By the time she’s reached the age of 20, Kristyna Napoleaova had only played golf a handful of times – those few occasions hadn’t gone well.
“I was absolutely horrible at it and I said: ‘I will never do it in my life. I swear to God.’ It was horrendous. I remember it until now because it was so bad,” she told CNN Sport.
Fast forward three and a half years to 2020 and Napoleaova is a professional golfer following a rapid rise through amateur golf and the Ladies European Tour (LET) Access Series – the LET’s developmental tour.
And at the Saudi Ladies International earlier in March, the 25-year-old Czech player achieved her career best finish in golf, finishing tied for second, five-shots behind eventual winner Georgia Hall.
Napoleaova called the experience in Jeddah “absolutely insane” – from arriving at the airport to a man holding a sign with her name on it to the golf course itself – while also admitting she was a bit starstruck when she realized she was paired with Solheim Cup players Anne van Dam and Hall for her Saturday round.
“After Friday’s round, when I found out I’m going to be playing with Anne (Van Dam) and Georgia (Hall), I was absolutely over the moon,” explained Napoleaova.
“You hear about those players and you just wish like you could get close to them on the driving range and playing with them in one group, I knew that it was going to be absolutely incredible experience
“I did get some picture on how I would like to move on the golf course after this experience on Saturday, so definitely it gave me a lot and I really enjoyed every minute of it.
“As soon as I heard about it, I was like: ‘OK, I need to get a photo on the first tee. I’m not teeing up before it’s going to happen.’ Thankfully, they sorted it out for me which was really nice of them.”
As a child, Napoleaova remembers trying a range of different sports, including tennis, basketball and floorball.
However, it was another sport which she fell in love with, largely in part to the Brazilian stars at the time like Ronaldinho and Ronaldo: football.
As a youth, Napoleaova had an extraordinary amount of success, claiming six Czech league titles at multiple age brackets, as well as representing her country in the Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19 teams.
She already had begun to make plans for her career in football, aiming to go and play at a college in the US. She remembers receiving a few offers when she was 16 but her “mum didn’t want” her to go.
Moreover injuries had begun to take a toll on her football career.
She explains that she tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee aged 13 but “nobody knew” about it so she never underwent surgery for it, playing on it for “another three or four years.”
Then just before she was going to finally go get surgery on it, she tore her right ACL, as well as her meniscus.
“So I think when I was 17, I had finished with playing at all,” she remembers.
“But because I had a contract with AC Sparta Prague for like schooling and these kind of things, so I stayed in the squad, but I became a referee for two years, so then I was basically trying to do slightly different like career path.”
And it was after these injuries, and after realizing that a career in football might not be a possibility, that Napoleaova rediscovered golf.
Making a change
Despite the bad memories she had of previously trying golf, Napoleaova picked up the clubs, this time in an attempt to spend more time with her parents during the holidays while she was at university.
“When I picked it up, when I was 20, it was absolutely like a different sport,” she said.
At her first event, Napoleaova played so well that the players in her group joked with her that she would become a professional someday.
Napoleaova knew from her experience in football that things wouldn’t be that easy though.
“It’s never going to happen because I know how much time and everything it takes like to get a certain level. Like I had it with football and I grew up with it, and I know that it doesn’t come easy. It’s not easy.”
Choosing where to study for her master’s degree in international business was Napoleaova’s next big decision. Her final two options were between St. Andrews – the home of golf – or the University of Stirling.
She settled on St. Andrews, in part because of the historical significance of the area, and decided to give her golfing career a year to let it grow or fizzle out.
Aided by financial support from her parents, it turned out to be the best decision Napoleaova ever made.
She describes herself as a “feeling” player, which means that while her technique might not be perfect, it hasn’t held her back.
Another advantage Napoleaova believes she has found is coming to the sport slightly later than others.
“I think like my biggest advantage I see, and I know from football, is that a lot of people were ending at the age of like 15 to 20. So it was like the scale when they found a boyfriend, schooling, work or whatsoever,” she said.
“And because I started so late, I got this advantage of being like fresh in the sport, so pretty much like ambitious and enthusiastic and I’m not bored with it. Like I absolutely love it.
“Every single day, I’m very grateful that I can do it. So I think it’s one of the things which I feel like very lucky. And I used to feel a disadvantage of not playing for so long but I don’t see it anymore. I take it as an advantage. Like if I would see disadvantage on it, I wouldn’t move forward and I think that’s the thing which makes me go a step ahead again.”
Napoleaova got her opportunities on the professional stage via the LET Access Tour, before earning her status on the LET itself via the Q-School qualifying.
She describes the Access Tour as “super helpful,” but always knew that she wanted more because she’s “always been ambitious.”
However, after a steady start to the 2022 season, it was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that her season really blossomed.
Despite being just a rookie, Napoleaova held a share of the lead with Georgia Hall halfway through the Saudi Ladies International. And although she finished five-shots behind Hall in second place, it was a career-best finish for the Czech golfer.
It was her first top-10 finish on the LET, earning her almost $68,000 in the process.
Napoleaova admits feeling “nervous” finishing on the Sunday, but says she had felt “silently confident” throughout the whole week.
“I still feel like I’m in a dream or something. I don’t think that it’s still kicked in. I understand I’m second, but I don’t feel like it’s changing anything, but it is probably like a huge career-changer. And I think I will realize soon.”
She followed up her career-best second finish with a joint-ninth placed finish at the Joburg Ladies Open to continue her good form.
With the help of her coach, Napoleaova has worked on setting short, medium and long-term goals, one being to rise into the top 500 in the world rankings which she has already achieved.
“I would love to play the Olympics at some point and I ideally to medal would be great,” added Napoleaova.
“But what I would like generally, I would love to get on the LPGA, then at least win one event or major and … become No. 1 in the world. I know it’s a long, long shot and maybe it’s never going to happen.”