It all started with an offhand remark, intended to be humorous more than anything else, but it changed Marie Santacroce’s life.
Santacroce disliked golf. She found it boring to watch. So, one day when she was 14, she joked to her father, John, who was playing a lot of golf at the time, that she was going to try out for the Mattituck High School boys golf team (Mattituck does not have a girls golf team). As Marie recalled, her father perked up upon hearing this and excitedly brought her into the backyard to practice shots with her.
“I’m the son he never had,” said Marie.
Marie Santacroce may not have realized it at the time, but that impromptu practice kick-started a promising playing career. All it took was the right swing, and Santacroce became hooked to the sport she used to disdain.
“I thought it was awesome right away,” she said. “Once I hit that shot exactly the way I wanted to, I fell in love with the game.”
Santacroce has remained a golf addict ever since. She made Mattituck’s junior varsity team as a freshman before being promoted to the varsity squad as a sophomore.
“I never saw such a dramatic improvement in a kid from her freshman year to her sophomore year,” said Mattituck’s former coach, Jim Underwood.
Santacroce and Morgan Gildersleeve were the only two female members of Mattituck’s “boys” team. In retrospect, practicing and playing against boys may have helped Santacroce’s game.
“I loved it,” she said. “Playing with the boys, it made me want to hit it farther, to help me keep up with them.”
The improvement continued. Santacroce was Mattituck’s No. 1 player for most of her senior season. She finished that season as the team’s most valuable player with a 39-stroke average for nine holes and became the only Mattituck girl to receive all-county recognition.
From there, Santacroce went where so many talented golfers go — to Florida. She brought her skills to St. Augustine, Fla., where she made quite an impact as a freshman for Flagler College, an NCAA Division II team.
Santacroce played in all 12 events that Flagler competed in this past season. She won one event, a dual match against Chicago State in which she carded a 3-over-par 75. She finished the season with two top-five and four top-10 finishes, not to mention a team-leading 80.1 stroke average per round. She set the record for lowest 18-hole round, a 69, in the Peach Belt Conference Tournament. This past April, she was selected by conference coaches as the conference’s freshman of the year, becoming the first Flagler athlete in any sport to receive such an honor.
But what Santacroce rates as her greatest golfing achievement came on July 31 when she won the Long Island Women’s Amateur Stroke Play Championship on the Bethpage State Park Red Course. She fired a 4-under-par 146, which was four strokes better than second-place Denise Martorana. Santacroce led the field by two strokes after shooting a 74 in the first round. The Mattituck woman topped it off with a 72 in the second and final round.
“My gosh, she’s just really taken off,” Underwood said. “Breaking 70 puts you in an elite class.”
Underwood said Santacroce is one of the top two golfers he has coached, Evan Martilotta being the other.
Santacroce, who is majoring in psychology at Flagler, may have the ideal temperament for a golfer. She said she is able to keep her emotions under control on the golf course. “It’s like a comfort zone for me,” she said. “I’m pretty good at keeping my emotions level in tournaments. I don’t get too excited when I’m playing well and I don’t get too down when I’m playing poorly.”
A good reason for that may be that Santacroce spends so much time on the golf course, practicing daily. “I love practicing,” she said. “I love playing. I love getting better.”
Flagler coach Santiago Cavanagh said: “There are players that say how much they work and there are players that show you how much they work. She is a player that shows you how much she works.”
As a late bloomer to golf, it wasn’t easy for Santacroce as a high school player to get the attention of college coaches. Cavanagh first saw Santacroce play in a tournament in St. Augustine the winter before her high school graduation. “He signed me right there at the tournament,” said Santacroce.
“All it took me to watch was just a couple of shots,” Cavanagh said. “I knew she was the real deal. The first thing that you see is her swing. She has a perfect swing out there, and she’s very consistent.”
Santacroce is a driven player. Part of the drive may be seeking perfection in a sport where there is no such a thing as perfection. There is always room for improvement.
“It’s weird about golf because it’s a sport that you can never master,” she said. “You can go out and shoot the best round in your life; then, if you think about it, you’re like, ‘That could have even been better.’ ”
Santacroce said she would like to qualify for next year’s U.S. Open, which will be played at the Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton. Beyond that, she said, she wants to play professionally.
Cavanagh believes Santacroce has what it takes to reach the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour.
“She has the game and the determination to take it all the way,” he said. “I have absolutely no doubt that she has the ability, she has the game, she has the desire. I’ll be surprised if she continues this way if she does not make it.”