OAKMONT, Pa. – Kelli Shean embodies everything fans love about the U.S. Women’s Open. A little-known amateur with a feel-good story who climbs up the leaderboard with sheer heart. Nobody expects Shean to hold on until Sunday, but we love that a South African via Arkansas tackled a beast of a course in Oakmont with relative ease, her 6-foot-7 boyfriend right by her side.
“When we came here the first day it was ridiculous,” said Shean’s father, Stephen. “At that point we thought if Kelli breaks 90 we’d be happy.”
Instead, his 22-year-old daughter was the first to post a sub-par round at the Open, three-putting her last hole to shoot 1-under 70. She held the lead for much of the afternoon on another steamy day outside Pittsburgh. To look at her, one would never know she was making her Open debut. Countryman Ernie Els, who won his first major at Oakmont in 1994, played a tremendous role in Shean’s development and phoned to say he was watching from Scotland.
“I don’t know for sure if I’m going to win or not,” said Shean, “but just being able to be here and experience something that he has experienced is pretty awesome.”
It’s not hard to see what Els saw in Shean. A complication at birth left Shean 80-90 percent deaf in both ears. Without her hearing aids, Shean can’t hear at all. She reads lips perfectly, however, and hears better out of her right ear. Her coach at Arkansas, Shauna Estes-Taylor, wakes her up every morning at golf tournaments because she takes her hearing aids out to sleep. Back at school, the rising senior relies on her roommates to get her up for team workouts and class.
“She hates being called ‘hearing impaired’ ” said Stephen, who sells steel in Cape Town. “She’s never used it as a scapegoat.
Unlike most of the field, Shean didn’t pick up a club until age 14. Stephen said she was “hooked after one game of golf,” and dropped tennis. Her first coach, Clive Holmes, promised back in ’03 that he’d be there for her first major. He made good on his promise, flying over with Stephen from Cape Town. Shean has South African flags on her courtesy Lexus this week, and dad brought over one of those World Cup noisemakers for her, the Vuvuzela.
“We could never have dreamed this,” Stephen said as he watched his youngest child lead the Open.
In 2005, Shean was chosen to be part of the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation, a program designed to identify up-and-coming talent in South Africa who needed additional resources to succeed.
“They got me around,” Shean said. “They got me everywhere I needed to go. (Ernie) taught me all the things I needed to know. Being able to interact with him and have any kind of relationship with Ernie is unbelievable.”
In 2006, Shean represented South Africa at the World Amateur Team Championship, which was hosted near her home. Shean birdied four consecutive holes on the back nine in the final round in Stellenbosch to lead South Africa to victory. Back then her teammate, Ashleigh Simon, was the face of women’s golf in her country. Simon turned pro and went to LPGA Q-School, while Shean looked at all the international players going to college in the United States and took a different route.
“I went ‘Something’s got to be going on here,’ ” Shean said. “I needed to find myself a college to go to.”
Estes-Taylor saw her play one round in an AJGA event in 2005 and was immediately intrigued. Shean fell in love with Fayetteville and her people. She arrived in Arkansas an aggressive player, “selfish and arrogant” by her own admission. Estes-Taylor has helped her player smarter, going ’round with her during two practice sessions at Oakmont, developing a more responsible game plan. She finished last season No. 21 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
“She’s a total gamer,” Estes-Taylor said. “She loves the big-time.”
There were moments around Oakmont when Shean couldn’t help herself. Like the approach she rifled to the green from a fairway bunker on the seventh hole. Arkansas assistant coach Mike Adams immediately noted that Estes-Taylor would’ve had her lay up from that position. He then told the story of an all-world shot in Puerto Rico several seasons ago. During the competition, Estes-Taylor convinced Shean to lay up. After the round, Shean insisted she could’ve pulled it off. The whole team trekked out to the spot to recreate the scene. She proceeded to hook the ball over a creek, under a tree and onto the green.
“I actually have it on video,” Adams said, shaking his head.
While Estes-Taylor helped Shean map the course, it’s her boyfriend of 10 months, Chandler Rackley, who walks alongside her inside the ropes. Rackley is responsible for little more than carrying her bag, as the oversized college senior isn’t a golfer. What Rackley most obviously provides Shean, however, is pure joy.
“He’s just made me love life so much more,” she said. “He’s caddied for me a couple times and I haven’t lost anything with him on my bag.
“I have the best time of my life out there.”