Win or lose, Fishers resident’s ‘Big Break’ came long before Golf Channel fame
By John Cinnamon
Think of it as Survivor with golf clubs. Twelve contestants are brought together – usually in a tropical locale – and are put through a series of challenges testing their physical skills and mental toughness. But instead of bamboo and coconuts, their tools are 9-irons and golf balls. That’s a (very) rough approximation of what you get with Golf Channel’s Big Break, now in its 21st season. And one of the contestants on this season’s edition – Big Break: Florida – is 23-year-old Fishers resident and professional golfer Kristi O’Brien.
Like most accomplished golfers, O’Brien was introduced to the game early in life. “My dad got me into golf when I was five,” she said. “I have three older brothers and I grew up watching them play in high school.” Even as a three-year-old, the Ft. Wayne native would spend time at the driving range with her mother watching Kristi’s father and brothers hit balls. A natural left-hander, O’Brien learned to play golf right-handed, mainly because it was easier for her father to teach her that way and because children’s right-handed clubs were more readily available at the time. But golf wasn’t her only physical outlet. “Actually, my first love was basketball,” she admits. “I played AAU basketball all through middle school and played golf in the summer.” It wasn’t until her sophomore year in high school that she realized she was better at golf than basketball and turned exclusively to golf, ultimately earning a scholarship to play at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis in 2008. Her successful college career at IUPUI was highlighted by winning the 2011 Indiana Women’s Amateur Championship and being named the 2011 Indiana Women’s Golf Association Player of the Year.
With the dream of playing on the LPGA Tour, O’Brien turned pro in 2013. Just a few months later she auditioned and was chosen to compete on Big Break: Florida, vying for a top prize of $50,000 and an exemption into an LPGA event. All of that would go a long way to making her dream come true. But perhaps her biggest break came five years ago on I-69 just north of Fishers. It was a rainy Sunday morning in June of 2009 and O’Brien was driving back to IUPUI after spending the weekend with her family in Ft. Wayne. With her golf clubs in the trunk, her duffel bag and Mom’s homemade soup in the car, she noticed a car coming up fast from behind. “I went to get over, but there was a car in my blind spot,” she explained. “So I overcorrected right, then back to the left and that’s when I started losing control of my car.” O’Brien’s car went into a spin before rolling three times, eventually coming to rest right side up. “I remember everything in the car,” she said. “I remember the grass scraping my face. Glass was everywhere, and I remember thinking, ‘When am I going to get knocked out?’ or ‘When am I gonna die?’”
O’Brien never lost consciousness and was able to get out of the car through the window. Still in shock, she started walking nowhere in particular. “I looked back about 100 yards and there was all my stuff. My duffel bag, the soup Mom made me, it was just everywhere,” she said. Incredibly, she escaped the accident with nothing more than cuts and scratches, as well as a sore right leg that hampered her walking for a time and required her to make a change in her golf swing. The real change, however, came in her outlook on life. “You know, you’re 19 and you think you’re invincible and you never really realize you only have one life to live. I was very, very blessed to walk away with no long-term injuries.” Raised a devout Catholic, O’Brien admits that as a freshman in college living on her own, she got out of the habit of going to church every Sunday. But surviving such a potentially devastating crash has renewed her faith. “There’s a reason why I’m still here,” she said. “God has a plan for me. Golf is just a game. But if I could really show somebody what hard work and dedication is, I think that’s the role that I’m supposed to be playing.”
She’s putting that hard work and dedication on display in Big Break: Florida (Monday nights, 9:00pm on Golf Channel). Even with hundreds of rounds of competitive golf under her belt, she said the contests on Big Break are “…100 percent more stressful than tournament golf. You’re putting an entire 72-hole golf tournament into one golf shot. I’ve never had that amount of pressure,” she explained, citing the unique ‘sudden death’ nature of the made-for-TV event, which was filmed over a two and a half week period last October at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort near Jacksonville, Florida. Each week, one of the contestants is eliminated through a series of golf-related challenges. Like most reality shows, Big Break builds tension and conflict through real – or perceived – rivalries and animosities between players. O’Brien said despite what the show may portray, most of the women remained friends. “There are girls that didn’t get along, but I got along with everybody. I don’t like to have controversy or anything. We’re actually pretty close,” she said.
Through the first four episodes, she’s still in the hunt. But no matter what happens on Big Break: Florida, that moment five years ago on a wet stretch of Indiana highway is never far from Kristi O’Brien’s thoughts. “I’m actually happy that it happened to me because I really do appreciate life so much more. I’m thankful everyday to be here.”