When Alena Sharp and Sarah Bowman’s relationship started to blossom, it was in the most Canadian of ways — they were playing hockey.
“She loved to chase me down and definitely engage in some body-checking,” says a laughing Bowman, who is from Pennsylvania. “I just assumed that was a Canadian form of flirtation.”
Sharp is one of just two Canadians with full-time status on the LPGA Tour, and Bowman has been her caddie since 2014.
Bowman is Sharp’s partner off the course as well.
Sharp, of Hamilton, says in her first years as a professional golfer, she wasn’t as comfortable being openly gay — although she says all of her friends knew. But with maturation comes confidence, and Sharp has found her voice as an LGBTQ athlete.
“It’s different to be open with the media, even though people knew,” says Sharp, who turned 39 earlier this year and is in her 15th year as a pro. “(But) things have got a lot easier. Well, not easier — because it’s not an easy thing to come out — but it’s more widely accepted now than when I was 22, 23, and I was really starting to tell people about who I actually was.”
Despite the occasional difficulty mixing their professional and personal lives, Sharp says she’s been lucky to have Bowman work alongside her. Their full-time inside-the-ropes relationship began when Sharp let her previous caddie go before an event in Hawaii, a trip Bowman was going to come on anyway.
It quickly became a working holiday. Of course, by that point Sharp already knew that Bowman had caddie skills — she had won a Symetra Tour event earlier that same year with Bowman on the bag.
Sharp says it’s easier to let go with someone you love versus someone you’re working with, so there are occasional vent sessions between the pair when the heat is on. But she says Bowman has been a “huge” part of her recent successes.
“I’m older and I have more experience on the course, but she’s given me so much positive reinforcement no matter what’s going on,” she says. “[Bowman] has helped me become more positive and not react too much to the ups and downs of golf in general.”
“No matter what, there is love,” says Bowman. “It doesn’t matter if she makes a big putt or hits the shot — that’s not what I’m there for, so to speak.”
Bowman says she is able to bring some much-needed levity to a sport where there is lots of time to overthink or doubt oneself. On the links, the pair mostly talks about their dogs or, a couple of years ago, their backyard renovations.
Although Sharp hasn’t found the winner’s circle on the LPGA Tour, she’s become a fixture on women’s golf’s biggest stage. Her best career result was a fourth-place finish at the 2016 CP Women’s Open, part of the big summer when she played in the Olympics as well. She’s earned more than $2 million (USD) in her career — basically all of it since she started working with Bowman.
Sharp has also often been right there with Brooke Henderson as she’s re-written the record books. Canadian women’s golf has seen a handful of its bright lights burn out over the last couple of years — whether for personal or health reasons — but Henderson and Sharp have been a steady 1-2.
After almost every Henderson victory, Sharp — and Bowman — have been on the 18th green ready to celebrate with her. Henderson tells Sportsnet even on weeks when she came close but didn’t win (including the CP Women’s Open in 2019), the pair was there to greet her after her round.
Golf Canada Chief Executive Officer Laurence Applebaum says he’s been impressed by Sharp’s off-course contributions as much as her on-course ones the past few years, particularly her leadership as a member of the LPGA Tour’s Board of Directors.
“She has been a contributing and active voice in golf for me personally in wanting to help the sport — and women’s golf especially — move forward and grow,” says Applebaum. “She brings her candor and authenticity in everything she does.”
Off the course, Sharp says the wider acceptance she’s seen for LGBTQ athletes, especially in Canada, is a positive step in the right direction.
She points to a recent Golf Canada initiative as one such example. At last year’s CP Women’s Open, signs emblazoned with a rainbow triangle saying “CP, Golf Canada & LPGA support positive space in sports” were posted around Magna Golf Club.
There have been other indicators of the Tour standing for broader social change. In a statement on Twitter in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the Tour said that it had “stood firmly for equality, opportunity, fairness, and unity” since it was founded 70 years ago.
It’s a start, and there are lots of good things happening, Bowman says, but there is still more to be done. After TV broadcasts, the couple has received messages from viewers saying the broadcast crews rarely mention Sharp and Bowman are a couple.
Normalizing their relationship on TV could go a long way, she says. Organizations like the You Can Play Project are helping to encourage LGBTQ participation in sport, but Bowman points to a recent study from the University of British Columbia that shows lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens are still half as likely to play sports as straight youth.
“It is not something that concerns me on a personal level as we are comfortable in our own skin and our relationship, and do not need validation from outside sources,” says Bowman. “However, there are LGBTQ youth, and adults, that are watching and possibly struggling. A mention could possibly serve as reinforcement to them that they are normal and it really is OK.”
Sharp, meanwhile, is more than OK. She’s found her voice, she’s found love, and she’s playing some great golf to boot.
“I’m embracing the role,” says Sharp, “and if I can help people by telling my story — if it helps them — that’s something I’m passionate about.”