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Hurricane Maria Interrupts a Puerto Rican Golfer’s L.P.G.A. Dreams

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — While Hurricane Maria pummeled her family’s home in San Juan, P.R., Maria Torres tried to focus on the board game she was playing indoors with her younger brother.

She had been through hurricanes before, but this one, she said, “came to destroy everything.”

She tried to stay calm on Sept. 20 as Category 4 winds reaching up to 155 miles per hour pounded the windows of the family’s second-floor apartment, delivering the most powerful punch the island had experienced in 85 years and knocking out electricity to nearly 70 percent of the island — including her home.

She tried not to think about the task that awaited her on the mainland: her first attempt to qualify for the L.P.G.A. Tour. Other golfers were preparing while she was hunkered down, dealing with a world she barely recognized.

“After it was over, the entire island was changed,” said Torres, 22, who is in Florida this week for L.P.G.A. Q-school, where 165 players are competing for membership on the L.P.G.A. Tour in 2018.

A week before the storm, Torres was in Gainesville, Fla., where she and the rest of the University of Florida women’s golf team received rings for winning the Southeastern Conference championship last spring.

Torres won the individual conference title in 2016 as a junior and helped the Gators finish second as a team. As a senior, she finished fourth individually and helped Florida win its first SEC title in nine years.

When the hurricane tore through the Caribbean, Torres was just weeks away from the second stage of the L.P.G.A. qualifying tournament.

She found herself among the millions of Puerto Ricans wrestling daily to meet their basic needs. Electricity and internet in her family’s home were down, and cell service was spotty. Her family had no running water for two days, and they cooked simple meals on her grandmother’s portable gas stove.

With temperatures in the 80s and 90s, Torres and her family moved into her grandmother’s house, where a small generator enabled a tiny air-conditioner to hum at night as eight people slept on mattresses on the floor.

“We would still have to wake up around 1 a.m. and go try to find gas for the generator, usually getting back home around 3 to 4 a.m.,” Torres said.


Torres, right, with Janice Olivencia, an associate head golf coach at Florida, who is one of only two Puerto Rican women to play professionally. CreditTim Cowie Photography

In the afternoons, she would help her aunt wash the family’s sweat-soaked clothes by hand.

They developed a system with two clean trash cans, filling one with water and detergent to soak the clothes for an hour, before shifting them into a second can of water to rinse.

Once the clothes were washed, they went on elaborate clotheslines behind Torres’s grandmother’s house.

“Everybody’s laundry was hanging up on the improvised lines strung up all over the neighborhood,” Torres said with a laugh.

For 10 days after the hurricane, Torres prepared for the qualifying tournament by practicing putts on carpet and chipping balls in a local park.

A Puerto Rican national coach eventually got Torres a flight off the island in time to practice for the second stage of qualifying. She flew to Gainesville, stayed with former college teammates and focused on golf. Torres finished tied for 21st to advance to Q-school.

She remained in Gainesville and spent time with Florida women’s associate head golf coach, Janice Olivencia, a Puerto Rico native who shared concerns about their home but often just listened.

“When you say, ‘Everything’s fine,’ it’s like you’re telling that to yourself,” said Olivencia, who played professionally on the Symetra Tour and Ladies European Tour before becoming a coach. “Maria’s still worried, but she has the support of her family, who told her to go do what she’s been preparing to do.”

Olivencia and Sasha Medina, now a teaching pro at TPC Dorado Beach outside San Juan, are the only Puerto Rican women who have competed on professional tours.

Neither made it to the L.P.G.A. Tour, but they hope Torres can become the first Puerto Rican woman to do so.

“She has all of the qualities and opportunities that someone needs to succeed,” Medina said.

There are still difficult times ahead as the island struggles to right itself, said Torres, who will return to Puerto Rico after Q-school.

The power is still flickering, and food and gas are still lacking, she said. Basic shelter is unavailable for many.

“I cried a little bit, but you just have to look for positive stuff because that’s what keeps you going,” Torres said. “I try to be encouraged by little things — like a clean shirt.”