By Bob Brainerd
Special to OnMilwaukee.com
Holly Finley is a transplanted Wisconsinite who seems to have a knack for finding her niche. Her profession is modeling. Her passion is disc golf. They coexist perfectly.
"With modeling I don't have to work every day so I'm lucky," said Finley. "It's just whenever people want to hire me, so I do have a lot of free time. When I'm not working, I'm golfing from sunrise to sunset and sometimes even in the dark."
Finley sashays from the runway to the fairway and excels in both worlds with a home base in Cambridge, southeast of Madison. Last summer, when the Tennessee native decided commuting to Chicago for most of her modeling gigs was a chore, she explored and embraced the surrounding area of Madison, deciding to hunker down in a small town environment that would provide serenity and proximity.
Unsure if she was in this relocation for the long haul, Finley rented out her home back in Nashville, where a return visit prompted her tenants to suggest she join them in hitting the links.
"I thought it sounded strange, I wasn't very good and I really didn't think much about it after that," said Finley. "In Wisconsin when the weather warmed up, I thought, 'What can I do by myself that is fun because I don't know anybody here?' Disc golf is fun and it takes several hours, it's free to play, so I went out and bought some used discs, went out to the course and started playing alone."
Her solo act didn't last long. Finley attracted other golfers who followed her form and asked her to join in. She morphed into playing in a weekly league and struck up friendships and mentors to improve her game.
"What's amazing about this sport is the people are really willing to share the knowledge," said Finley. "It's amazing when someone tells you something ever so slightly, like point your foot a certain way and turn your wrist another way, the next thing I know, I can throw the disc 100 feet farther than before.
"It's industry secrets, and some people are willing to share."
After her first four-month taste, Finley was hooked. But a business trip to South Africa temporarily stunted her growth in the sport. With no courses handy in and around Cape Town, Finley trekked four miles a day to throw in an abandoned field. Back in the States this past February, Finley played in her first tournament and began gobbling up first place hardware during her travels.
"It really takes practice and I hear professionals who are some of the top-rated players in the world out there all day, every day, playing golf," said Finley. "They'll be in their backyard two to four hours a day doing nothing, repetitive motions over and over until it becomes muscle memory and becomes automatic.
"That's what I'm trying to do and I'm also trying to play with really seasoned golfers who have a tight game with skills I can learn from."
Listed as an amateur but turning some heads on the Professional Disc Golfers Association rankings, Finley hopes her lightning-quick learning curve leads to a place among the sports elite.
"I'm still progressing really quickly and would hope within three years I could become a world champion," said Finley. "That might sound a bit unrealistic but that's what I'm going to work for. All it takes is practice, dedication, believing in yourself and support. I feel like I have all of those things and it's the perfect combination to make me a world champion someday."
Finley's drive to succeed was never in question, but her drive to kick start each hole wasn't up to par. After some tinkering and discussion with fellow players, it's the best aspect of Finley's repertoire.
"My drives went from 100 feet a few months ago to 300 feet," said Finley. "It's been a lot of fun watching myself progress in that department, and I'll go to the same courses I did last summer and throw it past my bench mark.
"It's just an amazing feeling knowing I have come so far so quickly. It's so easy to just pick up the sport and become good and even become great which is something you really can't say for a lot of other sports. People can play a sport on a recreational level but you really don't have an opportunity to become a world champion in five to ten years."
Finley now tours the United States seeking out her next challenge, squeezing in tournaments while she jet sets around the world modeling for designers like Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Jil Sander, Donna Karen and Louis Vuitton, to name a handful. If the back story on how she stumbled into playing disc golf isn't coincidental enough, try to grasp the karma of how Finley launched her international modeling career.
"I went to the mall one Sunday after going to church with my grandmother," Finley began. "My hair was all curled and I was dressed up and a woman stopped me and said 'Have you ever thought about being a model?' She told me her daughter was a model and was in a magazine. I just happened to look at that magazine right before I came to the mall and tore out an insert because it had a cute girl with a sunhat, thinking maybe I could find a sunhat like it.
"That girl was her daughter ... this means something."
It meant Finley had a whirlwind future, latching on with a manager then branching out to create her unique look and brand, even if the finished product produces a look that is sometimes somewhat unrecognizable.
"I see myself as so many different characters I sometimes don't even recognize myself," said Finley. "I'll see the finished product and say 'Wow, that girl looks great ... oh my gosh, that's me!'
"It's just amazing with all the technology they have these days, sometimes it's just beyond belief what they can do with an image."
Posing for the camera has been Finley's full-time employment for the past nine years and counting. She treats her vocation like her vacation away from it all on the disc golf course, acute to the idea she has only begun to scratch the surface in both.
"It's very challenging because it's a very tight-knit, strange industry," said Finley, who's image has also been splashed in the pages of Glamour magazine. "Just to be able to break inside of it is a massive feat of its own. And then to actually be successful, more than just making pocket change, those two things alone are just amazing and very rewarding in so many ways."
Two gratifying ventures that perhaps never would have occurred if Finley didn't follow her heart and instincts. It's only fitting that she intertwined the two somehow to keep the mojo flow intact, so having a fashion sense even when she tackles a disc golf course is an essential trademark part of her game.
"I have a thing going where I like to wear red Chanel lipstick every time I play in a tournament ... I really feel like it has contributed to my success," laughed Finley. "I do try to make my own fashion trend and add a little style."
Even Finley can't contain chuckling at herself. But she won't stray from ensuring her success, even if it means retaining her superstitions.
"I have to admit, there were times I was losing in the first round and I just decided, 'What can I do to lift my spirits?' and as a girl, when you feel pretty it makes you play better," said Finley.
If she nabs the attention because of her brightly colored socks, lipstick or hair, so be it. Finley's mission isn't just to be the best in the sport, but to help change the image perceived by curious and judgmental onlookers.
"One thing about this sport that leads to the lack of respect is that most of our golfers don't look professional," said Finley. "I've heard people say we look scruffy and dirty, and some players come out with whatever shirt on the floor they can find and jeans they've been painting and mowing the grass in. But that's the thing about disc golfers; we come from all walks of life."
Holly Finley's adoptive home in Wisconsin is the perfect setting for fulfilling all of her dreams in both walks of her life. While the two activities have little in common, one doesn't function without the other. And the open windows of opportunity to be a peak performer on both stages do have a ticking clock limit Finley is keenly aware of.
"As far as the universe goes giving me this opportunity, there is a small window that is very much wide open for me right now," said Finley. "I'm getting a lot of sponsor offers and professionals willing to spend time with me and share their knowledge of the game. A lot of people don't get this opportunity and I recognize that and I'm feeling very lucky for all the things that have happened to me. I'm trying to take advantage of it all while it's here.
"I know you have to act on things while they are around because it is a window and eventually it will close. Right now I've been handed the torch to play disc golf and it's burning strong inside of me. I know at some point I'm going to hand it off to someone else, but right now it's mine, I've got it, and I'm going to run with it!"
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