By BRETT MARSHALL
It would seem that life, and the sport of golf, are intertwined in more ways than one for Syracuse's Meghan Houtsma.
Houtsma's life, with years of golf behind her, has come full circle.
Now 33, the mother of two young children in Syracuse and the staff attorney for her husband Jay's dairy business (Syracuse Dairy, LLC), Houtsma will be honored Friday night, when she is one of five former athletes to be inducted into the Baker University Hall of Fame.
The induction ceremony will take place at the DoubleTree by Hilton Kansas City-Overland Park hotel.
Houtsma, who starred at Syracuse High School in the late 1990s as Meghan Lewis, and then went on to national honors at Baker, will break new ground as the latest inductee into the Baker Hall of Fame.
She is the first women's golfer to be inducted, and in a note of irony, she also was the first recruit to the Lady Wildcats golf program when she graduated from Syracuse in 1998 after a stellar prep career. She led her team to its first appearance at the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) golf championship her sophomore season, while also earning All-America honors three times, including an NAIA individual runner-up finish in 2000.
"It's very exciting and it's a huge honor," Houtsma said Tuesday in an interview with The Telegram. "It's one that I wasn't really expecting, mainly because of my age. Maybe in a few years, I would have wondered about it. When the next person is in their mid-50s and the others are in their 70s and 80s, it was a little bit of a surprise. But, again, it's a very great honor. I'm happy that all of my hard work, because it was a lot of hard work, that it has paid off in this way."
Consistently one of the top high school players throughout her final three years at Syracuse, Houtsma (then Lewis) placed eighth in the Class 4-3-2-1A state tournament as a junior in 1996, and then took second in 1997, finishing second to Larned's Jacque Underwood, who shot a 73 to Houtsma's 78. Two years later, Underwood would provide another disappointment when Meghan's younger sister, Libby, finished one stroke behind Underwood in the same state tournament at Southwind Country Club.
"Some disappointment in that, but in all honesty, my 78 was one of my good scores and I couldn't compete with the 73," Houtsma said of her high school competition.
But the foundation that was laid with her golf game by her father, Dr. William J. Lewis, a dentist in Syracuse, and her high school coach, Rick Mathias, carried her on to a stellar career at Baker, and in the NAIA national tournament.
"She was a grinder and she was meticulous in her approach to the game," Mathias said of one of his prized pupils. "She would weigh her options, make the best decision she could. She was as focused a person as I've met. She'd do homework all the way to a tournament, close the books 15 minutes before we got there, and then she'd do homework all the way home. She would break a course down, and I think it was kind of her nature. She had a great golf swing and I can remember it took no time to fix it. It's repeatable and probably the best swing I've worked with."
In her freshman season at Baker, Houtsma placed 32nd despite an opening 97 her freshman year at the national tourney. She followed that high opening round with a then tournament-record 73 that led to her solid finish.
It set the stage for her sophomore year, which she considers to be her best, when she shot rounds of 79-77-77--235 and missed the individual title by two shots in leading the Lady Wildcats to an eighth-place finish.
"My sophomore year, it all came together," Houtsma said of the three times she was named an NAIA All-American.
Still, she managed to place 12th and 10th those final two seasons. She placed either first or second more than 20 times, while also claiming three conference and regional individual titles.
Just two weeks ago, Houtsma competed in her first individual event since her college days, selected as one of three women to represent Kansas in the USGA Women's State Team Championship at the NCR Country Club in Ohio.
"My game hasn't completely fallen apart, but I couldn't compete with the top people at that tournament," Houtsma said. "It will definitely be one of my better (golf) memories."
With sons Alexander, 4, and Ethan, 2, competitive golf has been placed on the back burner for Houtsma. Her husband, Jay, also is an accomplished golfer, having won the Garden City Men's City Championship in 2011. It was her father who introduced her to Jay when she was still in high school.
"They were good friends and played a lot of golf together," Meghan recalled of meeting her future husband. "We'd all go out and play, and then when I was in school, they'd both come back and we'd go play golf at several courses. We didn't start dating until I was in college."
Following her 2002 graduation from Baker, earning a degree in business with an emphasis in management and a minor in mass communications, Houtsma opted for law school in Topeka at Washburn.
"My undergraduate degrees were a code word for 'I have no idea what I want to do with my life,' and so I liked school and just decided to try law school," Houtsma said, smiling.
Her May 2005 graduation from law school was quickly followed later that summer with her marriage to Jay. He has two children from a first marriage — Juliana, 22, and Nic, 19. So family plays a big role in her day-to-day life.
"I enjoyed getting back out there and practicing, but there were things I had to sacrifice that I didn't like," Houtsma said of preparing for the USGA event. "I didn't get to do some things with my kids because I felt I had to go to the course to practice, and I really didn't like that feeling."
It seems like a long way for Houtsma and how golf has influenced her life.
Her father introduced her to the game at about the age of 5, when her parents, including mother Marsha, and her siblings traveled the few miles west of town to play at the old Syracuse Country Club, a 9-hole layout that had flat greens and buffalo grass fairways. At the USGA event, Houtsma could enjoy competing on a course that was blessed with plush fairways and speedy and undulating greens.
She credits her father, whom she insists has one of the best short games (chipping, putting) she has seen, for understanding the mental side of the game. She credits Mathias for much of her swing's success, and says each played a big role in her accomplishments.
"That first summer before high school, I think my dad was tired of my sister and I hanging around the house without a job," Houtsma said. "So there wasn't going to be anymore of that. He took us to the old course at 7:30 a.m., dropped us off, and then picked us up at about 12:30 or 1 p.m. Before, golf wasn't something that I wanted to practice all the time. I didn't have that drive. But every year, I just became more motivated and wanted to play well."
By her junior year at Syracuse, the new Tamarisk Golf Course had been constructed and opened for play. That was the final piece of the puzzle for Houtsma becoming an even better player.
"The new course had a really good range and putting green, and I spent a lot of time on both. Tamarisk, I think, helped me immensely. There, you have to hit the ball straight. I didn't have a choice."
And as she returns to her more normal family routine, Houtsma can reflect on what the game has meant to her.
"I believe it teaches you the character of a person — either the people who you are playing with, or about yourself," Houtsma said. "As far as the rules of the game go, it's whether or not the kind of person will follow the rules or apply to them."
Houtsma recalled an incident at the national tournament while at Baker in which her ball was resting on pine straw under a tree. Addressing the ball, she caused it to move.
"Penalty stroke, which I called on myself," she said. "I was the only person there. Nobody else would have known. That's something I'm proud of, that I would do that. So it teaches you a lot of character. Day-to-day, it teaches perseverance and dedication."
So when she is introduced and becomes the first woman golfer Hall of Fame inductee at Baker, Houtsma will again be breaking new ground.