Her talent was never in question. She has more of that than she realizes. The question mark was always Maja Stark’s temperament.
Consistently fiery, watching Stark on an average week can be an emotional rollercoaster. One minute she’s smiling and waving to all, and the next she’s banging her putter against her shoe and looking like she might jump in the nearest lake.
Given that Thursday’s first day of the Hanhwa LIFEPLUS International Crown was Stark’s first match-play contest as a professional only added to the anxiety.
But, boy, did she ever come through.
The team from Sweden was taking on England and there was never any question that Stark would be playing with Madelene Sagstrom. Not only are Stark and Sagstrom friends, despite a 7-year age difference, the other duo – Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Hedwall - have such a lengthy history in Solheim Cups and International Crowns that everyone knew they would go out as a team.
Nordqvist and Hedwall got off to a hot start in their match against Bronte Law and Jodi Ewart Shadoff. Nordqvist started the day with three straight birdies to take a 3-up lead. The English birdied the par-5 fifth hole to get back to 2 down, but that was as close as this one ever got. Birdies at 12 and 14 put the Swedes up four with four to play. One hole later, hugs were shared.
But that wasn’t the only point earned in these matches. The other pair from Sweden, Sagstrom and Stark, answered all questions with a proper 5-up thumping of the English pair of Alice Hewson and Liz Young.
Stark was nervous. But Sagstrom not only played well early, making four birdies and an eagle in the first 10 holes, she also put her arm around her partner and calmed Stark down enough for the 23-year-old to come on at the end.
Stark birdied 12 and 13 to put the Swedes dormie 5. A par at 14 and she got to celebrate the first point of the Crown.
“I was very nervous when we started so I thought it was going to be smooth sailing, but it really wasn't,” Stark said. “I was eager to hit further and really beat them, so I was a bit too eager in the beginning. Luckily Madelene played really well. We were 4-under through 3, so that was nice. Then I managed to pull my finger out and make a couple birdies on the back nine to seal the deal.”
Even after it was over, Sagstrom continued to buck up her partner. “I mean, Maja made birdie (for a tie) on the first,” she said. “And then I played solid on the front nine. I kind of felt like I knew what I was doing today, and it was more trying to get (Maja) in a good place.”
She looked at her partner with a smile and said, “You weren't really struggling but you weren't really finding your momentum.” Stark nodded emphatically. “It was more like, okay, I'm playing well, just keep trusting me and keep finding your own game, and she really stepped up on the back nine; started playing some solid golf.
“It was a really good matchup. We played really well together. Our games are fairly similar, so it's fun. We've never played team events before because I'm a lot older than her, so it's cool. It's awesome. But I think at the same time my experience also kind of helps me being out there. I talked a little bit about how I felt in previous Solheims and stuff, so it was good.
“We played super solid all day, so it's really nice to get away with a big win.”
Stark let her reason for being nervousness slip when asked what she learned from Sagstrom.
“It was mostly nice to see she was not frustrated with me, that she knows what it's like and can relate to it,” Stark said.
That was it. Letting down her older, more experienced teammates was her biggest fear.
“It was very nice because it made me calmer and I could focus on what I was doing wrong like technically in the shots, which was that I was thinking about technique and not the pins because I was trying to be perfect,” Stark said.
“So yeah, I think it was just calming.”
Few things bolster confidence like a 5-up victory.
How Stark will play the rest of the week is anyone’s guess, but the nerves of day one are behind her. Expect her regular fire and talent to shine the remainder of the way.