When Tracy Hanson was in second grade, her family moved to a public nine-hole golf course in Northern Idaho. She first picked up a club at age eight and was competing in tournaments by the time she was 10. It didn’t take long for the athlete to discover that golf was a “mixture of enjoying athletic movement, sport and developing a competitive spirit”—and a way to perform to meet other people’s expectations. Growing up in rural Idaho in the 1980s, Hanson grew accustomed to being one of few girls competing in the sport. By the time she found a place on San Jose State’s women’s golf team in 1989, her relationship with golf had become a complicated mixture of competitive drive, fear of failure and personal trauma. She survived sexual abuse while competing in high school—an experience that simultaneously haunted her for years and pushed her to perform at her highest level possible.
“Golf was a place to hide what was really happening inside of me,” says Hanson, ’93 Kinesiology. “I feel like I did not reach my fullest potential as a professional golfer because I was playing out of this place of performance acceptance with a lot of stress and anxiety attached to it, rather than experiencing joy in the process of excellence and competition.”
Despite her internal struggles, Hanson’s dedication to golf resulted in an impressive record, both at San Jose State and professionally. It wasn’t until her sophomore year, when she won her first individual tournament in Japan, that she realized just how far her talent and hard work could take her.
“It was such an unexpected experience,” she says. “Sometimes when you play, you don’t think that you’re ready to win. This was a catalyst moment where I realized I was good enough to be here, good enough to play on this team, and good enough to play on the national level.”
Embedded within Hanson’s success as a professional athlete is a deeply personal journey of survival, a search for acceptance that begins with processing the unjust and at times criminal ways that woman athletes have been treated.
“Sexual abuse is part of my story,” she says. “I was harmed as a high school athlete. I never named it as such until I had help looking at it with honesty. It took me 20 years to finally get to a place where I could think about it, and then I had people come alongside me to help me start talking about it.”
By moving from small town Idaho to the large metropolitan city of San Jose, Hanson put thousands of miles between her trauma and her future. The physical distance could not replace real healing, though; instead she channeled her energy into training and competition. This hard work resulted in a series of major accomplishments, from becoming a four-time All-American and a three-time Academic All-American golfer to winning 11 individual tournaments. Under the guidance of Coach Mark Gale and then-Assistant Coach Dana Dormann, ’90 Finance, Hanson was a member of the 1992 NCAA championship team, won a USGA Public Links championship and earned low amateur honors at the USGA Women’s Open. She played 15 successful seasons on the LPGA Tour, but it took many years for Hanson to come to terms with the abuse that she had survived as a young athlete.
In 2009, Hanson retired from the LPGA Tour. Two years after stepping away from the sport, the source of her performance anxiety, she began processing the trauma she’d endured as a high school athlete. Life as a professional athlete was taxing; she rarely had days off and lived nomadically, following tournaments and sometimes sacrificing personal relationships. Fueled by her Christian faith and personal recovery work, Hanson decided to make golf her own ministry. She founded The Tracy Hanson Initiative, which is dedicated to creating “spaces where athletes can feel safe to talk about what’s happened to them or what they are experiencing.”
“Sometimes athletes feel that they have to put up with abuse because they feel that they can’t defy the coach, or they are afraid of ruining what their team has going on,” she says. “I believe that there needs to be more and more awareness of abuse in sport, and we need to create opportunities where athletes, especially women, can talk in a safe place about where they’ve been harmed.”
Since 2015, Hanson has met with a number of athletes who have coped with eating disorders, self-harm, date rape, verbal and physical abuse. She says that these issues affect both men and women—and that everyone has a right to enjoy sport without being subjected to abuse. By owning her personal experience and evaluating the reasons why she competes, Hanson felt ready to re-enter the professional golf world in 2017, after an eight-year hiatus. Now a member of the Legends Tour, which features many Spartan golfers, including Dormann, Patty Sheehan, ’80 Kinesiology, and Juli Inkster, Hanson feels that her ministry and personal reflection have improved her relationship to the sport. She has been inducted into the SJSU Sports Hall of Fame twice —in 2000 as an individual and in 2011 as a member of the ’92 NCAA championship team—and is now focused on creating healthy outlets for young athletes.
“I’ve been on a journey of personal recovery and healing for the last seven years that has brought me back to the sport,” she says. “Golf is a part of my life and I have this talent that I can use for something more than just my personal gain. My longtime golf instructor, Randy Henry, always told me that golf is just a means to something bigger. I am now living into this truth and using golf as a tool to make a positive impact.”