Unlike her life, which has gone off course several times, when Irene Crowchild hits a golf ball the drive is straight and true and far.
The two-time Canadian women’s long-ball driving champion has survived the trauma that afflicts family members of victims of residential schools. She has overcome addiction, depression, a suicide attempt and bigotry directed at her not only because of her ancestry, but because she is two-spirited and identifies as a woman. But she has overcome those obstacles to find a calling as someone who can smack a golf ball long and accurately.
“I have had targets on my back,” Crowchild says. “I found that out early on.”
She was raised on the Tsuu’tina Nation near Calgary by her grandmother. Josephine Crowchild was taken from her family as a five-year-old, and took Irene in at the same age.
“As a teen, I didn’t understand why she was so strict with me,” says Irene Crowchild, who just turned 31. “Now I understand that she was just trying to protect me. There was a lot of intergenerational trauma. It is an eye-opener.”
Irene was haunted by the abuse her grandmother suffered, and as a young woman fell victim to alcohol.
In September, 2016, she attempted to kill herself.
“The last year really felt like I fell off the face of the Earth,” she said. “I kept spiralling harder and harder. There were a lot of things I wasn’t coping with.”
Crowchild has been sober since Feb. 22, 2017.
“At the time I felt it was my only option,” she says. “It really shook me. I suddenly asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I am just thankful I am here.”
In 2018, less than a year after emerging from a 42-day alcohol-treatment program, she used clubs purchased online to blast a ball 310 yards to win the Canadian women’s long-drive championship. She repeated the feat in 2020 with a 286-yard drive – and remains the first Indigenous woman to compete and win as a member of the Professional Long Drivers Association.
The PLDA holds golf-ball-hitting events in which distance and accuracy counts. Players are scored on the length of their drives, but also must keep them within a narrow box. At the Canadian championship drives have to fall within a 39-yard-wide grid. At the world championship, where men can strike a ball more than 450 yards, it is a 52-yard-wide grid. Golfers have to use a USGA-approved club of no more than 48 inches long in a timed competition.
This weekend Crowchild is entered in an event in West Bountiful, Utah, and on Sept. 3 will return to Port Rowan, Ont., in an attempt to win her third Canadian title. A few days later, she will travel halfway around the globe for the women’s world championship at the Nasuogawa Golf Club in Nakagawa, Tochigi, Japan.
“I have a lot of gratitude,” she says.
Hers was not a childhood of butterflies and rainbows and she is not the product of a golf academy or expensive lessons. Her uncle was the club pro at the since-closed Buffalo Run Golf Club in Calgary and even though she worked there she had little interest in the sport.
“Hockey was my thing,” she says. “I looked at golf as an older person’s game.”
When she was 16, her uncle handed her a club and a bucket of balls and sent her off to the driving range during a work break. She was back 15 minutes later.
“I couldn’t hit the ball,” Crowchild says. “I told my uncle that I couldn’t swing. It didn’t feel right.”
It was at that point that he asked which hand she used to shoot a hockey puck and realized she was left-handed. He had mistakenly given her a right-handed driver. Back to the range she went with significantly different results.
“My drives were wild, but I was hitting them far. It felt natural. It’s like magic when everything is timed right.”
Her interest grew, but then she became dependent on alcohol. She was in active addiction for a half-dozen years and during that time never swung a golf club.
She had an apartment in Calgary, owned a car and worked as a day labourer.
“I was a functioning alcoholic,” she says. “I was about to lose everything.”
She reached her bottom when she saw someone overdose.
“At that point adrenaline kicked in,” Crowchild says. “Either I was going to be working for recovery or for death. I decided I was done. I was really tired of it.”
She entered treatment.
“If it didn’t work, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “I thought that maybe I would [try suicide] again and this time I would get it right.”
Instead, treatment helped turn her life around.
Afterward, her interest in golf was renewed. She reached out for advice from Lisa Vlooswyk, known as Lisa Longball, a fellow Calgarian and an eight-time Canadian women’s long-drive champion. The farthest shot of her career is 350 yards 2 feet 2 inches.
“When a woman helps another woman it lifts each other up,” Vlooswyk says. “We have to help each other.”
The more she has got to know Crowchild, the more she has come to respect her.
“Her story is inspiring,” Vlooswyk says. “A golfer like Irene is exactly what we need in the sport. She is a female athlete, two-spirited, has battled addiction and has the courage to talk about it. There are people in despair out there that she can help. I am excited for her future and I think the world of her. She can bash a ball and is running with it.”
From her meagre beginnings at a public nine-hole executive course in Calgary, Crowchild made her professional debut in 2018 at a long-ball event in Mesquite, Nev.
“I was definitely nervous,” she says. “These were my role models, ladies I watched on television. If anything I felt like I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Not long after that, she sobbed after she won her first Canadian championship.
“I didn’t have high expectations for myself,” she says.
Life is different now. She is employed as an outreach worker at the Tsuu’tina Nation, is the mom to a young rambunctious 142-pound Italian mastiff and punishes golf balls with her powerful swing. Much of her strength comes from her 5-foot-9, 240-pound frame.
“I feel this is just the start of things,” she says. “I didn’t have that whole childhood of golf. I feel like I am just catching up.“
There will always be detractors. At times, she has shown up at events and been questioned by club officials who took a look at her and decided that, as an Indigenous woman, she did not belong.
“If anything it makes me more motivated,” Crowchild says. “It is empowering for me to show up in these spaces that in the beginning were not created for me.”
She has been to dark places and now basks in the light.
“My grandmother taught me to just keep moving forward,” she says.” I wasn’t raised to fight. I was raised to handle conflict with grace. I mean, how am I even here?”