Between the grizzly bears, 70 mph wind gusts and a certain ball-stealing fox, Montana is among the wilder places to golf.
For former standout Montana high school, college and amateur circuit standout Rose Stepanek, unexpected wildlife and unforgiving weather conditions are just part of life -- mere obstacles she learned to play through while growing up in Billings.
Rose Stepanek finished second at the 2009 and 2010 Montana State Women's Amateur Golf Tournament. Photo courtesy of Billings Gazette
Early on, Stepanek realized that no matter where she hit her ball -- in the sand, water or fox’s den -- it was always up to her to take next shot. And while golf has been valuable in shaping her as a person, it’s also been a conduit for relationships with those around her.
Years before scheduling her college years around a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I golf career at the University of Montana, Stepanek took her first swing as a 10-year-old looking to spend more time with her father. Jon Stepanek said his career as a newscaster demanded much of his time and energy, but he made a point to reserve time for his three children. Often, that meant a round of golf at Briarwood Country Club.
The KTVQ TV News Director said there was no better way to spend time with his daughter than an afternoon walk on the course, even after she started beating him.
“She was still in high school the first time,” said Jon, who has about an 8 handicap. “I love to compete, but I don’t think I could’ve been happier that day. I don’t have any problem with her beating me in golf, and I won’t for a long time. I’ve accepted that I might never beat her again.”
Rose joined a local junior circuit, played weekly tournaments and developed a competitive nature that would carry her into a four-sport high school athletic career. She saw herself as a basketball player early on, but during her sophomore year she realized golf held a more promising future.
“I couldn’t sit still for a whole a season,” she said. “I was playing tennis and track in the spring just for something to do. But by junior year I was way more focused on golf. My rebounding stats senior year show that I wasn’t as focused on basketball.”
There was something about the continual process of improving her golf game that allured her. That, and the picturesque courses in and around Billings. Between the wildlife on the fairways and mountains in the background, Stepanek claims golfing in Montana is like sightseeing with a bag full of clubs.
I was playing tennis and track in the spring just for something to do.
Seeing deer, turkey and the occasional bear is normal for Montana golfers, but the Canyon River Golf Club in Missoula is famous for its rather interactive resident.
“Canyon is famous for the ‘Fox Hole,’ ” Jon Stepanek said regarding the course's 18th hole. “We even did a news story on it, a profile story on the fox that will come steal your ball from the fairway and bring it back to its den.”
As Stepanek admired the scenery and wildlife (even that fox, which, luckily for Stepanek, has never nabbed her ball), young golf enthusiast and aspiring varsity player Kyla Clancy and her older brother Eamon were admiring her as their families travelled together for high school golf tournaments. Eamon, a member of the varsity boys’ golf team, developed a not-so-secret crush on his Billings Catholic Central teammate, and he made her a mixtape of songs they’d listened to while traveling to tournaments.
“I knew he had a crush on me -- it just wasn’t meant to be,” Stepanek chuckled. “The CD had all sorts of random stuff we were listening to back then: The Fray, songs from ‘Cruel Intentions,’ Bittersweet Symphony.”
As the lone girl in a family with three boys, Kyra developed a competitive side growing up, and she was around when Rose showed hers as a freshman in 2002 after the Rams won the state Class A title in “dramatic” fashion.
“Rose ran into the bathroom and starting crying because she thought the team had lost by a stroke,” Clancy said. “I went in to ask what was wrong, and she told me she thought she lost. But then someone came in and said ‘Hey, you actually won by a stroke.’ ”
Name: Rose Stepanek | Age: 27
Resides in: St. Louis Park, Minn.
Family: Jon (dad), Madonna (mom), Paul (brother, 25), Claire (sister, 19).
Job: Enterprise Division Project Manager at Sport Ngin.
Interests: Golf, concerts, traveling, spending time with friends and family, sports in general (watching football, baseball and golf).
Stepanek grew up in Billings, Montana and was a four-sport athlete (golf, tennis, track and basketball) at Billings Central Catholic High School. She helped the Rams win the state Class A girls' golf championship in 2002 as a freshman, recording the team's third lowest score. She finished third overall at the state Class A tournament as a senior in 2005. Stepanek spurned numerous Division II scholarship offers before signing on to play Division I golf at the University of Montana. She shot a career-best 70 (the third-lowest round in school history) for the Lady Grizzlies in 2011 at the Wyoming Cowgirl Classic. Stepanek studied broadcast journalism at the University of Montana with the intention of following in her father, Jon's, career footsteps. He is the New Director at KTVQ TV in Billings. Stepanek spent one season as the girls' golf coach at Billings Central Catholic then moved to the Twin Cities in 2012 for a radio production internship with the Minnesota Twins. She took a registration consultant position with Sport Ngin in 2012 and now works with her younger brother, Paul, who joined the company in May of 2014.
2002: Playing varsity as a freshman, had rounds of 98 and 106 for a two-day total of 204 (third best on the team) to help Billings Catholic Central win the state Class A championship at Marias Valley Golf and Country Club in Shelby.
2005: Placed third in Montana's state Class A golf tournament at Whitefish Lake Golf Club, finishing two strokes out of a playoff for the individual title.
2006: Won the Montana All-Star Invitational, a tournament for the state's top high school players held annually at Valley View Golf Course in Bozeman, by four strokes.
2009: Won the women's Fourth of July tournament at Whitefish Lake Golf Club by six strokes.
2009: Won the Don Barnett Memorial Golf Tournament in Missoula by 18 strokes.
2009: Lost the Montana Women's State Am at The Ranch Club in Missoula in a sudden-death playoff to Joanne Steele, who was Stepanek's coach at the University of Montana at the time.
2010: Lost the State Am at Valley View Golf Course by one stroke to Darah Newell after missing a five-foot par putt on the final hole.
2011: Shot a personal-best 70 (the third lowest single-round score in school history) to lead the University of Montana to a school-record round of 288 in the final 18 holes of the Wyoming Cowgirl Classic.
2015: Won Sport Ngin's annual golf outing at Brookview Golf Course in Golden Valley, Minnesota, by beating three co-workers in a sudden-death playoff.
Billings, Montana, native Rose Stepanek played three years at the University of Montana. Courtesy photo by Linda Thompson, The Missoulian
As she neared the end of her high school career, Stepanek received Division II scholarship offers from Montana State University, Montana State University-Billings and colleges in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Hawaii. However, she held out for a Division I offer because she wanted to push herself against tougher competition.
“We talked about the giant commitment you have to make when you go to college and play,” her father recalled. “Their time on the course is hours on end, and I wanted her to realize that it would be her life. Smaller schools would have given her offers right away, but she held out for Division I, and that showed her tenacity.”
Stepanek joined the University of Montana in 2006 as a redshirt freshman, and she earned a spot on the team as a sophomore. She majored in journalism, hoping to follow her father’s path as a sports broadcaster, but she found herself tethered to a strenuous golf schedule.
For four years Stepanek was in the gym at 5:30 a.m., in class from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on the course from 2 to 7 p.m. She spent the leftover time catching up with homework and sleep after weekends travelling for tournaments.
She carved out time to pursue a journalism career by interning as a sports reporter at KTVQ and working on news stories and for her college courses. She also became more involved in the Montana amateur golf circuit, gaining a reputation she only recently is beginning to shake.
“I was known for taking second in tournaments.”
“I was known for taking second in tournaments,” she said. “In Montana there’s three bigger tournaments – the Memorial Tournament in Missoula, the Whitefish Fourth of July tournament and the State Am. I would win the first two or first one then finish second in the State Am.”
After finishing second behind her college coach, Joanne Steel, in 2009, Stepanek relinquished a two-stroke lead in 2010 after missing several crucial putts in the final three holes. The winner, Darah Newell, birdied the final hole to finish one stroke ahead of Stepanek.
“When I congratulated her after the round, she said, ‘I wish we would have gone to playoff,’ ” Stepanek said. “Neither of us wanted it to end that way, but I held it together as much as I could on the course, then lost it when I got in my car.”
Stepanek proved she should never be counted out of a round with her final of the 2010 South Florida Invitational. Heading into her final hole, the 11th at Waterlefe Golf & River Club in Bradenton, Florida, she was on pace to shoot above 80. However, her tee shot, a perfectly struck 4-iron, traveled 176 yards, bounced once, rolled a few feet and fell in the cup for her first and only hole-in-one.
“I wasn’t playing my best that day, and I was thinking ‘OK, let’s get a par and get this over with,’ ” she said about her third-round 79. “I got to finish a bad round on a high note, and it was super fun to watch.”
Rose Stepanek has gone from an entry level position at Sport Ngin in 2012 to Project Manager for the Enterprise Division. Photo by Loren Nelson
In 2011, Stepanek and her teammates recorded a combined 288, the the lowest one-round total in school history, at the Wyoming Cowgirl Classic. Stepanek’s 70 was the lowest score of the round.
Stepanek believes the years playing competitive golf taught her to depend on herself to get through tough times -- just like hitting out of a bunker.
“When you’re out there, it’s just you,” she said. “No one can fix your shot or hit it for you, and that translates to life in general. There’s times when you screw up and things don’t go your way, but you have to find a way to get through them.”
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After college she continued interning at her father’s TV station and, after hearing her former high school was without a golf coach, stepped in as the Billings Central Catholic High School girl’s golf coach, where she reunited with a familiar face.
Clancy was showing college-level talent in her senior year and was delighted to have Stepanek as her coach and mentor. The recently graduated Stepanek hadn’t planned on coaching, but she knew exactly what Clancy needed to take the next step and felt obligated to step in. With some extra one-on-one work and a phone call to coach Steele, Stepanek helped her pupil land a scholarship at the University of Montana.
“Most high school players spend a lot of time on the range, but my practices were different,” Clancy said. “I spent a little time on the range, but more on short game, putting and especially routine.”
Stepanek helped the senior develop a pre-shot routine for each shot – drives, wedge shots, chips and putts – putting her on the fast-track to be a Division I-level player. They also created swing tapes – similar to recruiting tapes used by football and basketball players – to give college recruiters an idea of where Clancy’s game was at.
Stepanek also warned Clancy about the commitment that goes with being a college athlete, even if the youngster wasn’t ready to believe it.
“Me being a high schooler, I was thinking, ‘It can’t be that bad, I already practice every day,’ ” Clancy said. “But sure enough, the NCAA was way more intense. One thing Rose told me is it makes you become an adult because you have to manage your time to an extreme. You really have to plan out your weeks and stick to it. It’s seriously hour by hour.”
I didn’t want to have to worry about my hair or makeup -- I’m a little more laid back than that."
After a year with the Lady Grizzlies, Clancy transferred to Rocky Mountain College in Billings where she was named second-team NAIA all-American in 2015. And although she rarely sees her former coach, Clancy still carries a piece of Stepanek’s instruction in her pre-shot routines.
Stepanek said she enjoyed her time coaching and could see herself returning to it in the future, but she knew that she wanted to leave Montana and pursue a life in the Twin Cities, where she has relatives and had visited often before moving there. She also decided that after three years as a broadcast journalist, she felt it was time to look for positions behind the camera.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of getting ready every day,” she chuckled. “I didn’t want to have to worry about my hair or makeup -- I’m a little more laid back than that. I tried it through college and a little after, but that was enough.”
In 2012, Stepanek moved to Minneapolis to pursue a radio production internship with the Minnesota Twins. She connected with Carson Kipfer, co-founder of Sport Ngin, who encouraged her to apply at the budding youth sports technology company. She took his advice and landed a registration consultant position in 2012. She eventually worked her way up to her current position as Project Coordinator for the Enterprise Division.
“Just like golf, you have good days and bad days at work,” Stepanek said. “For some clients, it seems like there’s just no way to help. It might seem like we don’t have a solution or technology that’s right for them, but it’s one of those things you have to keep moving through -- just hit your shot and keep moving with it.”
Her mindset is especially effective during the annual Sport Ngin golf outing. Stepanek is always near the top of the leaderboard and won the most recent event in a playoff.
“It was fun to beat up on some guys,” she laughed. “I just won the chapter championship at the Executive Women’s Golf Association, too, so I think the second place curse is wearing off.”
Paul Stepanek, left, joined his older sister Rose at Sport Ngin in 2014 and the pair occasionally work on projects together. Photo by Loren Nelson
Stepanek’s most recent promotion opened a spot at Sport Ngin for her younger brother, Paul, who confidently claims he can beat his sister in 18 holes -- of mini-putt. According to their father, none of the Stepanek children wanted to be like the other ones. Paul was more interested in computers, and their little sister, Claire, found a passion in music.
“(Rose and I) are close in age, so we had sort of a yin and yang thing going on when we were younger,” Paul said. “We only ever got in one physical fight when we were 3 and 5. I actually kicked her tooth out, but it turned out to be infected anyway – so she’s welcome.”
Paul claims that while he is still adjusting to life without cows and mountains, Rose is thriving in the fast-paced city life. The two work in separate departments, but they successfully combined their dichotomous personalities to collaborate on the Swimjitsu project (Rose was the Project Manager and Paul handled most of the Registration setup for the uniquely designed USA Swimming site).
“That project wasn’t even that urgent, but she’s always the first one to jump on the ball,” Paul said. “But that’s Rose. She never delegates work because she’s always there to make the first move.”