Aho returns to Northwest Women’s Open a different golfer

To this day, Brush Prairie’s Lindsay Aho can recall every intricate detail about the shot out of the sand bunker at last year’s Northwest Women’s Open that lit up her professional golf career.

Nursing a small lead, Aho’s bunker blast at the 17th hole at Twin Lakes Golf & Country Club scooted across the green and dropped into the cup for a birdie, all but clinching her first pro title.

“That,” Aho said last week, “was a cool moment.”

The 26-year-old Aho is back as the defending champion of the 36-hole event, which starts Tuesday in Federal Way.

A year later, the Prairie High School and Concordia (Oregon) University product returns a different golfer entirely.

She is a tournament winner. And she is a local television hero.

Soon after her victory last summer, Golf Channel producers of the popular “Big Break” reality TV series selected her as one of the 12 cast members in the 21st season of the show filmed in Florida (“Big Break Florida”).

“I did it for the exposure,” Aho said. “Golf is very expensive to get sponsors. You need to stand out more in golf.”

Funny thing is, Aho hasn’t ever been much of a reality TVwatcher — other than the CBS series “Amazing Race.”

“I wanted to be on that show,” Aho said.

Filing for “Big Break Florida” began in the middle of last October and lasted until early November at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation.

“I was happy how I was portrayed,” Aho said. “Talking to the producers, I came across being sweet and nice. I got along with all the girls. I didn’t want to say anything bad about anybody.”

Aho’s highlight was winning $10,000 on a closest-to-the-pin shot. She decided to split up the money four ways in exchange for “immunity” from being eliminated from one of the episodes.

In retrospect, Aho admits now she would have made a different decision.

“Looking back, I would have taken all the money, and taken on all the risks (of being eliminated) and trusted in my ability,” Aho said.

Aho ended up being the fourth golfer eliminated from the show. Jackie Stoelting, of Vero Beach, Florida, went on to win “Big Break Florida.”

The support, from all avenues, has not stopped. While she hasn’t landed a lucrative financial backer for life on the Cactus Tour and Canadian Women’s Tour, she has seen a boost in equipment sponsorships, notably with Jones Golf Bags out of Portland.

Next month, Aho is holding a fund-raising tournament in Vancouver. She already has a full field of golfers to play in it.

And when she is playing or practicing, gallery members immediately recognize her as the petite blonde with the wicked short game from the show.

“As far as playing in events now, I am not as nervous because I don’t have a million cameras pointed at me,” Aho said. “I can play freely. A lot of that is because I had never experienced that much pressure as I did on Big Break.”

With three other Washington golfers on the show, Aho said she has maintained contact with Bethel High School graduate Sadena Parks. The two of them play frequently at the Legacy Golf Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Aho has become especially close to another contestant — Lauren Sullivan, who attended Texas Christian but did not play college golf. The two of them are travel buddies on the Cactus Tour. Sullivan will also be playing in Aho’s fund-raising tournament.

From her days of not being able to breaking 60 for nine holes in high school, to breaking 70 for the first time in her first round as a professional (69), then winning the Northwest Women’s Open in her rookie season — Aho knows her path has been long, winding and very interesting.

“It has been different. When I came to this tournament last year, nobody really knew who I was. In fact, there was a pro-am the day before, and I wasn’t even invited to it,” Aho said.

“Now I have a whole different mindset going in. Obviously people will be watching my scores. But winning here has really helped my career and confidence.”