Melissa Eaton has a dream setup for this summer. When Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2 is the site of the men’s U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open in successive weeks, she foresees her hero, Ernie Els, teeing it up in Week One, followed the next week by Melissa starting in her career-first Open.
“Ernie is an amazing guy; he’s terrifically humble,” Eaton, 29, said as she enters defense of her Florida’s Natural Charity Classic this week in Winter Haven, Fla. “Besides my mother, Ernie is responsible for giving my sister and me a chance to make a living in golf. Playing at the same site in a tournament he has won twice would be quite a treat. It would be a career highlight. He’s our inspiration.”
Eaton and her twin sister, Nicola, were raised by a single mother in Port Shepstone, South Africa. Their mother, Colleen, was an aspiring professional who turned to teaching in the late 1980s and 1990s when the twins and their older sister were growing up around the game. However, in order for the twins to pursue a serious amateur career, they needed further assistance. At about the same time, the Ernie Els Foundation was being formed.
The Els Foundation was founded in 1999 – when the girls were young teens – with the purpose of identifying young, talented South African golfers, predominantly from families of limited resources, and to offer educational assistance and playing opportunities in order to produce successful young leaders and maximize their golf potential. The Eatons were foundation members in 2001-2.
“It was a very strict process,” Eaton said. “At first, there were only two girls – my sister and I – and 16 guys in the program. Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel were involved. It made a huge difference.”
The junior success allowed the sisters to receive scholarships to LSU at the same time. Both received degrees in 2007 in Marketing, with Melissa earning all-SEC honors in 2005.
The two were inseparable through college, but now are split apart. Melissa lives in Mandeville, La. – north across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans – with a South African family and Nicola is home in South Africa, playing the South African tour and preparing to get married.
Melissa remains steadfast this season in her goal to reach the LPGA. Last year, she played in Europe some even though the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic victory nearly propelled her to the top 10 on the Symetra Tour. She earned $29,813 – 13th on the money list, just three spots away from a LPGA card.
“This year, I want to stay dedicated to the Symetra Tour,” Eaton said. “Ultimately not getting my LPGA Tour card pushes me to improve, and I’m going into this year with a lot more confidence based on the results I had last year.”