Jess’ homecoming

Jess Hall has come a long way from the Durham-based teenager who dreamt of playing college golf in the US. With four years at California State University Fresno and a win in her penultimate event as a college athlete now behind her, we ask, what’s next?

The last time Jess Hall appeared in a full-length interview in Northern Golfer, the then 15-year-old had just become the youngest-ever winner of the Durham County Ladies Golf Association Championship, and she laid out her dreams of playing college golf in the US before joining the Ladies European or LPGA tour – if she was good enough.

Jess – a member of Bishop Auckland Golf Club since the age of nine – certainly proved good enough, putting together a stellar résumé in her four years as a Fresno State Bulldog, including a win in her penultimate event as a college athlete – the Fresno State Classic at Belmont Country Club. Her winning score of six under-par for 54 holes was the fourth lowest tournament score ever by a Bulldog, and helped Jess to end her college career with the fifth lowest scoring average in the program’s history (75.04) as she was nominated for female athlete of the year at California State University Fresno in her final year.

“I dreamed about going to the US and playing college golf from a really young age,” says 23-year-old Jess. “Attending a division one school for four years was a dream come true. 

“I’d only played a few national events before I left, but getting to fly to tournaments across the US and down in Mexico, and compete in huge tournaments, was so exciting every time we did it.

© Fresno State Athletics

“I knew I could win an event as early as my second year, but winning golf tournaments is tough. I was so happy to get a win to finish off my college career and doing it at our home event was really cool. It made it so much more special to win the first time my parents saw me compete in a Bulldogs uniform – that moment on the final green was pretty emotional for the three of us.”

Off the golf course, Jess – who graduated with a degree in Recreation, Special Events and Tourism – says the relationships with her two college coaches – Emily Loftin and Lisa Ferrero – and her bond with her teammates were the best part of the experience.

“Emily, our coach for the first three years, was like a mother to us,” says Jess. “She cared so much about us as people and that was really important when I was starting out.

“When I arrived in California, I’d never lived away before. It’s also a full-on schedule as a college athlete between playing, practising and schoolwork but the sense of family created by our coach and the girls in the team made it much easier to handle and by the end it was definitely the biggest highlight of the whole experience.

“When I arrived, the older girls made me feel so welcome,” adds Jess. “By the time I was a senior, particularly when we transitioned from Emily to Lisa in my final year, I got to play that leadership role and it was fantastic to be able to pay that back after getting so much support when I arrived.”

While she admits being away from home was the hardest part of the college experience and that she had to mature quickly to be able to live on her own, Jess adds that the team spirit and friendships she built with her teammates is what she’ll miss the most. “Even after just a few weeks, the thing I miss is the team atmosphere,” she says. “It’s totally different when you practise by yourself, and it’s something I’m really sad to have given up.”

Back in the June 2014 edition of Northern Golfer, Jess talked about the role her parents – dad Graham and mam Carolynne – played in her golf career. While she left home for the very first time to head to California, her parents remained as supportive as ever and they were there when Jess won at Belmont.

Her long-time coach, Brian Ridley, has also been a constant throughout her golfing career and while Jess explains that it was more complicated to continue her work with Brian remotely, it proved incredibly important to her success.

“While I continued to work with Brian, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do over video calls and text messages. By the end, we came up with a structure that worked, but it wasn’t easy,” says Jess, who has already had two in-person sessions with Brian since she came home a fortnight ago.

As well as working on her technique over the last four years, Jess has also had the chance to train and develop in the professional atmosphere of college athletics. As well as having access to state-of-the-art technology and facilities, she also worked with expert coaches.

“I didn’t think about my mental approach to the game before I left,” she admits. “Working with the team psychologist opened my eyes to how important your mindset is on the golf course and when you’re practising and training. Thinking about how your attitude affects your game and how structures lead to better performances have helped me improve and cope with pressure situations – individually and as a teammate.”

© Kevin Gibson, KG Photography

A lot of graduates like to take a summer to unwind and reflect on their time at university. For Jess, it’s a chance to play a busy schedule of British events – which started with the St Rule Trophy at St Andrews and will include The R&A Women’s Amateur at Hunstanton, the English Women’s strokeplay and matchplay championships, and representing Durham in County Match Week.

“Coming off such a good end to my season in the US, I’m keen to keep it going into the British summer,” she says. “I feel like I’ve got a lot of momentum and I’m looking forward to playing in big events.”

At the end of the amateur season, Jess plans to head to Ladies European Tour Qualifying School at La Manga in Spain in December.

Having been part of the college system and been coached in such a professional way for four years, she says she feels ready to turn professional when given the opportunity.

“College golf has made me so much more ready to be a professional golfer than I ever could have been without going to the US,” she says. “The travel, the coaching, the tournaments… it will all help when I get out there.

“It’s funny looking back at my dreams when I was 15 years old,” adds Jess. “I feel like I’m so much closer to achieving them now and I plan to keep working hard to become a tour player. 

“I’m not looking too far ahead though; I’ll go to Q-School and then I want to take some time to re-evaluate based on how that week goes.”

With a busy summer ahead, and a first trip to Qualifying School to end 2022, there’s a lot to look forward to and little time to reflect on the success of the last four years. But those four years were certainly a big success, and it will be fascinating to see what the next four years hold for Jess.