Just a shade over five years ago, Heather Ciskowski, '18 BSB, was a talented varsity tennis player at Barrington High School in suburban Chicago. She had her sights set on a college scholarship and had made a nice run in the state tournament as a freshman when she decided tennis wasn’t her game of love, so to speak.
She didn’t get burned out so much as she grew sick of competing—in tennis, at least. “I realized that I didn’t really love it as much as I would have thought,” she says.
Lest this story sound the slightest bit sad, Ciskowski got over competitive tennis quickly, and in a big way. Her dad suggested she try golf, and the summer before her sophomore year she started playing in earnest. And studying. And taking lessons. And playing some more.
“I basically dedicated myself six, seven hours a day, maybe even more, every day during the summertime because I really hadn’t played [much]. I was at ground zero,” she says. “Fortunately I’ve been given this gift of natural athletic ability, so given that I was working super, super hard I was able to put myself in very high-level tournaments. I wanted to win and I wanted to play in college. I was fortunate enough to get very lucky early on and start winning a couple events, and I got recognized by a few schools and now I’m here!”
Here, and already doing big things. In her first year at Minnesota she posted a scoring average of 79.93 for the season. Then she found another gear in 2015-16, notching two top-20 tournament finishes and shaving an amazing six strokes off her scoring average to set a Minnesota record for single-season scoring average at 73.93. She, along with teammate and roommate, Sabrine Garrison, teamed up to capture the Minnesota Women’s State Amateur Four-Ball Championship in June, and Ciskowski also qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship in August. Not bad for a relative novice.
“The biggest thing for her is she’s very determined—she doesn’t let anything or anyone get in her way,” says Michele Redman, the Gopher women’s golf head coach. “That’s probably my favorite trait about her. She’s unbelievable with determination. She can will herself to do a lot of stuff, and it’s pretty cool.”
18, 36, 54 … whatever it takes
Ciskowski credits her determination in that initial summer back home for jump-starting and quickly super-charging her game. It helped that her family had a membership at a nearby country club, but she took it from there. “Sometimes I’d play 18 holes, some days I’d play 36, sometimes I would literally play 54. I’d just be there all day,” she says. “I was really determined to get better, and so I would just sit there all day in order to figure it out.”
There were even times, later in the day, when she’d take off her golf shoes to play—not exactly the going advice from Miss Manners among the country club set. But by then she was a known entity and, these days, Ciskowski says with a modest laugh, she’s the person they’re coming to for advice on how to drop their handicap.
She also read articles, sought advice, watched video clips, and caught up on movies. “I had never watched Caddyshack,” she says. “[I thought] if I’m going to be immersed in golf I kind of have to know the lingo and what I’m talking about.”
She broke 80 for the first time that summer, and her success in those tournaments spawned interest from colleges. She had visited Northwestern, Indiana, and Yale and knew she had options. “And then, poof, Minnesota came out from nowhere,” she said.
Ciskowski first visited in the middle of January during a snowstorm, took in a hockey game, noticed students riding around on their bikes with ski masks on, and thought, “Oh, this is what I’m getting into.” But then she chatted with Redman and discovered that Minnesota was high achieving in both academics and athletics.
“I was also looking for that butterfly feeling, that gut feeling that you get at the pit of your stomach, because that’s what people had told me to search for when you’re looking at colleges.” Great business program, check. Great coach, check. Great campus, check. “So it was just a package deal, I think.”
On the course and off, all business
Ciskowski showed up for this story interview in business attire, having just come from her internship at Aon in downtown Minneapolis. She inherited the business bug from her father, a portfolio manager for a company in Chicago. “I was always kind of immersed in the business atmosphere,” she said. “I love money and I love the stock market, and obviously I like to win and I love numbers. I think business was kind of the way for me to go.”
“I love pressure. I’m very successful in very high-pressure situations; that’s just the kind of situation I prefer to be in. ” — Heather Ciskowski
She also loves the Carlson School, and some of the strengths she ascribes to herself make her a great fit for the business world: extremely outgoing, enthusiastic, intelligent, a good communicator, and very professional. “She does really well,” says Redman. “Carlson is really tough. She’s an excellent student … and makes school a priority.” For that matter, the entire women’s golf team embodies Gopher Athletics’ emphasis on academics, ranking 20th among all collegiate women’s golf teams—NCAA Division I, II, and III—in team grade point average at 3.689.
Another strength for Ciskowski is perhaps the biggest challenge for most golfers—mental toughness.
“For me, personally, 80 percent of the game is mental,” she says. “You get to a certain level and you have the swing, you’re a good ball striker, you’re a good putter, you’re a good chipper. But none of that matters if you can’t step up and hit the shot.
“I love pressure,” she adds. “I’m very successful in very high-pressure situations; that’s just kind of the situation I prefer to be in.
Another thing she enjoys about golf is the almost infinite array of available shots, depending on the situation—and one’s imagination. “You basically can hit whatever shot you want whenever you want, wherever you want. It’s all about comfort and your ability to execute,” she said. “If you get in a sticky situation and you have to be creative, the only way you can do that is if you can [imagine] that shot.”
“She doesn’t really hit it off line very often so I can see where she enjoys doing that,” says Redman. “She really does like visualizing the shots and she likes to be creative. She has a lot of good feel in her hands and she uses that to her advantage.”
‘A donut with no hole is a Danish’
When she has free time, Ciskowski loves to draw, read, or “do any sort of outdoor activity—biking, running, hiking, swimming, throwing a ball, going on walks,” she said. “I’d like to have more hobbies but unfortunately I have to stick to why I’m here, which is school and golf.”
She also loves to cook and bakes for her teammates “all the time.” She and Garrison have a “famous” stuffed peppers recipe. Other specialties are cookies with an Oreo cookie stuffed in the center, and meatloaf cupcakes with mashed potatoes as frosting and bacon bits on top. Her dad was anxious to try those, she says.
In addition to being in business, he’s also an avid and competitive golfer, and her mom is quieter but highly organized. Ciskowski has two younger sisters: The youngest (also an avid golfer) will be a sophomore in high school, while the other will be a sophomore at the University of Iowa. (Apparently, butterfly feelings can emanate from Iowa City, too.) As far as her own goals, she primarily wants to get better every day. “I want to accomplish as much as I can because I know that these four years go by super quickly, and it’s a once-in-alifetime opportunity, so I take advantage of it as much as I can.” She says that Redman has told her that her swing is fine, “But I still like to work on it and continue to get better and grow. She can say that it’s fine, but it’s never going to be fine until I’m satisfied. And I’m never going to be satisfied so it’s … just going to keep going.”
She’s excited about her business aspirations and wants to tack on an MBA at some point, but the lure of the green could pull her in another direction. “Being a professional golfer is always on my mind,” she said. “You play a sport for this long and it would kind of be foolish to not have it be on your mind, considering I am so passionate about it and it’s such a large part of my life.” Five years ago, Ciskowski was playing till twilight as a teenager in her hometown. Five years hence? She may still be immersed in golf, or she may be all business. Either way, she wins.
This story was written by Rick Moore and first ran in Ski U Mah, the Gopher Sports magazine.