Following in Annika's Footsteps, But to a Different Final Destination
Jessica Vasilic’s childhood bedroom in Anaheim Hills, California was filled with Annika memorabilia.
Born in Sweden, she spent many years dreaming about following in Annika’s footsteps to superstardom on the LPGA Tour. And why not? The path Annika had trailblazed was all right there before her – she’d play for the Swedish National Team, then attend the University of Arizona and, finally, take the women’s tour by storm.
All was going according to plan until the Spring of 2018. That’s when something changed in Jessica, altering the course of her professional ambitions. And while golf is still something she loves, it’s a part of her life in a way that her 13-year-old self probably never envisioned. But those kinds of changes are what makes life such an interesting ride.
Jessica started playing golf before moving to the United States at the age of four. She credits her grandparents with getting her into the game.
“They were avid golfers and introduced all of their grandkids to golf. As a reward for playing, there was a swing set next to the 18th green of their home club, Partille Golfklubb, that all the cousins would enjoy together after the round,” says the 2017 graduate of the University of Arizona.
When her dad’s job was transferred to the U.S., she moved with her parents to Southern California. That’s when her mom and dad took up the game. In order to play with a young Jessica, they always had to rent a golf cart because it would’ve been impossible for her to successfully walk the course.
When she was six or seven years old, Jessica really started to get into golf. A nine-hole course near her house, Ridgeline, became her home away from home. Then at 14, as her game continued to improve, she “graduated” to a membership at Yorba Linda Country Club.
“While my parents played with me a lot, I also grew up on a cul-de-sac with many kids who were my age. One neighbor was really into golf, so my mom would take us to the course every day after school. Ridgeline had summer camps that were so much fun, too, as we played golf in the morning, ate lunch, and then spent the afternoon at the pool.”
As her handicap dropped and she became even more enamored with the game, Jessica began playing in SCPGA events, which then led to Toyota Tour Cup tournaments. Those tournaments awarded “stars” for top finishes, which is how Jessica then earned berths into coveted AJGA Invitationals.
“The junior golf circuit is pretty complex, and my parents and I really weren’t well versed in how it worked. I remember one junior all-star tournament that I played well in was critical to me getting my foot in the door of the AJGA.”
By this time, she was 13 or 14 and dreaming of being “the next Annika.”
“Annika’s tournaments were an especially big deal to me. My family back in Sweden was so proud I was playing in events that had Annika’s name on them. She’s a national sports hero there, so it opened their eyes to how serious I was about golf.”
It was while competing in the ANNIKA Invitational USA in Orlando that she was first made aware of the Swedish National Team.
“They were training at Reunion Resort and it was like a cold bucket of water had been dumped on my head. It was my first exposure to team golf. They were doing everything together as a unit and their level of dedication was so impressive. And the coaches clearly knew what they were doing, given the quality of players that were coming out of the program.”
The training was all-encompassing, involving not only on-course lessons but also incorporating education, nutrition and fitness.
“I can’t say enough good things about my experience on the team. The coaches took many responsibilities off the plate of the players so all we really had to worry about was practicing with a purpose. They offered so much guidance and support to help me take the next step toward my goals.”
During her time with the Swedish National Team, Jessica grew up fast. For example, she remembers flying from Los Angeles to Spain alone to meet her coaches and teammates. Frequent time far away from home meant that she didn’t play on her high school team her junior season. Although this made having a traditional high school experience difficult, she traded it for opportunities to see the world and play on the Junior Solheim Cup team for Europe.
As her time in junior golf wound down, she never considered skipping college and was surprised when some of her friends and teammates said they’d planned to do so. Academics had always been very important to Jessica and her family and her dedication to golf wasn’t going to change that emphasis.
“I considered three schools: Arizona, UCLA and Harvard. UCLA was too close to home and Harvard was going to make it quite difficult to realistically pursue my dreams of playing on the LPGA. But when it came to Arizona, it checked all the right boxes, including its impressive network of golf alumni.”
Those alumni included Annika, who attended U of A from 1990 to 1992.
“During the recruiting process, Coach [Laura] Ianello sent me a packet that featured all of Arizona’s golf alums, people like Jim Furyk and Lorena Ochoa and Natalie Gulbis. And on the last page, there was a picture of Annika. I remember a chill running up and down my spine when I realized I was being compared to her.”
With her bags packed for Tucson, Jessica embarked on the next chapter of her amateur career.
When she arrived in the Grand Canyon State, she joined a team filled with players from around the globe.
“All of that international travel I did in high school really helped me, as I’d been exposed to all different types of people and places. We had players from France, Spain, Mexico and Australia.”
Jessica grew particularly close with teammate Wanasa Zhou, from Australia.
“Wanasa will actually be a bridesmaid in my upcoming wedding. I knew I could lean on her for anything and we really pushed each other, on and off the course. I think it was comforting for both of us to know we weren’t going at it alone.”
Both were business majors; Wanasa in accounting, while Jessica focused on finance.
“When we’d be on a plane returning from a tournament and I’d look over and see Wanasa studying, it drove me to do so, too. It would’ve been really easy to turn off the overhead light and get some sleep, but I knew she wasn’t going to, even though she was just as tired as me.”
Also helping Jessica was the C.A.T.S Academic staff, a group that supports all Wildcat student-athletes.
“They were major advocates for me, helping to coordinate all my classes and exam schedules. For example, one year I had six finals during regionals. With their help, I was able to take three before I left for the tournament, another one on the road and two when I got back, after the test had already been given to the rest of class. These were major accommodations I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten on my own.”
When asked about her best college golf memories, Jessica rattles off things like finishing second in a tournament in Chicago, winning team events and the like. But she readily admits the off-course experiences stick with her much more, like the time they were playing in New Orleans during the NBA All-Star Game and somehow wound up staying in the same hotel on Bourbon Street as a bunch of players and other VIPs during Mardi Gras.
“As I look back on those four years, I really wonder how I was able to do it all.”
Upon graduating, Jessica took a year off to play in summer tournaments and build toward qualifying for the LPGA. She’d spent her whole life dreaming about playing on the tour. It was, as she says, “All I’d thought about.”
Jessica’s hard work paid off in March of 2018 when she Monday qualified for the LPGA’s Kia Classic in Carlsbad, California. But something even more interesting happened that fateful week. Rather than being driven to play in more qualifiers as she sought to secure fully exempt LPGA status, a wave of unexpected relief came over her.
“I had this feeling that I’d finally made it. In the aftermath of that tournament, I let my guard down a bit and reflected on my life. And I came to realize I didn’t want to chase a career on the LPGA Tour. It was difficult to come to grips with it at first, but I gradually understood it was perfectly acceptable to change my mind at 22 years old and want something different than I did when I was 13.”
Armed with a new professional purpose, Jessica pivoted toward taking advantage of her studies in finance. But because she took a year off after graduating and had no internship experience during school, it was really hard for her to land her first job. Thankfully, she called upon a friend who’d played on the Wildcat baseball team and was working in finance at Vanguard. She used that important alumni network to get her first interview and eventually land a job with the investment advisor group.
“I worked at Vanguard for one year before moving to MRA Associates in September of 2019. My day-to-day at Vanguard focused on responsibilities of an investment broker, while at MRA it’s a bit more broad and holistic. I enjoy the opportunity I now have to build more personal relationships with clients as I help them to rebalance their portfolios, research different investment alternatives and provide sound financial plans for their future.”
Even though Jessica has anywhere from one to four client meetings a day and spends a lot of her time behind a desk, golf remains a big part of her life, just in a different and perhaps unexpected way.
“I love golf and use it in my job all the time to connect with clients and build my professional network. Recently, I became the first woman to be invited to play in Drachman Cup, a year-long golf competition for Phoenix-area businesspeople. It’s a lot of fun showing them just how well a woman can play.”
As Jessica settles into her reimagined professional journey, what’s one thing she might tell the 13-year-old girl who dreamed of being the next Annika?
“Life has a way of figuring things out, even if you duck-hook it into the water on 18, so just relax.”
Wise words that all of us, golfers and non-golfers alike, can certainly live by.