“Golf is what I do, but it’s not who I am,” Kelli Murphy, the No. 1 ranked junior girl golfer in South Carolina and a rising senior at Lugoff-Elgin High School, said recently.
With a calendar pervaded by lessons, practice, matches and tournaments, golf is what she does, especially as she prepares for the U.S. Golf Association Girls’ Junior Championship. In this penultimate national competition last year, Kelli advanced to the quarterfinals. That outstanding finish, among the final eight, qualified her for this year’s tournament, July 22-27 in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Although only 17, and probably weighing less than 100 pounds soaking wet and in golf spikes, she performs as a powerful heavyweight on the golf circuit. Chris Miller, director for the S.C. Junior Golf Association (SCJGA) describes, Kelli as a gifted player whom everyone enjoys.
“She stays at the top because of phenomenal talent, but also attitude and perspective. She embodies all that golf should be, and it all starts with her parents,” Miller said.
Kathi and Peter Murphy, her go-to rocks of steadiness, have instilled fundamental values that center around family, friends and faith to provide balance in Kelli’s life. Kathi is characterized by her daughter as an emotional coach, “always positive,” Kelli said, “and reminding me that everything will be fine.”
Maintaining an even keel is effortless according to Kathi.
“There’s simply no drama. Kelli sees that in others at times, and doesn’t want to be that way at all,” Kathi said.
No lucky shoes, hats, glove?
“We keep things uncomplicated and try to avoid the idea of luck and superstitions,” said Kathi, “It’s never been an issue,” Kathi said.
Kelli does make a habit of competing in her L-EHS golf team shirt on one day of most tournaments that she enters, as a show of pride and respect for the Demons’ red and blue. Some days she’s decked out in the Tiger orange of Auburn, where she has accepted a college golf scholarship. Regardless of the outfit, she’s never without her Kent Wool socks.
“I just like them. They’re comfortable,” Kelli explained.
One other item always worn is a medal of St. Anthony, her patron saint.
Kelli’s Christian upbringing and Catholic faith play a major role in her life.
“It’s very important to me to attend church every Sunday and to uphold my faith,” she said.
Kelli attends Catholic youth events and summer Christian leadership camps, and volunteers at Vacation Bible School. This past year she participated in high school SEARCH retreats, gradually working her way to serve as co-director. Kathi agrees that “her faith keeps her grounded.”
Finding quality time to be with friend’s matters intensely to Kelli. Looking for free days on her packed golf schedule, she may call friends and ask, “What are you doing on the 23rd?” Kelli laughs at their usual responses of “I don’t even know what’s up for the next hour!” In down time, Kelli frequently turns to art, making birthday posters, memory boxes and other thoughtful gifts for friends.
“Our house looks a lot like Michael’s Craft Store,” Kelli laughed.
Academics are another priority, as reflected in Kelli’s top 10 standing in her class.
Kelli’s Dad, Peter, a decent golfer with an eight handicap, focuses keenly on her golf, but tries to keep his input low-key.
“I remember how some of the kids hit a shot, then looked for their parent’s response. Not good. So I try to stay far away and never show any reaction,” Peter said, as he recalled her entry into the competitive circuit at age 7, the same time she entered second grade.
A subtle thumbs-up or whispered “nice shot” is the most volunteered from either parent.
Kelli said her dad is more like a coach with his encouragement to practice and practice right, and to never give up.
“Kelli has learned that what matters is not any wayward shot that’s hit, but how you deal with it that makes the difference. She plays the course, one shot at a time, and keeps things in perspective,” Peter said.
“Ability doesn’t matter without good attitude,” Kelli agreed, adding that she gives credence to the old adage that golf is a 5-inch sport, the space from ear to ear.
The two of them often play golf together, especially following a lesson. They walk nine, looking at the wildlife, the progress of the pecan trees, and enjoying nature.
“It’s not just all about the golf,” Kelli remarked.
She demonstrated that with utmost grace in her recent attempt to capture the Columbia City Golf Tournament championship in May. Kelli won the title as the youngest entrant during the past three years, at ages 13, 14, and 15, and was seeking an unprecedented four-in-a-row. Her name topped the leader board after day one, but she fell into second place on round two.
“At the end of that round, Kelli went to the driving range to work on her swing,” Kathi said. “Something wasn’t quite right, and she tried to fix it.”
Fix it she did, posting a 68 the next day to tie low-round for the tournament, but still two strokes short of victory. No one watching would have known. Her demeanor and attitude were bright and positive as she congratulated the winner and others with hugs and smiles.
“It’s competition, but not so much about the competitors as about the course. Golf is a personal sport,” Kelli said. “That’s what I like best about it. Sure, I want to win, but I’m always happiest if I improve with each round.”
The SCJGA has played a big role in that improvement.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without them and the opportunities they’ve provided,” Kelli said.
The SCJGA mission statement endorses “families enjoying golf in a competitive setting while building lifelong relationships.” All the Murphys agree that this has been the case for them.
“Kids are so lucky here to have a program like the SCJGA, which has helped Kelli develop all along the way,” Peter said, who described their good fortune in residing in South Carolina. “In 2001, we were living in Boston, but on the infamous date of 9/11, Kathi and Kelli happened to be visiting South Carolina. The cancellation of flights and the inability to rent a car left them stranded. I started driving south to pick them up, and by the time I arrived in Elgin, Kathi had located the perfect home!”
Peter needed just the tiniest of nudges to move his family to the golf mecca of South Carolina, where his talented daughter has developed under the tutelage of the SCJGA.
With far more weather-perfect days here to golf than in Boston, Kelli was asked if she eats, sleeps and breathes the game.
“No, but it does find a way to push me forward,” she said, laughing.
Kelli demonstrated this mentality in her mission to meet Hall of Fame golfing legend Nancy Lopez.
It began when she discovered that Lopez was slated to be in South Carolina for a tournament. Kelli had recently created a video about Lopez for a Spanish III class assignment, and decided that meeting her would sweeten the “A” grade she already received. So she set up events as precisely as a dominoes’ chain reaction. The Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am, an event hosted by Hootie and the Blowfish, had Lopez listed as a pro entrant. Kelli knew that the SCJGA sponsored the “Caddy Classic” to give youth the chance to caddy for the pros. In order to get first choice and guarantee to be rounding with Lopez, Kelli would have to win that tournament. And so she did. She selected Lopez, served as her caddy, and the two have established a friendship.
This is Kelli’s approach -- goal identification with step-by-step follow through. It’s just part of the discipline of her life, with her schedule, her school work, her future -- all on course. Spontaneous quick decisions are contrary to her nature.
“I don’t even do very well at drive-thru restaurants,” she joked.
According to Kathi, her daughter’s success has inspired other young girls to compete. During the Columbia City Tournament, a fan of Kelli’s wrote this message in the cart path sand: “Good job, Kelli M!” despite the fact that her sister was playing in the same event.
“Some of my strongest friendships are ones I’ve made through golf. After a round or a tournament, we all check in with each other and see how we are,” Kelli said, smiling, when asked about this.
It’s exactly what she and her competitors did during the Carolinas Golf Association Junior Girls’ Championship, June 25-27, which Kelli won through a format of both stroke and match play.
At the end of a string of competitive days like this, Kelli said she enjoys the breaks and being with friends.
“Golf is my passion. It really is important to me, but I try to not let it control my life,” she said.
“Kelli knows that the most important things in life aren’t things. They are family, faith, and friends.”