Stephanie Sparks has golfed professionally, helped produce television shows, hosted two series on cable, and has even "worked with God." Her career has evolved far differently than she envisioned as a sociology major and member of the Duke women's golf team, so she is just taking things as they come. "I feel very fortunate to be where I am," she says.
An All-American golfer at Duke and the winner of several amateur championships, Sparks turned pro after graduating. But two surgeries for chronic back pain ended her career after only a couple of seasons on the Futures Tour and one on the LPGA Tour. Playing golf was all she had ever wanted to do since her childhood in West Virginia, she says, and giving up her dream was devastating. "I was forced out of it. It wasn't a decision where I was just going to try something else for a change. I really had no other choice because my health wouldn't allow me to compete."
After a year adjusting to life as an ex-athlete, she landed a job as a production assistant at The Golf Channel in 2002 and began learning the television business on the fly. After just a year behind the camera, she was asked to audition for on-air work, to bolster the channel's female presence. Her knowledge of the game and a hard-charging personality forged by tournament competition outweighed her inexperience and won over producers.
Sparks hosts Golf With Style!, which showcases golf resorts worldwide and other leisure activities located nearby, and serves as Vince Cellini's co-host on Big Break, the channel's Survivor-like golf reality show, which pits up-and-coming pro golfers against veterans who never made top-tier tours in a series of golf-related skill events. The winner earns a slot in some pro tournaments.
"No one has to eat any bugs on our show," Sparks says with a laugh. Her own brief pro career makes working on Big Break especially poignant. "It's really a grind trying to make it as a professional golfer," she says. "Many times, you're just looking for that one shot, and it's difficult when it doesn't come or doesn't work out."
Sparks' golf knowledge "is extremely insightful," says Cellini. "She's hilarious, and she has a warmth that comes through in the broadcast, which viewers can really relate to."
Her shot at broadcasting may have come with a bit of "divine" intervention. While still working in production at The Golf Channel, she was asked to evaluate the golf swings of actresses auditioning for parts in Stroke of Genius, a film about golf legend Bobby Jones. Casting directors then selected her for the role of Alexa Stirling, a women's amateur champion in the early 1900s, opposite actor Jim Caviezel as Jones. Working with Caviezel, who had just wrapped up his portrayal of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, was a little daunting for the first-time actress. "I thought, 'I'm working with God!'
"But he was very supportive," Sparks says, adding that the experience likely prompted Golf Channel producers to audition her.
Television remains a learning experience for her--like a junior golfer playing against pros, she says. And, although she's improving with practice, "I still feel more comfortable putting in front of hundreds of people than I do standing in front of a camera," she says.
Still, the possibility of one day announcing tournaments she used to dream of playing intrigues her, especially with the recent growth in women's professional golf. Rising young players are "raising the competition level and the popularity to new levels," she says. "I see nothing but good things ahead for women's golf."
Stephanie Sparks '96
Galvanized by golf
October 1, 2006