At age 25, Paloma Santiago has a resume that should make her feel welcome at any golf course.
It started at Lawrence High School, where she was a standout player and captain for the boys’ team. In 2016, she graduated with a degree in business from Methodist University, one of 18 accredited PGA Golf Management University programs in America. During those college years, she served as a professional golf management intern at Jasna Polana, Royce Brook Golf Club and Upper Montclair Country Club.
Upon graduation, Santiago was elected to PGA Membership and in 2017 earned her PGA card, making her a professional golfer. She spent one year as first assistant for Spirit Golf Management in Hopewell.
That same year, she became a member of PGA LEAD/PGA of America, which was created to identify, mentor and progress PGA members from diverse backgrounds, who aspire to assume leadership positions in the Association.
PGA LEAD also aids in developing PGA members who have a desire to serve and make an impact on nonprofit boards within the communities where they work and live.
Along with all that, Santiago is currently a PGA teaching pro. And yet . . .
“I’m a PGA professional, and sometimes when I walk into clubs I’ve never been to before, I get the ‘OK, who are you?’ and it’s a little stand-offish,” Santiago says. “To be honest, golf doesn’t need to be like that, because anyone and everybody can play.”
Which is why, in 2017, Santiago created Live Golf, a nonprofit organization designed to show all hopeful linksters that they can play, and that the sport is not just a country club activity.
“We just want to introduce and expose the game of golf to open up any opportunities; whether it be career-wise, a business venture or therapeutic opportunity,” Santiago says. “We want to open up the game of golf to everybody so that everybody feels welcome to play.”
To be clear, this is offered to anyone who has not played, but is interested in the game. Santiago is an advocate for diversity in golf, but Live Golf is not just for minorities, or women, or certain age groups. It is there for any person who ever thought about playing golf, but thought they didn’t belong.
“It’s for anyone who’s interested in being exposed to the game of golf, whether it be for a hobby or anything else,” she says. “We have a lot of corporate people who want to expand and do business on the golf course, so we target those individuals as well. It’s not limited to anybody. It’s whoever wants to take part. We’re having an introductory clinic soon for veterans for therapeutic alternative. We do not limit, we just introduce and expose the game of golf to any and everybody. “
In essence, it is encouraging young and old of any background to “Live the golf lifestyle.”
“That’s where the name (Live Golf) came from,” Santiago says. “My mom and I came up with it. When people live that golf lifestyle, they’re exposed to the different things that golf has to offer. You see how people participate in golf, and how they live. It’s completely amazing. You’re exposed to the luxury of golf. Golf really is luxurious with the clothes and the clubs. But, we do want people to feel that they belong to this luxury.”
Live Golf does that by offering introductory clinics at area courses. It has so far been limited to Mercer County public courses and the Morrisville Golf Farm, a pitch-and-putt facility in Pennsylvania, but Santiago is looking toward major expansion. She is currently in talks with a course in Trinidad and Tobago, where her mom hails from, to form a partnership in that country.
While there is a board of directors that handles much of the behind-the-scenes work, Santiago is the face of the organization. She is on the front line at all the clinics, providing a general understanding of the game. Participants can bring their own clubs, or three clubs will be provided: a wood, an iron and a putter.
Santiago takes it from there.
“Say you’ve never been on a golf course before,” she says. “We’ll talk about what to do, the type of club to use, how you hold the club. We tell them they can get a bucket of balls to hit for five dollars. A lot of people don’t even know that. We expose the golf facilities, we introduce the staff. We want them to know their local pro, the local people that work there and make it more inclusive so everyone feels comfortable at the golf course.
“It’s mostly demonstration. We show them, ‘This is how you hold a club, this is the basic way you swing a club.’ I’m not really giving a lesson.”
She does give lessons, however, as a PGA teaching pro, and for good measure she is a realtor and combines the two worlds by doing real estate deals on the links.
“It keeps me moving, keeps me young,” Santiago says with a laugh. “I’m a hustler.”
None of which surprises LHS Athletic Director Greg Zenerovitz, who immediately saw Santiago’s passion as her coach in high school. As a freshman, she saw regular time on a team that set a school record with 21 wins.
“I first heard about Paloma when she was in seventh grade and how committed of a player she was to the game,” Zenerovitz says. “For her to crack that varsity lineup as a freshman was quite an accomplishment.”
Santiago was introduced to the game at age 9 by Greater Trenton Junior Golf. She turned to the links after getting injured once too often in soccer, and found an immediate passion.
“I was naturally good at it out of nowhere,” Santiago says. “It was just the weirdest thing because no one in my family at all played golf.”
Her first swing came at a driving range in Ewing. Once the ball was struck, there was no looking back.
“My first golf shot actually went into the air and went straight,” Santiago says. “It felt amazing, and I never would have thought it. I never saw myself playing golf, and it’s really amazing I was exposed to that sport. One shot and I fell in love with the game.”
And if she duffed the shot?
“We might not be talking now,” she says with a chuckle.
It was through her experience with Trenton Golf that Santiago has the fierce urge to make everyone feel welcomed by the game.
“I’m really happy I got involved in the sport because I want to make a difference in my community,” she says. “I felt that it was my duty to really give back to the community so we could see it grow and change. I was able to take advantage of the opportunity that Greater Trenton was able to provide.”
Zenerovitz could not be prouder of his former player.
“I think it is fantastic that she is now giving back and teaching golf to diverse individuals,” he says. “I am not surprised that this is the path that Paloma has chosen to take, and for her to give back to others and teach them about the game she loves is a win-win for all involved. I ran into her a few years ago, and at that time she was involved in the management portion of running a golf course. I think she is much more happy doing what she is doing now, since she is able to teach others about the game of golf. I am a believer that you need to enjoy what you do for a living, and clearly, Paloma has found her calling.
“Paloma is a great representative of Lawrence High School and the golf program. We used to pride ourselves on working hard, staying motivated, and competing to the best of our abilities as a program on the golf course—something that Paloma clearly has continued to do as a young adult by creating Live Golf.”
Santiago has equal praise for the Cardinals program.
“It was really great being involved with an all-boys team,” she says. “It definitely made me stronger, opened up my competitive edge and really shaped me into who I am today.”
And while Live Golf will celebrate its three-year anniversary in January, in many ways it’s just getting started. Santiago currently runs the operation out of her Lawrence home and has yet to break through the barriers of the county courses. But fundraising has gone well as people jump at the chance to help once they hear her mission. She is happy with the progress and foresees tremendous growth upcoming.
“We definitely want to expand nation-wide and internationally, and around here we do want to take this further than Mercer County,” she says. “We also want to have our own facility one day, so we are open to partnerships. And we want to expand as much as we can and maybe we can franchise it a little bit.”
However far the program reaches, the message will always be the same.
“Golf has opened so many doors and opportunities for me, that I want to share that with everybody,” Santiago says. “We want to make golf inclusive and for people to feel comfortable when they go to the golf course.”
And hopefully, those “Who are you?” looks that are flashed to strangers at certain courses will become a thing of the past.
More information on Live Golf can be found on Facebook. To set up group sessions or to inquire about making donations or forming a partnership, email firstname.lastname@example.org.