The Mustang senior has long had his sights on defending his crown, but securing the opportunity to even qualify for state was by no means guaranteed.
In fact, due to the Pine Ridge Reservation’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, there were serious doubts if he would even have a senior season at all. But as with everything in life, Christensen met the challenge head-on. He worked with the tribal council on modifying their ordinance so that golf and cross country, as well as a few in-person education and counseling services, could resume.
“There have been a lot of reasons as to why I couldn’t have a season this year,” said Christensen, who competed in his first event on Sept. 10 in Douglas. “(But) I’m not complaining. I got a season, I’m going to the state tournament and I’m ready to go.”
Born to golf
Lance Sr. jokes that he had a golf club in his son’s hands before he could even walk.
The top scorer for Bennett County’s 1988 Class B state champion team, Lance Sr. didn’t start playing until he was a 9th grader. While he came to love the game as a teenager, he feared that if he waited that long to introduce Christensen to the game, he may find it boring. So, Lance Sr. said, whenever he went golfing, he brought his son with him in the hopes of growing his passion for the game.
By age three, Christensen was starting to play himself, spending time on the practice greens and driving range while his dad played out his round. The youngster could (and usually would) play all day and never get bored, his father recalled. He was embracing an opportunity that he didn’t have back home.
“Lance has always loved golf so much and that’s something I always hoped for,” Lance Sr. said. “It’s been a pretty awesome journey with him.”
Christensen’s love for and dedication to golf has only grown over the years.
At home, where he has two driving ranges — one next to the house and another in the pasture which he shares with 10 horses — Christensen will turn on his car’s headlights and shine them down the range so he can practice late into the night. When he has an opportunity to play a course, his rounds are typically followed by sessions on the practice green or range.
“I’ve found a way to just love practicing. I don’t know what it is,” Christensen laughed. “I can’t really explain it.”
Rob Mendoza, Christensen’s high school coach and uncle, recalled specifically a round with his nephew last month in Rapid City. The two finished playing around 5:30 p.m. Four hours later, he got a call from Christensen — who was just walking off the practice greens. “I’m sure there’s millions of kids who have that same love (for golf),” Mendoza said, “but with where Lance is coming from, it’s a big deal.”
“You definitely appreciate the game more when you get to the course and you have the practice greens and all the holes,” added Christensen, who runs a youth golf camp in the summer. “You appreciate the time you have more, because you never know when you’ll be able to make it back again.”
Little Wound senior Lance Christensen during the first round of the Class A state golf meet in Hot Springs on Mon., Oct. 5. (Photo courtesy South Dakota Public Broadcasting)
‘I just want to golf’
Back in August, the chances of Christensen having a senior season — at least as a Mustang — seemed remote, at best.
While the South Dakota High School Activities Association had cleared a path for fall sports, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s strict COVID-19 shelter-in-place ordinance forbade Little Wound and the other schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation from offering in-person learning or any extracurricular activities through at least the first nine weeks of the semester.
“It felt unfair because the rest of the state was moving on without me,” Christensen said. “I didn’t have a team. It’s just me … I got frustrated with it.”
The Little Wound senior and his parents were in contact with members of the tribal council, but with the first day of classes quickly approaching, he transferred to Hot Springs High School. The lengthy commute wasn’t ideal, but at least this way he would have an option if the Tribe upheld its original mandate.
“I’m very thankful to Hot Springs for helping me out,” Christensen said. “I wouldn’t have had as much hope without them.”
Switching schools gave the senior standout optimism, but the nearly 100-mile trek from Kyle to Hot Springs quickly proved to be too much. After about five days, he decided to re-enroll at Little Wound and take his chances with the council.
He was effectively putting his senior season at risk.
“We just went out on a wing and a prayer,” Christensen said.
Over the following days, the Christensens worked with the tribal education committee on developing a formal presentation for the Tribal Council. Not only were they fighting for individual fall sports (golf and cross country), they were also working to get in-person learning programs for special education students and counseling services reinstated.
In early September, the tide finally turned.
Christensen and Red Cloud sophomore cross country standout Jade Ecoffey addressed the council personally, explaining how much it meant to represent their schools, their reservation and their families. They may never go back into school this year, Christensen told the council, but the modified ordinance would get them moving in the right direction. “It was really powerful,” Lance Sr. recalled.
Later that day, an amendment to the stay-at-home order was passed.
On Sept. 10, nearly a month into his senior season, Christensen participated in his first event, finishing third at the Douglas Wind Invitational.
“It was definitely disappointing that I couldn’t get a full season, but I’m not bashing (the Tribal Council) for it, because they were doing what they thought was best for the reservation,” Christensen said.
“At the end of the day, I just want to golf,” he continued. “When you put a golf club in my hand, nothing else matters.”
In 2018, Christensen and Lance Sr. watched from the edge of the 18th green as Tea Area’s Brock Murphy celebrated his Class A state championship with his father. In that moment, Christensen, who had tied for sixth — an impressive finish for a sophomore — made a promise to his father: “That’s going to be us next year.”
A year later, Christensen was on the 18th green, his arms triumphantly raised as he celebrated a five-stroke victory at the state championship meet.
“I just want to follow in my Uncle Rob and my Father’s footsteps,” he proudly told SDPB afterwards. “I’m just going to get back to work. I’m not done yet.”
It was a historic victory for the Little Wound standout, whose dedication and success through difficult circumstances vaulted him into the national spotlight and set him on track entering 2020.
This summer, Christensen was one of three South Dakota golfers selected to compete in the High School Golf National Invitational at the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. He finished 135th with a three-day score of 245 (best among the S.D. participants), but more importantly saw first-hand what other players his age are doing. “As hard as he thought he was working, he realized that he needs to work even harder and keep going,” Lance Sr. said.
When his senior season finally began, Christensen hit the ground running with four meets in eight days. His coaches wanted to get him battle-tested with three ‘AA’ events and the senior proved capable, most notably at the Mitchell Invitational where he tied for fifth (73) — a stroke better than team champion O’Gorman’s top finisher.
Ten days later, Christensen won the Region 4 championship and set the stage for state, where he hopes to not only repeat as champion, but also further gain the attention of college recruiters. His dream? To enroll at a school in the south so he can play year-round.
“This week’s been crazy with how anxious I’ve been,” said Christensen. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this before. It’s going to be exciting.”
Regardless of what happens Tuesday, the impact Christensen has had on the reservation far exceeds his accomplishments on the golf course.
In addition to running a youth golf camp, the Little Wound senior is an honors student in the classroom and, as his father noted, is both sober and drug-free. “That’s a big thing where we live,” Lance Sr. said.
Through his work in the community and success on the golf course, Christensen has captured the admiration and imagination of both young people and adults alike.
“The impact Lance can have as a golfer is so great, because anyone can (follow him and play the game),” Mendoza said. “He has his ups and downs — golf is hard — but he doesn’t run from challenges. He thrives from them.”