A league apart: Kelly Shon reps the Ivies on LPGA

A league apart: Kelly Shon reps the Ivies on LPGA

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A league apart: Kelly Shon reps the Ivies on LPGA

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the March 30, 2015 issue of Golfweek. Shon, a rookie, has since played her way into the season’s first major, the ANA Inspiration.

PHOENIX – Kelly Shon almost didn’t make it to the LPGA. Not because of a lack of talent or opportunity. Rather a mind that wouldn’t stop.

Growing up, Shon attended a junior academy in Florida alongside the daughters of tennis champions Ivan Lendl and Petr Korda. Golf was her focus and the LPGA her dream.

Princeton changed that.

Today, the LPGA rookie can close her eyes and just as easily see herself working for the Peace Corps in Mongolia as standing on the first tee at a major. Both are exhilarating prospects for the Ivy League alumna, whom friend Kate Miller describes as an entrepreneur at heart.

“Sometimes we would talk and golf wouldn’t come up once,” said Miller, a former basketball player at Princeton. “For a lot of really good athletes, and people who are in the spotlight, that’s all you talk about. With Kelly, that wasn’t the case.”

First there was a passion for marketing, with Shon helping an upstart advertising club on campus explode from four members to more than 300. Junior year came with a push toward finance or consulting in the city, but the sociology major couldn’t pull the trigger on an internship because summer golf “always got in the way.”

Shon, 23, spent most of her senior year exploring the nonprofit Teach For America and diving into a new passion, Roman architecture.

“I saw her name at Q-School and was, like, really?” said Jessica Korda, who for years has referred to Shon as “Princeton.”

“I would’ve never pegged her for somebody who would’ve come back out.”

In college, golf became her escape. On the weekends, she’d take three clubs and walk 15 minutes to Springdale Golf Club for a break from the books and a breath of fresh air.

While so many peers went to golf-intensive schools, Shon said her breakdown at Princeton was 70/30, with golf being the “30” and sharing the stage with a rigorous academic program and an eating club, Princeton’s version of coed fraternities and sororities. Upperclassmen “bicker” to eat and socialize at one of 11 mansions on campus. Shon immersed herself into the Cannon Club.

“With the demands that a place like Princeton puts on you intellectually, it’s wonderful to be able to go to the golf course and literally shut out everything else,” said Will Green, director of golf at Princeton. “It’s interesting because I think it sharpens your focus.”

A two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, the humble Shon became only the second player in conference history to qualify for the NCAA Championship. She also competed in two U.S. Women’s Opens.

From an early age, Shon was discouraged by her father, an orthopedic surgeon at a university hospital in South Korea, from professional golf.

“He said it very well to me, and it hit me pretty hard,” Shon said. “To make a good living out here, you’ve got to be the top 10 percent of the world. To make a good living pretty much doing anything else, you can just be good at it . . . You can be at the 90th percentile.”

Ultimately, the drive Shon saw in classmates toward their gifted areas pushed her toward LPGA Q-School.

“Whatever my friends do, they’re really passionate about it and they’re trying to be the best at it,” Shon said. “That’s a similarity between Princeton and golf that people probably wouldn’t recognize if they weren’t a part of it.”

When Shon earned her card at LPGA Q-School in December, only the third Ivy League graduate to do so, a proud Green burst into tears in an airport. When Shon contended at the Bahamas in her LPGA debut, Green created a theater by projecting TV coverage onto the screen of their golf simulator in the basement of the school gym.

His joy is palpable.

“I’m sure there are coaches out there who have a half-dozen players on the LPGA,” said Green, noting “the newness of it all. She’s the first from Princeton, ever.”

While Shon’s big brain continues to process ways she might impact the world, she’s having a blast in her first profession. While warming up on the practice green at her first event, Shon noticed one ball after another drop into a nearby hole from a fair distance.

Who is this person?

Shon looked up to see Stacy Lewis.

“I didn’t want to putt,” Shon said. “I just wanted to stand there and watch her.”

In her first two starts on tour, Shon estimates she lost 10 years of her life. The first week, she flirted with the lead, eventually tying for 11th; in the second, she grinded over a cut, ultimately missing it.

The highs and lows, she said, are too dramatic if she wants to live past 40.

“I’ve never had so much fun playing golf as I am now, being pushed by the greatest players in the world,” she said.

“I don’t want to miss one week.”

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