then I got another update from the tour, and it was postponed even further. I needed to come back to Michigan and help my co-workers."

So Hoffman, who typically has worked temporarily at the hospital during golf seasons, called her manager and asked if they needed they help.

Of course, they did.

And by the end of April, as Michigan's COVID-19 death toll was passing 3,000, Hoffman was at UM Hospital. She wasn't in the ICU, where the bulk of the COVID-19 cases were contained, but that surely didn't lessen the toll, particularly emotionally. 

"My experience was 1,000 times different than a nurse in the ICU, but for me it was also 1,000 times different than my experience that I normally have there," said Hoffman, 30, who earned her nursing degree in 2013. "You go to the orthopedic floor, where there normally are elective hip and knee replacements. All elective surgeries were canceled. The patient population on my floor was completely different. The only people in (my area of the) hospital needed unplanned emergency surgeries. That's always a scary time, but now you're going through that without the physical support of loved ones. That was one of the hardest parts."

Sarah Hoffman was the GLIAC player of the year while at Grand Valley State.

In many ways, with visitors barred from hospitals across the country, nurses had to pull double-duty, balancing their jobs with providing, by proxy, the support usually provided by friends and family.

There also was the constant stress of wondering if you're going to get the coronavirus. Hoffman doesn't have kids, but many of her workers do, and nobody knows for sure who's transmitting to who. Many of the UM Hospital nurses stayed at hotels, to prevent any possible spread on the home front.

So, in many ways, nurses had to be each other's support systems, too.

"It was a little eerie, to be honest. There were a lot of tears shed," Hoffman said. "As nurses we want to be there, we want to help our patients, but we're terrified that that decision is going to harm our loved ones.

"You're scared for your own health and safety."

Make no mistake, though.

Hoffman would do it again. It's a tap-in.

"One-hundred percent," she said. "Nursing holds a special place in my heart, and I'm very thankful to be able to make an impact in someone's life and maybe make their day a little bit better, when they're having one of the worst days of their lives.

"I didn't want to look back and regret not doing everything I could."

Now, starting Friday in Battle Creek, Hoffman, a three-time All-American in college and once the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference player of the year, will trade in her PPE for her sticks.

She's been getting her game in shape at Travis Pointe Country Club in Ann Arbor, and by the looks of a recent money game — a member, getting a stroke a hole, recently offered her to play her $100 a hole; that was far more cash than she had in her bag, but "let's just say I earned my entry fee into Battle Creek," Hoffman said with a laugh — she's ready to go.

Sarah Hoffman will tee it up on the Symetra Tour this week in Battle Creek.

The competitive juices will be flowing again, but that pressure has subsided for many reasons. For starters, she spent months staring real life in the face at UM Hospital.

Also, because of the COVID-19 shutdown, major golf tours have extended playing status through the following season, so there's no instant stress to secure that card for next season.

If she doesn't thrive this week, well, it's not the be-all, end-all. Not even close.

"Any other normal year, maybe I'd say that to myself, but I wouldn't fully embrace it," Hoffman said. "This experience has helped me fully embrace it a little bit more.

"There's not really a downside if I don't play well.

"It's just another week."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984