Jan Dowling has a chip on her shoulder

Jan Dowling has a chip on her shoulder, and she loves wearing one – which may seem odd given her engaging personality. No, she isn’t an angry person – quite the opposite, in fact. Her chip, or should we say chips, result from often being the underdog and a steely determination to constantly prove herself and always give 100 percent. It serves the Bradford, Ontario native and current women’s golf coach at the University of Michigan just fine considering her Canadian Amateur title in 2000 and her coaching success at several stops.

This year, her eighth as Wolverine’s head coach, Jan Dowling, 40, led the squad to their fourth trip to the postseason with her at the helm. But you’d have to go back to her early days at Bradford Highlands to find the first flowerings of her steely determination and chip on her shoulder.

“I started in golf when my grandad bought our family golf clubs. He wanted to get us involved in lifelong sports like golf,” recalls Dowling. “I started playing at Bradford Highlands and worked in the back shop and the range – which took care of my membership. CPGA pro Laurie Buckland mentored me, and I would play 36 holes a day every day and practice from sunup to sundown. I fell in love with the game and would always have chipping and putting contests with the other juniors.

She soon hit the tournament trail, playing local and regional 36-hole events, eventually making her way into provincial and national events where she continued competing against Alena Sharp and Salimah Mussani, among others. Her underdog status kept that chip on her shoulder.

“We were friendly but so competitive. We all wanted to beat each other, and I wasn’t a big name like Alena so that made me even more determined,” she says. Her game and attitude impressed Kent State’s Mike Morrow enough for him to recruit her to the school’s nascent women’s golf program in 1998.

Under Morrow, Dowling’s game blossomed as she learned the intricacies of course management and how to score. In her four years with the Golden Flashes, she helped the team capture four consecutive Mid-American Conference titles and three straight NCAA Regional appearances while compiling five wins.

Despite her success, though, Jan Dowling had another chip on her shoulder at the 2000 Canadian Amateur.

“We were in Newfoundland and the weather was awful – lots of wind and rain,” she says. “I had been passed up for the national team and, yeah, had a chip on my shoulder, which I enjoy having. I like being an underdog because it motivated me then and it motivates me now.”

“I felt like if I won the Canadian Amateur, they would take a look at me and when I won, they did just that, so I got to play in the World Am. Fighting the conditions as much as the course, Dowling still remembers trudging down the damp fairways in the stinging rain and pulling off several clutch shots to capture the title, calling it an experience of a lifetime.”

She was no slouch in the classroom either, earning numerous academic awards to go with both the 2002 Women of the Year award and the Kent State Female Athlete of the Year award in her senior year.

Turning pro, Jan Dowling competed on the Futures (now Symetra) and Canadian Women’s Tour, honing her game for the LPGA Tour. Unfortunately, earning LPGA Tour status proved too formidable but she had a Plan B in place.

“Yes, it is tough making a living playing professional golf,” she acknowledged. “I moved down to Texas for the warmer weather, and I traveled around for three years. I planned to do a three-year deal, setting myself up financially for it – which I did do, but it was tough out there and playing my best and finishing top-15 wasn’t going to cut it.”

“Maybe if I could have invested 15 years of my life it might have happened, but I didn’t want that long haul without seeing better results a bit faster. It was a tough decision to stop but my backup plan was always to be a college golf coach because it would allow me to stay competitive in a sport I love and help other women achieve their dream.”

Hired as assistant coach at Kent State for the 2007-2008 season, Dowling spent two years with the Golden Flashes learning her craft – which, she says with a laugh – includes a lot of paperwork. She spent a year at Duke in the same role, helping the Blue Devils to a sixth at the NCAAs in 2009, before earning the head coach position at the University of Florida where she led the Gators to two NCAA appearances in three seasons. However, she soon realized she wasn’t happy, and it was time to move on.

“I enjoyed time at Florida but after three seasons, it was no longer the right fit for me and I left for some personal reasons,” she says. She landed at Tennessee as assistant coach the next year before jumping at the Michigan opportunity in 2013, calling it the perfect place for her and that motivational chip on her shoulder given it’s a northern school in a sport dominated by those in warmer climates.

“Michigan isn’t an underdog in football and basketball, but we are in golf because we can’t practice outside year-round like the schools down south. I love going down there in February and beating one of those schools – it’s very satisfying.”

Have a successful program in one sport and it’s expected across the board. And, at Michigan, it’s not just football and basketball teams that win NCAA titles.

“Our swimming and gymnastics teams just won NCAA titles so you can either be intimidated by that success or learn from the coaches what it takes to win a national title,” says Dowling. “It’s very motivating for me to see those teams and I want the same for the women’s golf program. I have world-class resources here to recruit the best golfers I can, and we’ve been able to recruit some top golfers.”

It’s clear Jan Dowling loves Michigan and not just the school. When she’s not coaching, attending meetings, filling out all that paperwork or setting the next motivational chip on her shoulder, she and her husband take full advantage of Michigan’s scenic wonders year-round to recharge their batteries. “My husband doesn’t golf, but we go for long hikes and bike rides, do lots of camping and spend a lot of time outdoors throughout the year. Michigan is beautiful.”

And if down the road, the University of Michigan is no longer the place to be? “I’ve put my heart and soul into this program and if they one day decide they want a change, I can honestly say I have given it my best here.”

John Berkovich
John Berkovich is a freelance writer and photographer who served as media director of the Canadian Tour from 2007 through 2009.

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