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THE GRIND: Forsyth Central's Hannah Walker goes from gymnastics to basketball to golf
Grind Hannah 7 042016 web

Almost three years ago, Spencer Sappington was walking past the driving range at Crystal Falls Country Club in Dawsonville on a July afternoon when he heard a crack. The 2008 inductee into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame can explain that the sound is the golf ball compressing from the forceful impact of the club. The ball doesn’t actually crack, of course, but the sound creates the allusion that it does, and it’s a rare sound to hear, the 74-year-old says, the sign of a smooth and true golf swing.

His interested peaked, Sappington looked up at the golfers on the range to see mostly little girls and a few old men. None seemed an obvious source of the sound. “I must have heard something,” he thought.

Then he heard it again. Determined to find the source, Sappington followed the sound until he was standing behind Hannah Walker.

“I could see there was a lot of talent,” Sappington said.

The Forsyth Central golfer was just in the beginning stages then of what has been a rapid ascent into becoming a serious contender to win an individual state title at the state championships in May. In just over two years of competitive golf, the senior has qualified for the state championships twice, finished in the top 10 once and signed to play at Young Harris College.

As she approaches today’s Region 7-AAAAA tournament, Walker says she is playing some of the best golf of her career. Indeed, she’s placed first in three out of four events. She placed second in the other event as she battled her own illness in addition to the golf course.

“My game feels really good,” Walker said. “It feels a lot better than it has in the past. I’m a lot more comfortable. I kind of know what to expect when I go out now instead of being unsure of my swing and my golf game, so I’m excited.”

Walker’s athletic journey can be divided into three phases, and each has been marked by Walker forced to make a pivotal decision.

She began as a precocious gymnast, progressing from those 2-year-old cartwheels and somersaults into a two-time Florida state champion. At 6 years old, her family began driving her the hour back and forth from their home in Lakeland, Florida, to a bigger gym in Orlando to train alongside more elite gymnasts and better coaches.

But seeing how far she could take gymnastics was going to take significant sacrifices. She’d have to leave her public school and be homeschooled. She’d have to live in an apartment with other gymnasts away from parents, Scott and Shelly, and brother, Warren.

So at 8, Walker decided to give up gymnastics.

“I don’t think I understood the entirety of it when I was 8,” Walker said, “but I do now, and I’m glad I made that decision.”

That decision sent Walker into the next phase of her athletic journey, an experimental one. She tried all manner of sports searching for the one that gave her the same satisfaction as gymnastics had.

Her first soccer team lost every game. She competed a lot in swimming and tennis. After moving to Georgia, she set the Forsyth County middle school record in the long jump and placed first in the hurdles as an eighth grader.

As Walker entered Forsyth Central, she settled on basketball.

“Basketball felt the most right,” Walker said. “I loved the contact part of it. It was fun to have a group of girls that I could travel with and be teammates together.”

Walker made varsity her freshman season and became part of a young core that figured to get a lot of playing time as the Lady Bulldogs transitioned from a big and successful senior class. But in her third game, in the waning moments of a blowout loss to Creekview, she tore her ACL going up for a layup.

“I just felt … like someone lit a fire in my knee,” Walker said, “and I went down.”

As Walker went through her rehabilitation, she sensed she was done with basketball. The recovery process was mentally brutal. It took her awhile to even start running again, let alone trusting her knee enough to change direction in sudden and sharp angles.

“You can’t be a tentative basketball player,” Walker said. “That doesn’t work.”

Before the injury, Walker had planned to play golf at Central that spring. She’d played some on the middle school boys team. Walker’s dad had always told her golf would be a good sport to pursue an athletic scholarship.

Walker wasn’t convinced of it until she shot an 82 at the Region 7-AAAAA tournament as a sophomore to qualify for the state sectional.

“I was like, ‘Huh, maybe this could be cool,’” Walker said.

Then she made it through the state sectional to the state championship, tying for 24th in Class AAAAA with a 91.

“I was like, you know, this is only my first competitive year playing,” Walker said. “I like it, and I can do things with it. So I started from there.”

Soon after, she met Sappington. The two hit it off. Sappington became Walker’s swing coach, and she began going to the golf course every day. She started competing on the Hurricane Junior Tour and in AJGA events. Last season, playing at the state championship with the same partner as the year before, Walker shot a 79 to place eighth.

It was all the validation Walker needed. The uncertainty that simmered throughout the journey from bright gymnast to eager basketball player to sudden golfer was gone.

“It was kind of neat to prove myself again,” Walker said.

Walker is eager to prove herself again at the state championship this season. She is a pure golfer now, educated by Sappington in the nuances of her own golf swing and the short game and navigating varying golf courses. Once again, she is in a place in her athletic career where her aspirations are as lofty as they can be.

“I would love to win state,” Walker said. “I have to get there first, but the goal is to win state.”