TAMPA — Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, as much as Kelli Pry felt at home on the golf course, her father always told her that Florida was the best place to golf, with beautiful courses everywhere playable year-round.
Eddie Pry suffered a heart attack and died at age 50 in January 2006, midway through Kelli's junior year of high school, and she didn't touch a club for eight months. As much as she loved the sport, golf was something she did with her father. Doing it without him was too painful to fathom.
Three years later, Pry took a huge leap, transferring from tiny Kutztown University to USF without so much as speaking to the golf coach, hoping to make the golf team as a walk-on. She not only made the team, but earned a scholarship and helped the Bulls to their first Big East championship two weeks ago. As USF heads to NCAA regionals this week, Pry is now living her father's dream.
"It's amazing how far I've come," Pry said last week in her coach's office just hours before she graduated — cum laude, no less — in biomedical science, with plans to become a pediatric surgeon after trying pro golf.
It wasn't an easy path to USF. After her father's death, she immersed herself in swimming, escaping in the pool and becoming strong enough in the breaststroke to earn a scholarship as a two-sport athlete at Kutztown, balancing swimming, golf and a full course load. After a year and a half of long days, studying until 1 in the morning and waking up for 5:30 a.m. swim practice, she made a change.
Upon arriving at USF she practiced with the golf team her first year, then made the starting five last year, playing in every spring tournament. This year, she earned a scholarship, and as USF's only senior she emerged as a leader. At the Big East tournament near Orlando, she opened with 73, then finished in a tie for sixth, helping the Bulls clinch a one-stroke victory by playing par golf over the final six holes.
"I was like, 'Kelli, you have six holes. This could be my last round as a Bull.' I just dug in there," Pry said. "I was walking up the fairway, praying: 'Help me find strength right now.' I had my family there and my teammates and I really just lived in that moment."
Pry found herself 111 yards from the pin on the 18th hole, which called for her favorite club, her pitching wedge. She hit the green and two-putted for par, a clutch finish at a time where second-place Notre Dame's four players all finished over par over their final five holes. The Bulls will play Thursday through Saturday in the Central Region tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
"Finishing strong is something Coach (Marci Kornegay) instills in us all the time," Pry said. "You don't win tournaments by how you start, it's how you finish, and that's how we won Big East."
Kornegay trusts Pry's calm down the stretch, remembering a tournament in October at Furman when Pry had an eagle and a late birdie in her final round to help the Bulls to another one-stroke victory. She remembers first seeing Pry on the range, and what impressed her most had nothing to do with her swing.
"Her personality really speaks to you. She kind of captivates your attention," she said. "Whether she was good or not, she was going to make you believe you should give her a chance. That's the kind of personality she has, just a give-me-a-chance kind of girl, and we took a chance on her. She really got after it, and her work ethic was unbelievable. I could tell she had great leadership capabilities as well."
Much of Pry's family made the 16-hour drive from Pennsylvania for her graduation last week and she has her sights on the Symetra Tour, formerly the LPGA Futures, with a first-stage qualifier in September in Daytona Beach. She's also excited about medical school and wants to stay in Florida, knowing that whether it's her profession or just her love, there are beautiful courses here that she can play year-round.
"I'm a true believer that everything happens for a reason," Pry said. "If my dad had lived, I don't think I would have come to USF. There's no way I would be here without that experience, without me growing with that. There's a lot of things that happened that were blessing in disguise."