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From being bullied to becoming a hero, Moore perseveres

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Haley Moore’s long and painful journey toward acceptance began, strangely enough, at a Cracker Barrel. It was there, in April 2013, that she ordered some bad mac and cheese, leading to a nasty stomach bug that threatened her unofficial visit the next day at the University of Arizona.

Only able to sip water, Haley soldiered on during another typically hot spring day in Tucson. Staggering through the student union, she was halfway through the coaches’ recruiting pitch when she turned white. She sprinted toward the nearest trash can, but it was too late.

In the middle of the food court, in front of hundreds of students, she threw up in the garbage ... and on the floor ... and on her shirt, too, for good measure. 

“A bit of a puke disaster,” Haley says now, sheepishly.

It could have been another humiliating moment in a childhood full of them, another reason to wonder if she’d ever fit in. Just 14 at the time, Haley’s bullies had been unsparing both in school and in sports. She was teased by classmates because of her size, and then she was ostracized by jealous peers on the course because of her prodigious talent. After so much cruelty for so many years, Haley had grown shy and insecure – and now this, at what she hoped would someday become her new home.

Sensing the impending doom, Arizona coach Laura Ianello calmly asked one of the cashiers for a wet rag and then guided Haley into the bathroom. In some ways Ianello could relate to the prized recruit, having once weighed 205 pounds as a high schooler, but she knew only to a limited extent the torment that Haley had endured during her teenage years.

“People haven’t been nice to her,” Ianello says. “It’s like there’s some vendetta against Haley Moore.”

But this would become a safe space. Ianello would make sure of it. She cleaned her up. She calmed her down. And by the time Haley emerged from the bathroom, her shirt was soaked, but she was smiling.

“I knew right then and there that I didn’t have anything to worry about,” says her mother, Michele. “I knew that Haley was in good hands.”

* * *

SIX YEARS LATER, HALEY Moore is an NCAA legend, an invitee to this week’s inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, a graduating senior who expects to enjoy a long and fruitful pro career. But during that initial trip to Tucson, her family had its reasons for wanting – no, needing – Haley to be handled delicately. Her life hadn’t been as easy as her scores made it seem.

Hers was a classic case of teenage bullying: Since Haley was bigger than kids her age and socially awkward, her classmates stared and gossiped about her. She was always one of the last kids picked in gym class. She steered clear of extracurricular activities. Lunchtime was a necessary evil. “They’d say that I was fat and I was ugly, and I’d go sit down at a table at the end, and right when I’d sit down, they’d get up,” she says. “And I’d just be like, OK, whatever.”

In sixth grade, a group of students stole her backpack, filled it with water and tossed it into the boys’ bathroom. Everything was ruined – her bag, her notes, her new Justin Bieber book. Haley was mortified, but the bullies weren’t punished. A hard lesson instilled early.

“We just told her that she has to be the bigger person,” says Michele Moore (pictured above with Haley). “She was a big girl and she probably could have beat the crap out of the kids, but we told her not to do that. She had to turn the other cheek.”

At least Haley always had golf, even if the course wasn’t an escape. Built like Laura Davies, she developed quickly and became a prolific winner in Southern California. Towering over her competition at nearly 6 feet tall, she routinely boomed drives 100 yards past her playing partners and displayed a soft touch around the greens. “She was like something I’d never seen before,” Ianello says. “She overpowered everyone.”

But that domination came at a cost. With her peers awed and envious, they tried to tear her down. Other parents whispered that officials needed to check Haley’s birth certificate. In tournaments, hawk-eyed players in her group would be rude or accuse her of cheating in an attempt to get her disqualified. Their tactics never worked, but the sentiment persisted: Even in victory, Haley was an outcast.

“My parents told me that some kids were dumb, and not to listen to them, because they may not be going as far in life,” she says. “You can’t let bad people pull you down in the wrong direction.”

Though she shrugged off the cruelty, Haley’s vulnerability was on display for a nationwide audience at the 2015 ANA Inspiration, where she competed as a 16-year-old. Safely inside the cut line, she bogeyed four of her last five holes and showed an emotional fragility that was difficult to watch. After surviving the cut by one, she still seemed frazzled by her shaky finish during a teary interview off the 18th green. Athletic achievement didn’t bring salvation.

“Haley’s biggest demon is herself – her self-value, her confidence,” Ianello says. “She’s so hard on herself because her life has been hard. People have been hard on her.”

Still, Haley’s immense talent was undeniable, and she eventually climbed to fifth in her recruiting class. Her embarrassing episode in the student union only strengthened her commitment to Arizona, and she was so eager to start – especially with older brother Tyler on the men’s team – that she took seven classes during her final semester to graduate early from high school. She enrolled in the spring of 2016, at age 17.

Looking back, the warning signs were everywhere.

“She wasn’t ready,” Ianello says.

* * *

MAKE NO MISTAKE: HER golf was ready for the big stage. Entering the spring, Arizona had national-championship aspirations, but within a few weeks on campus, Haley leapfrogged her more seasoned teammates and earned a spot in the star-studded lineup. She went on to post three top-10 finishes in seven starts, including a tie for second at the 2016 NCAA Championship.

“There was some jealousy because she came in and took a spot away,” Tyler says. “She made a statement like, Look, I’m here. I’m ready to go. Come at me.”

Sure, there was some resentment about her quick insertion into the lineup, but that’s not what led to another wave of psychological bullying. Haley was 17 and immature, lacking the life skills of the team’s upperclassmen and creating a massive gulf. She didn’t know how to do laundry. She didn’t know how to cook. She didn’t know how to shop or budget her time or fend for herself. Her life in crisis, she lost 35 pounds that first semester.

On the course she proved just as combustible, prone to wild mood swings and big numbers and post-round breakdowns. Her mercurial temperament baffled older teammates who were preparing for either pro careers or the real world. Opponents pounced on the team’s weak link, disparaging her behind her back. 

Desperately seeking a deeper connection, Haley instead became painfully isolated.

“In Haley’s world, golf is everything,” Ianello says. “Golf has allowed her to fit in. It has helped her form friendships. And so, as a coach, I see a lot of negativity and self-doubt. You can see in her mind the world is crumbling because golf’s not going well that day, and it’s her everything. That’s why she’s so emotional – because it does mean that much.”

But over the past two years, her parents and teammates began to notice a shift. It started when Tyler transferred to UC Riverside midway through his sophomore season. They’d been inseparable to that point, even living in the same dorm, a floor apart. They’d eat together and watch TV together and sit together in one of the first two rows at basketball games as part of the ZonaZoo. But when Tyler decided to leave school, Haley had no choice but to discover her independence. Making the 6-hour drive home by herself, sticking to a training regimen, getting glammed up with the girls – they were little things that signified a big change.

“Me leaving may have been a blessing in disguise,” says Tyler (pictured below). “She’s really come out of her shell, because she’s had to.”

On Christmas Day in 2017, senior Krystal Quihuis texted Ianello that she was turning pro, a move that devastated the team and seemingly torpedoed its chances for an NCAA title. But in that void stepped Yu-Sang Hou, a 5-foot-nothing early enrollee from Taiwan. They were an unlikely pair, Hou and Moore, but they immediately hit it off – at last, someone who was kind, generous and open-minded toward her.

“It opened the eyes of the other ladies,” Ianello says, “that they didn’t need to be so mean and unaccepting.”

The coaches organized a team-bonding retreat to begin the spring season. The get-together had nothing to do with golf – they did trust exercises blindfolded and acted out skits and compiled Oprah-inspired vision boards. They created “The Great Eight” T-shirts, with a slogan printed on the back: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. At night they talked about everything: their passions, if they wanted to have a family, what their childhoods were like. Haley never mentioned all of the times she was bullied, all of the times she felt helplessly alone, and, frankly, she didn’t have to. Some of her teammates had already seen the mean-girl act up-close.

“The golf team," Ianello says, "is a safe space that she’s longed for her whole life."

Showing a lightness that had been missing all season, the Wildcats won twice in the spring and surged into the postseason, where they advanced all the way to the televised championship match against Alabama.

The teams split the first four points, so Arizona’s title hopes came down to the anchor match, to the player Ianello sent out last because she had the most primetime experience, because she could handle the pressure, because she cared most intensely for her teammates.

Haley Moore.

* * *

IT WAS THE DREAM scenario she’d always wanted – final pairing, NCAA title on the line – and yet Haley looked like she was on the verge of another breakdown.

In control early, she lost three holes in a row to start the back nine. Just like that, she was 1 down, the match was getting away from her, and she was starting to panic.

“My teammates could see that I was pretty nervous,” she says, “but when I walked past them, they would just be like, It’s OK. It’s OK. You’ve got this. We’re here for you no matter what happens.”

That unconditional support touched her, especially after a trying few years. “To have friends like that, it’s truly special,” she says. “They’re going to be my friends forever. I wanted to do it for them.”

Haley fought back to push the match into extras and then played a perfect 19th hole: A smashed drive, an approach up the left side, a pitch to 4 feet for birdie.

Arizona assistant coach Derek Radley knelt at the back of the green, his eyes welling, the travails of Haley’s career rushing back to him. “I just knew that she was going to make it,” he says. “It was just meant to be.”

He looked up in time to see Haley jumping up and down, shrieking with joy, getting mobbed by teammates.

The hero.

Off to the side of the green stood Michele Moore, her hands on her head, mouthing, I don’t believe it.

In a quiet moment afterward, once the shock wore off, she pulled her daughter close.

“Haley,” she said, “they’ll never be able to take away what you did.”

* * *

ON THE BORDER IS a must-stop each time Haley comes home, but the dining experience is a bit different now that she’s a local celebrity.

“People will be sitting at the bar and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I know you. You were the girl who was on TV,’” Michele says. “She does her shy little smile, but she loves it.”

No one would have blamed Haley if she popped off on social media about her newfound status, or if she strolled through the hallways of San Pasqual High School, flashing her NCAA Championship ring and flaunting her invitation to Augusta as one of the top women amateurs in the world. She instead prefers the quiet satisfaction of a well-executed plan.

“I think that always motivated her a little to say, OK, I want to prove these people wrong,” Tyler says. “And now she’s done that, far beyond what she’s wanted to.”

Arizona Wildcats, 2018 NCAA Division I women's national champions

A month from graduation, Haley is far from a finished product. She’ll turn pro soon, at age 20, and that creates its own challenges. She’ll be removed from the sheltered cocoon of college golf, away from the friends that have grown to love and accept her. Golf at the elite level is cutthroat; she’ll need to have the right support system around her, to remind her that her golf score isn’t her value, or the cycle of bullying could continue.

Ianello worries about all of her players after graduation, but especially Haley. “Not many people in this world are polite and kind and accepting,” she says, “and if she earns her LPGA card next year, I could see the women out there not being so accepting. I really hope they will be. But I don’t know.”

Whatever happens at the next level, Haley’s family, teammates and coaches have been encouraged by her emotional development. They’ve been heartened by her selflessness. And they’ve been inspired by her resilience, how the nastiness never dragged her into a dark place.

“She doesn’t have this hurt in her heart,” Ianello says. “She doesn’t look back. She doesn’t harbor any ill feelings. She’s not sad. She accepts herself for who she is now.”

And who is that, exactly?

“A college golf star who’s graduating with a college degree and going to be on the LPGA one day,” Haley says proudly.

“I stuck with my plan and look at where I am now.”