Sage Springer’s Spirit Lives On
Remembering an indomitable little girl who inspired the golf world
By Alan Shipnuck and Ryan French
Photographs by Ben Van Hook
Sage Springer was always a miracle. In utero, she was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a third copy of all or part of chromosome 18. About 50 percent of the babies with Trisomy 18 are stillborn. For the 50 percent who survive, the average life span is between two and 14 days. Those who make it into the world are often exceedingly small, with severe heart defects. Most hospitals won’t attempt the surgery needed to correct the heart defects, deeming it too high-risk.
Following the diagnosis, Emma Springer and her husband Hayden were plunged into a state of fear and uncertainty. How could they celebrate a baby who almost certainly wouldn’t survive? There would be no baby shower, no registry, and no family shopping for all the necessities. Emma had purchased a crib before the diagnosis, but it remained in a box in the garage. Doctors told the couple repeatedly that even if Sage was born with a heartbeat, she wouldn’t make it more than 72 hours.
Throughout the summer of 2020, Hayden kept competing on the All-Pro Tour, a mini based in the central U.S., but for the first time in his career he struggled to concentrate inside the ropes. There was no refuge, even on the golf course.
On Sept. 30, 2020, the Springers headed for the hospital in their hometown of Dallas for a scheduled induction. The car was void of any excitement about becoming first-time parents. The Springers hadn’t even purchased a car seat for the ride home. There was no need, or so they had been told. After some complications with the induction, Sage was born by C-section on Oct. 1. She weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces at birth. The attending doctors and nurses wiped her off and laid her on Emma’s chest. They wanted her mother to hold her for the few breaths they expected her to take. There was no planned medical intervention; there wasn’t even an oxygen mask in the delivery room. “After she laid on my chest she just took this small, raspy breath, then another one, and then another one,” says Emma. “Hayden and I just started crying; we couldn’t believe what was happening. It was a miracle.”
On Jan. 7, 2021, four months after her birth, Sage underwent heart surgery. Hayden and Emma did not see her until 15 hours later. Despite weighing less than 10 pounds, Sage survived the intense surgery. She spent 70 days in the hospital, continuing to battle and recover. The Springers stayed in the Ronald MacDonald House, reserved to the families of long-term patients. They did shifts so one of them was by Sage’s side nearly every minute. A permanent feeding tube replaced her temporary one, and she received a tracheostomy to help with her breathing.
“We don’t have milestones, we have inch-stones,” Emma says. “We have found ourselves talking about when she is 2 or 3 or 10, but always in the back of our mind we know that may not happen.” The Springers learned to cherish every moment, no matter how small.
When Hayden qualified for the 2021 U.S. Open, the Springer women came to San Diego to cheer him on. Sage dipped her toes in the Pacific Ocean for the first time. The challenges of caring for Sage were immense but the Springers handled it all with grace, and plenty of help from their families. Meanwhile, Hayden kept chasing the dream in golf’s minor leagues.
For the Springers, joy and pain are first cousins. A healthy baby daughter, Annie, was born in 2022. They started a foundation to help other families with Trisomy 18. Hayden earned some status on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2022 but struggled on the course as Sage had continued health challenges.
In 2023, Springer’s game went to another level. He was the PGA Tour Canada’s player of the year, earning full-status on the Korn Ferry Tour for next season. When he won the season finale in Calgary (above), in September, Emma was there on the final green, wiping away tears.
But Sage’s health continued to deteriorate. This valiant little girl had overcome so much in her short life, but on November 13, Sage took her final breath.
Amidst their grief, the Springers continue to display the kind of perspective that has made them inspirations to so many in the golf community. “She brought us immeasurable joy and blessings,” Hayden and Emma said in a social media post about Sage’s passing. “Her wild and silly spirit is no longer limited by her earthly body.”
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.