Big Break Atlantis: Anya Alvarez Talks Golf, Life on Paradise Island
Whoever dreamed up the idea for Big Break: Atlantis is kind of a genius.
In fact, it probably resulted from a daydream: a dozen beautiful women that just happen to play golf, stranded on an island in the Bahamas? What a concept.
OK, "stranded" might not be the right term—until you watch them compete. There is definitely a feeling of isolation when one shot determines a contestant's fate at any given moment. But, if the idea for this show doesn't scream ratings, well, I don't know what does.
In the 17th season of the Golf Channel's popular reality show, 12 gorgeous golf gals from around the world gathered at the Ocean Club course on Paradise Island in the Bahamas to battle it out over 11 episodes.
The reward? Exempt status to play in the 2012 LPGA Kingsmill Championship in September, an Adams Golf endorsement contract that includes $10,000 in cash, a $10,000 shopping spree courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods, $10,000 in car rental credit from Avis, a return to Atlantis for a golf vacation, and perhaps most importantly—exempt status and free entry for a full season on the Symetra Tour.
The concept of the show—just in case you've been living on an island of your own—is for the golfers to compete in a wide variety of skills challenges to test their physical and mental toughness. One contestant is eliminated each week until the last player remaining is awarded her "Big Break."
The pressure is intense. Sometimes it doesn't seem fair. And more often than not, staying on the show comes down to one gut-wrenching shot.
I visited with Big Break: Atlantis contestant Anya Alvarez to talk about the show, life on the Symetra Tour and this week's U.S. Women's Open.
18 with Anya
I had an 8 a.m. tee time with Big Break: Atlantis star and Symetra Tour player Anya Alvarez.
The golf course: Arnold Palmer's Latrobe Country Club—located about an hour's drive east of Anya's home in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Anya and I have always been big fans of Mr. Palmer, both as a golfer and a person. But we had never played the course where he grew up, where he learned the game we love so much. Plus, we heard he was going to be at the club today and we were hoping to meet him for the first time.
Based on my previous correspondence with Anya—which amounted to several weeks of phone calls, e-mails and text messages—she already felt like more of a friend to me than someone I was meeting for the first time.
Anya's easy going and laid back like that. She's also very outgoing and polite with a great sense of humor. It isn't difficult to like her.
"Let's just have fun today," she said with a smirk in response to my tongue-in-cheek remark that I might do more harm than good as a playing partner in her preparation for this week's U.S. Women's Open, an event she has qualified for the past two years.
That's right. With opening rounds of 73 and 76, Anya made the cut at last year's U.S. Open, played in Colorado Springs at the beautiful Broadmoor resort. And if it hadn't been for an uncharacteristic 82 on Saturday, she would've certainly made some noise on the weekend leader board.
Her final-round 71 was one of the best scores in the entire field.
"I don't think I'll be in awe as much as I was last year," she said of the experience. "This year, I feel more like I belong out there. I don't really think I believed that last year—hitting balls next to players like Karrie Webb or Juli Inkster, women who have won U.S. Opens. And I'm this little nobody who just turned pro. I know I have the game. I just need to trust it more."
It's a process every young professional golfer goes through. But Anya's career is certainly headed in the right direction.
Latrobe head golf professional Randy Bisi started his day by escorting us to the practice range so we could warm up with a few shots before beginning our round. It was still early, so sprinklers were misting the fairways and greens on select holes as the morning sun cast long shadows around the property. It was already very warm at 7:30 a.m. We meandered over the cart paths and through the golf course to get to the practice area, commenting on the beauty of the layout along the way.
Latrobe Country Club is where Arnold Palmer learned the game of golf. His father, Deacon, was instrumental in the construction of the club, beginning as a teenager back in the early 1920s. "Deke" helped to build the course with his own hands. He would eventually become the grounds superintendent and golf pro at Latrobe and his son Arnold—well, he needs no introduction. He's simply one of the greatest golfers to ever play the game and an American icon.
Together, father and son Palmer designed nine new holes in the early 1960s and revamped the existing holes to the layout we were excited to experience today.
As we hit some balls, I told Anya I didn't think I had played golf this early since my junior tournament days, but it couldn't have been a more beautiful morning. We were both honored to be there as guests of the club.
Moments later, Randy gave us a quick introduction to the opening holes from the first tee, which was so meticulously groomed it felt more like a putting surface than a tee box. Mr. Palmer's famous tractor—you know, the 1947 Toro from those Pennzoil commercials—is close by.
We both kept our opening tee shots in play—Anya just barely into the left rough but quite long, me to the right side of the fairway—and our day was underway.
Anya parred the first with a brilliant up and down from a steep bank behind the firm green. I was not as fortunate from the front right bunker, barely missing an eight-footer for my par.
Ever the social media junkie, it didn't take Anya long to tweet: "at Latrobe and these greens are no joke."
What this golf course lacks in length—we were playing at 6,517 yards from the green championship tees—it more than makes up for with tree-lined, narrow fairways and multi-tiered, slick greens. It's a difficult test of golf.
A few hours later, having played 18 holes—talking golf, talking life, taking random photos with our iPhones and enjoying the beauty of the western Pennsylvania mountains—we retreated to the Palmer Grille for lunch and our "official" conversation for this article.
Mark Ashman / Golf Channel
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."
More Than Golf
Mark Ashman / Golf Channel
In addition to the enormous amount of time it takes to practice and prepare for golf tournaments that will or won't put food on the table, Anya Alvarez has outside interests that matter.
As a survivor of sexual abuse as a child and as a teenager, Anya has taken it upon herself to educate parents and children and to help prevent sexual abuse from occurring as a spokesperson for the KidSafe Foundation, an organization whose mission it is to empower children, teachers and parents with life skills that allow them to make safer and smarter choices.
"I felt like I had gotten over the stuff that happened to me as a child when another incident happened to me when I was 16," Anya said. "I didn't tell anyone for a long time because I felt like it was my fault. And then I met a woman at a golf tournament in Idaho who worked with women and teens who had been in abusive relationships or had been sexually abused. I talked with her and she told me I had a really powerful story to tell and that I should try to share it whenever I felt ready to. So, I thought about it and looked at it as a way to overcome what had happened to me in my life and not be burdened by this big secret anymore. I think it was me just trying to go through my own healing process, too."
Not unrelated, Anya also spends time as a contributing writer for one of her sponsors, twodaymag, an online publication devoted to relationship advice for men and women. Some of Anya's work is deeply personal and admittedly very honest.
"I've always enjoyed writing," she said. "I wrote for my high school newspaper and just for my own personal enjoyment. But it was fun to start doing it on a larger scale. I think people are sometimes afraid to be honest and when I'm very vulnerable and very open—that's when I write my best. I think people get the most out of that type of writing rather than if I were to sugar-coat the things that have happened in my life—or how I feel. I'm not afraid to express how I feel. And I think that's what makes my writing easier or more enjoyable for people to read, because they know what they're reading is who I really am."
Who she is—a remarkable young woman with a very bright future—in golf and life.