The Palmer Grille at Latrobe Country Club was the perfect setting for our interview.
Mr. Palmer's table was to our immediate left. He had just finished lunch with some friends and he took some time to talk with us—about us. Of course, we were in awe. He was every bit the gentleman we had anticipated he would be.
The food at the Palmer Grille was fantastic, the staff was incredibly nice and the big screen television in the corner on the wall was tuned to the Golf Channel, where commercial promos for the next episode of Big Break: Atlantis kept appearing.
I had a similar TV experience the previous evening at a Golf Galaxy retail store in Pittsburgh. Only they were replaying the previous week's episode on five screens.
Anya Alvarez and the cast of Big Break: Atlantis are everywhere. And while she wouldn't go so far as to say the experience of participating in the show changed her life, she does admit to it being an incredible opportunity that she is very grateful for.
Briefly, here's how it started.
Because she just missed the deadline for application, Anya had considered giving up on the idea to audition for Big Break: Atlantis, but she decided to give it a try. After contacting the Golf Channel, she was given the option to apply in-person. Two days later, she was on a plane to the network's headquarters in Florida.
Anya would become a semifinalist. The Golf Channel did a "home visit" interview with her in Pittsburgh. And the rest, as they say...
"I had really only seen a couple shows from previous seasons," she admitted. "And I didn't even know where this season was going to be held or really anything about it. Golf Channel tried to keep it as much of a secret as possible."
Mission accomplished, but with only a few days notice, Anya was en route to the beautiful Bahamas for two-and-a-half weeks.
Of course, when you're actually watching the program from one week to the next, it seems as though the girls are there for an eternity, with plenty of time for rest and relaxation. Such was not the case.
"There was no time for leisure," Anya said smiling, matter-of-factly. "Unless you were eliminated from the competition."
(With five contestants remaining on the show as of this writing—Anya being one of them—I still do not know who wins the competition. Anya has done a remarkable job of keeping it from me, although I must admit, I really don't want to know.)
Anya, who was introduced to the game by her father at just three-years-old, is currently a member of the Symetra Tour—aka the proving grounds and the road to the LPGA Tour. And while she is used to the stress of tournament golf from one event to the next, it didn't compare to her pressure-packed Big Break experience.
"The pressure on Big Break was much greater," Anya said. "Most of the time, you don't have the capability of being able to recover from a shot. You have to hit a good shot, but you can hit it to one foot from the hole on a closest to the pin competition and someone else can hole it out and you're eliminated. It's just one of those things where you're almost always in sudden-death mode. Every shot is sudden-death. And that's scary."
Anya's favorite skills challenge was a "Tic-Tac-Toe" immunity competition during "Episode 5: Batten Down the Hatches," where each player had to hit her ball into a net to put their "piece" on the board, so to speak. It featured a guest appearance from former Big Break: Prince Edward Island star and current LPGA player Gerina Piller.
"Even though I didn't win that competition, it was a lot of fun," Anya said.
On a number of occasions, Anya was pitted against fellow contestant Gloriana Soto, who would become not only a regular rival on the show, but also a close friend. The two were the first competitors to meet on the bus that would take all the contestants from Nassau International Airport in the Bahamas to the resort.
"I built a lot of great friendships with the girls, but Gloriana was the first competitor I met on the show," Anya said. "It seemed like right from the beginning we got teamed up against one another. It was funny for us. We really liked each other and we pushed each other to do better. It was just a funny little rivalry we had going on."
Anya reasoned that if she ever got married, she could probably have all her fellow competitors as Big Break bridesmaids at her wedding.
And that was one of my favorite things about this season of Big Break —there was no manufactured drama. The participants, while very competitive with one another, were also very friendly and supportive. Anya agreed.
"You want to win because you hit a better shot, not because somebody messed up," she said. "And that was the type of competition we had on the show. We all really wanted to outshine one another, but we didn't want anyone to play poorly. It hurt when you did see someone play poorly because you knew what it felt like to not hit a good shot."
Anya's least favorite challenges were the team events, where an error by one participant could spell disaster for any or all of the contestants in the group.
"I messed up with my drive and also a putt on the second episode," she said. "And then I was put in an awkward position by someone else's poor drive on another show. It's really tough. I honestly don't think it's a fair way to set up the show."
Once a contestant is eliminated, they make an appearance on a special episode of Big Break Academy with Golf Channel instructor Michael Breed. Anya also serves as a teacher at the Pennsylvania Golf Academy when she's home and loves the instructional "exit strategy" that's in place on the show.
"I think it's great," Anya said. "Oftentimes, the things a contestant struggles with that got them eliminated from the show is probably what they need to work on anyway. I also think it's a fun way to keep the girls 'out there' a little bit longer. They get one more episode. It's their time to shine and also show their knowledge of the game."