Michigan golf coach preps return to professional play after potentially career-ending injury

A back injury might have forced AJ Newell to retire from professional golf in 2020, but she hasn’t lost her competitive spirit.

The 29-year-old, who just completed her first season as an assistant coach for Michigan’s women’s golf team, will play in her first professional tournament in over two years when she tees it up at Travis Pointe Country Club June 16-18 for the EPSON Tour’s Ann Arbor’s Road to the LPGA powered by the A2 Sports Commission.

“I do miss competing,” Newell said after playing a practice round last week. “That’s a super-fun feeling for me. That’s what I’m most looking forward to for the tournament, those first-tee jitters again.”

The Florida native is grateful for the opportunity to return to professional golf in the city she now calls home, especially since she didn’t know if she would ever play competitively again after a second back surgery in the fall of 2020.

Newell played collegiately at Tennessee from 2011-15 before turning pro. She had status on the Epson Tour, the developmental circuit of the LPGA Tour that was previously called the Symetra Tour, from 2016-20 and also played on the LPGA Tour in 2018.

She always envisioned a lengthy playing career in the sport, but chronic back pain derailed those plans. Her first surgery came as a junior at Tennessee, but she was able to manage the pain with physical therapy and back injections for her first several years on tour.

Newell played one event in 2020 before COVID-19 put the tour’s schedule on pause. The shutdown gave her more time to practice and work on her game, but she reaggravated her injury. Once she started to lose feeling in her right leg and couldn’t move her toes because of nerve damage, she said she knew the pain couldn’t be remedied with physical therapy or infusions this time around.

In the fall of 2020, Newell underwent an anterior lumbar interbody fusion – a surgery approached from the abdomen to treat disc problems in the low back. She was not allowed to pick up a club for sixth months.

“The first 12 weeks, I could not bend or twist at all,” she said. “You got to stay completely upright while the bone starts to fuse, so I had like a little claw grabby thing and had to pick everything up with that. I slip on the couch for six weeks. You can’t like roll in the bed or anything.”

During a long, grueling recovery, Newell, who made 13 cuts and had three top-10 finishes in 35 career Symetra events, didn’t know if she would ever play another pro event, and she was content with that. She started teaching kids at her home course near Tampa, Florida before accepting her first coaching job at Michigan this past season (more on that later).

Coaching alongside head coach Jan Dowling and helping the Wolverines win their first Big Ten championship and earn a top-20 finish at the NCAA championships in Scottsdale, Arizona reigned Newell’s competitive fire.

“The thing I love the most about coaching is it gives me a way of one, to help people,” she said. “I feel like with my back surgeries, I could never practice as much as I wanted to so I had to practice smarter. I really found a lot of ways to get the most out of my golf game through strategy, course management, how to practice efficiently and effectively. I feel like with coaching, I can help them learn what it took me years to learn. But I also stay competitive by watching them play and competing as a team.”

Newell is still eligible to compete in events on tour, and with a tournament right in her backyard, she jumped at the opportunity. Newell said her game still isn’t back to where it was before her surgery, but just being a part of the 150-player field already feels like a victory.

“I’m mainly filled with a lot of gratitude, because there were some times throughout this where I wasn’t sure if I get to play golf again,” she said. “The fact that not only am I playing golf and I’m able to do that for fun, but I happen to have my status still and I get to tee it up.

“This may be my last event. I might try to play one more later in the year but it’s kind of like my last time and it feels like I’m closing the chapter, but I’m doing it on my own terms whereas before I felt like it was just taken away from me.”

Few are as excited to watch Newell compete as Dowling, who was an assistant coach at Tennessee during her sophomore season. Dowling said it was evident early on that Newell had the temperament to be a coach if she chose.

“I’ve been coaching long enough where certain players just stand out for their own unique reasons, but she stood out because she was very coachable, which typically means that they are passionate about the game and want to improve and get better,” Dowling told MLive. “But probably more so, she was very thoughtful in how she approached the game, her ownership of the game.” When a position on Dowling’s staff opened up last summer, she messaged her former player on Facebook to gauge her interest in the job.

Fortunately for Newell, she had just redownloaded Facebook on her phone that morning, and Dowling’s message piqued her interest. However, Newell and her fiancé, Dan Lavin, had just bought a home in Florida, and they were happy to be living close to family. But Lavin, a firefighter who will caddy for Newell for this month’s event at TPCC, encouraged her to pursue her coaching career.

Newell is elated she did. Not only did she discover her passion for coaching, but her role also expanded for about four events while Dowling was on maternity leave.

“When I came in the fall, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. This is super fun. I’m happy for this opportunity’” Newell said. “When I had those few months stepping into that role, it helped my goals become a little bit clearer. This is what I want to do. I loved coaching alongside Jan and am really committed to us building a great program here.”

Dowling said Newell was an integral part of Michigan’s success last season. Even if this is the last pro event for Newell, Dowling believes the experience will only enrich her coaching career.

“I think her playing experience was a big part of it,” Dowling said of Newell’s impact on the team. “She’s a fabulous anticipator, so she can kind of put herself in the shoes of the players. She’s young and can relate to our players really well because of her playing experience.

“This is only going to help AJ in her coaching career because the more you get away from playing competitive tournament golf, the more you’re apt to forget how hard it is. You don’t ever want to forget like the feeling you get of playing competitive golf. It’s nothing like just playing with your friends on a Friday or Saturday.”

Newell won’t be the only Wolverine in the field, either. Senior Ashley Lau, the program’s first first-team All-American, received an exemption to compete in the event. Tournament week begins with practice rounds June 13 and 14 before the pro-am June 15. Competition is June 16-8, and admission for fans is free.

“We are both pretty excited,” Newell said. “It is going to be a great opportunity for her. If anyone’s game is ready to compete at a professional level, it is absolutely Ashley. She is a fantastic player and a great girl. She is super fun to work with on the golf course. It is going to be fun to compete against her.”