When Kelley Hester became the coach of the Furman University women’s golf team four years ago, the program was at a low point. A perennial powerhouse in the Southern Conference, Furman’s Lady Paladins won nearly 50 tournaments between 1972 and 2009, including 13 conference championships and one national championship. Furman produced some of the towering figures in LPGA history, including Betsy King, Dottie Pepper and Beth Daniel. But the team had fallen off considerably between 2009 and 2012, going three seasons without a single win.
Hester, who previously coached at the University of Georgia, is blunt about where the program was when she arrived. “When I got here, that was kind of the bottom,” she says. “There had been so many high points in Furman’s golf history, but they were pretty much at an all-time low, meaning that they were ranking about 90th in the country, and hadn’t won a conference championship in three years. So I wasn’t really sure at what pace we’d be able to improve, but I did know that there was a lot of room for improvement.”
Hester has used all that room and more. In her first two seasons with the team, they finished second in the Southern Conference, and they came all the way back in 2015 and 2016, winning back-to-back conference championships and multiple tournaments. And now, after an overall fourth-place finish at the NCAA regionals at the Traditions Golf Course in Texas, Furman is headed to the NCAA championship tournament.
It was a good enough performance to win Hester the 2016 SoCon Coach of the Year award, but she sees the 2015–16 season as the culmination of a long journey.
“It’s been a pretty steady climb,” she says. “But these last two years we’ve won seven tournaments, two of which were conference championships. Had our first All-American player [junior Taylor Totland] since 2005, and made it to the NCAA regional. But more importantly to me, we were ranked highly enough that we would’ve made it even if we hadn’t won the conference. It’s been a nice progression. It’s been fun to see a steady improvement.”
The Texas tournament was on a tough course, one of the toughest the Lady Paladins faced all year, and Hester says she learned lot about the team from how they dug in after a shaky start. “They were very consistent,” she says. “You don’t really know what a group or an individual or a team is made of until they have some adversity. And regionals are adversity. The top teams in the country don’t make it through regionals sometimes. They showed a lot of intestinal fortitude and grit. We made some mistakes, but we made a ton of birdies. That was really fun to see. They didn’t allow one or two bumps in the road to get them down. They rose above it.”
That fortitude will come in handy at the championship tournament, which kicks off on May 20 at the Eugene Country Club in Oregon. “That course is quite challenging,” Hester says. “You’ll make some bogeys and even double-bogeys. And you just can’t let that ruin your day.”
Along the way, Hester and her assistant coach, Jeff Hull, have had some welcome, legendary boosters.
“Betsy King, Beth Daniels and Dottie Pepper have been so supportive of what we’re doing here and of me,” Hester says. “For years and years, they’ve supported this program both financially and personally, and they’ve taken a very hands-on approach. They know all the girls, and Betsy King even travelled with us to regionals this year. I think it’s important for all the girls to realize the history of where Furman women’s golf has been and know that these people really want to help.”