Standing in the 18th fairway trying to decide what club to hit for his second shot on the 416-yard par 4 finishing hole, Camden High’s Wills Kelly stepped away from his ball while under the watchful eye of CHS head golf coach Matt McCarley.
At first, Kelly thought about using a 6-iron on his approach shot as the wind whipped into his face. McCarley thought the 6-iron was too much club. Suddenly, the wind changed as the Bulldog sophomore pulled a 7-iron from his bag. The result was a liner headed for the pin only for the shot to land four feet below the hole.
Kelly wasted no time in dropping home the 67th and final shot of his second round in Tuesday’s final day of the 36-hole AAA state golf championship held at the Camden Country Club.
Combined with Kelly’s opening round 74, it gave him a 36-hole, 1-over par 141 which sewed up medalist honors for him. Kelly won the individual title over first-day leader, Andrew Swanson from May River who fired a Monday-best 69 in an opening 18 holes played in brilliant sunshine and nearly gale-force winds. Lawson finished second behind Kelly with a 69-75—144 to earn AAA All-State honors.
According to Palmetto’s Finest, which is the record book for the South Carolina High School League sports, Kelly became the first CHS golfer to win a state individual championship.
Kelly’s 3-under par final round helped the tourney hosts to a fourth-place finish in a tournament won by Bishop England with a 612 final score. Chesnee, which led by three strokes heading into Tuesday’s play, finished second with a 627 with Woodruff next at 628 followed by Camden’s 646. (See accompanying story for team totals and details.)
Camden --- which was seven shots out of the lead after the first 18 holes --- was in contention for the team title on Tuesday. Kelly, who was five strokes behind Swanson after one day, was in the mix for the individual crown. He said he did not impose a second round score on himself as he teed off on a brisk Tuesday morning.
“I didn’t really have a number in mind,” Kelly said of his mindset going into the final round at the par-70 Donald Ross-designed layout. “I just tried to play each shot the way that I know I can hit each shot. I hit the ball a lot better today than I did yesterday.”
Kelly, who had two bogeys --- both on the front nine --- Tuesday, made the turn at even par after a birdies on the par 3 sixth and par 4 ninth hole. Coming in, he got to 2-under par with back-to-back birdies on the par 4 14th and 15th holes. He would par the par 3 16th and the par 4 17th before his tourney-closing birdie on 18.
“I was around par all day, but when I got to 14 and made a birdie there, that kind of boosted my round. Then, I hit it to four feet at 18 ...,” Kelly said.
With the pin on 18 located in the middle lower half of the green, McCarley said it was not time for Kelly to go flag-hunting. Instead, he wanted the 16-year-old to play it on the conservative side.
“We were just going over his yardages and where he wanted to hit the shot,” McCarley said of his advice to Kelly on the finishing hole. “I told him there was no need to knock it past the hole and that short was OK on that hole. There was no need for him to be aggressive with his club selection on 18.”
While the wind was blowing at half the strength Tuesday as it was the previous day, Kelly said it did not affect his play either day. “It didn’t seem to affect me that much,” he said of the windy conditions, “but I don’t really pay attention to that stuff when I’m playing.”
What Kelly did play with was a confidence and knowledge of his home course which few players in the field of 16 teams plus individual qualifiers possessed. He said knowing the way the ball breaks on the greens played to his advantage.
“It did,” he said when asked if the home course advantage helped. “I was a lot better at reading putts than some of the other guys out here because they’re just not used to the breaks that we usually have out here. On the front side, everything breaks to the number 10 (hole) pine tree. Some people thought it would break the other way.”
McCarley said Kelly strung together his best consecutive rounds on a course which has not always been kind to him.
“Wills has it in him. He has a lot of talent,” said the former Camden High and USC golf standout and CCC’s head golf pro. “There is something about him, though, where he struggles on this golf course more than others. It’s not abnormal. He finally played to his potential.”
Conducting his post-round interview before al the scores --- including those of Swanson and the top three from Bishop England came in --- Kelly said he was not a bundle of nerves as to whether his 141 score would be enough to win individual honors.
“Not really. I’ve done all that I could do,” he said of his ability to stay composed while other golfers were still on the course.
The 67 was not Kelly’s best round at the Camden Country Club. His lowest score came when he shot a 66 during a regular round of golf played last summer. To shoot what he did in the SC High School League State championship, he said, was an entirely different beast.
Kelly himself turned things around for the Bulldogs this season. After getting off to a scorching start, Kelly struggled, a tad, with his game in the middle of the season before reverting to his early spring self in the AAA championship and the AAA Upper State championship tournaments.
“Wills was just solid all day long, really. He played well coming down the stretch and hit smart shots,” McCarley said. “Sometimes, Wills, will get too aggressive. Today, he hit into the center of the greens, trying to play par golf and not really attacking every hole. It paid off.
“The team championship was our number one goal, but to have an individual champion is awesome, too. We’re very excited for Wills and about his future.”
Kelly came into state championship tourney ranked 41st among junior golfers, boys ages 13-18, as provided by the South Carolina Junior Golf Association. He smiled when saying that he is hopeful that his play over the two days in Camden will boost his stock in the rankings.
As he accepted congratulatory hugs and handshakes from teammates, family, friends, fellow players and members of the Camden Country Club, Wills Kelly politely smiled while accepting each compliment which came his way. Obviously, this moment was not too big for him.
“I’m pretty happy,” he said of the circumstances he found himself in Tuesday afternoon, “but it seems like a normal day to me.”