That last sentence requires a modest modification because it already is the best season ever in CU women's golf. But it could get better. It has been an audacious, bodacious late winter and early spring for the Buffaloes, but Kelly and her players aren't content to stroll the fairways and let recent accomplishments carry them, even though their scorecards recently surpassed significant.
Earlier this week, CU won the 2012 Anuenue Spring Break Challenge at Kapalua, Hawai'i, defeating California by two strokes and Tennessee by three. Big win in a big field by a small margin. It was 180 degrees from their previous triumph - by a school-record 31 strokes - earlier this month in the 2012 Clover Cup.
But here's the bottom line for Kelly's Buffs: After a 2010-11 season that was the most successful ever at CU, this season has blown past it. With a fall win in the Edean Ihlandfelt Invitational, the Buffs now have a school-best three tournament wins, with the last two being back-to-back for the first time in school history. And preceding that pair of first-place runs was a second-place finish.
CU women's golf is enjoying a nice spring sizzle.
Kelly, of course, is looking more forward than back. But in your 15th year on the job, reflections are permitted, even encouraged. "This is what I've tried to work for, to get our team to this level," she said Thursday in a telephone interview from Hawai'i (her team stayed an extra couple of days over spring break and was headed for the mainland on Friday morning).
"It's taken more time than I wanted it to, but that's the nature of sports and golf," she continued. "But I know this: we've done it the right way. We've reached the point of having success and we've been able to get terrific young women on our team."
Kelly, a six-year LPGA tour vet and former teaching pro in Arizona (she also coached at North Carolina-Greensboro), is particularly pleased for Emily Talley, one of four seniors on the CU roster. Talley, said Kelly, "bore the burden of carrying this team during her early years (at CU) . . . she deserves to have some success. There wasn't that much (early) frustration for her because she loves CU so much and wanted this team to be successful. It's just been great to see her realize that."
Talley, of Napa, Calif., has methodically stamped her name in the CU record books. Entering her senior season, her career average was 74.67 - the school record for women's players with 50 or 100 rounds to their credit. Among her other CU career marks: most rounds under par, most rounds in the 60s, most top 10 and top 20 finishes . . . the list goes on. She was first-team All-Big 12 last season in CU's final year in the conference and was the school's 2010 female athlete-of-the-year.
Thanks to the salesmanship of Kelly and assistant coach Brent Franklin, reinforcements did eventually arrive for Talley. Said Kelly: "It was our job to recruit our tails off and get her some help . . . we told her that and fortunately she believed us."
Talley knew Kelly and Franklin, a well-connected Canadian who in 2010 was inducted into his home country's Golf Hall of Fame, weren't blowing smoke when Jessica Wallace arrived last season by way of Pepperdine. Wallace, now a senior, promptly set a CU seasonal record last fall and spring with a stroke average of 72.97 and broke almost every other school seasonal mark.
The arrival of Wallace, of Langley, B.C., coincided with that of the freshmen Coleman twins (Jenny, Kristin), from Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. - a duo that Kelly described "fly-under-the-radar recruits. They were overlooked by most of the West Coast schools, but they've very solid and consistent. Plus, they're very hard workers."
Then came Alex Stewart, who submitted a spectacular freshman season at Purdue - the defending NCAA champion - before transferring to CU. Put a club in her hands, said Kelley, and Stewart becomes a bulldog. "She's one of the best competitors I've ever seen in college golf . . . smart, cool, collected and very talented. She's been a good player for a long time. Not to downplay anything Emily or 'Jess' have done for us, but having her has lifted the level here. They're good players, but the effect 'Tiger' (Woods) had on players on the PGA tour, on a smaller scale that's what Alex has done for us."
With the pieces finally in place, the next step was for them to perform in unison. "We knew we had some very talented players, players with a lot of heart," Kelly noted. "Brent and I had been saying throughout the year if three or four of our girls got it going at the same time we'd be very tough to beat."
The Buffs got it going in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the Culver Cup in mid-March, then packed it up and proceeded to keep it going in Kapalua. Jenny Coleman finished third in individual play, two strokes behind Pepperdine's Alina Ching and six back of California's Daniela Holmvqist. Four CU golfers placed in the top 14: Stewart was tied for eighth, Wallace tied for 12th, Talley finished 14th. Kristin Coleman tied for 36th and junior Taylor Doyle, of San Diego, was tied for 55th.
"It was nice to see them continue in Hawaii," Kelly said. "It was a tougher field there, but every day we had at least three players playing well. Kristin came in in the last round and bailed us out (four-over-par 76, finishing with two birdies). We need to get her going a little stronger a little earlier . . . but we all still have room for improvement."
Included in the Anuenue's top 10 finishers were four Pac-12 Conference teams - CU, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State. The Pac-12 features eight schools in the top 25 of the latest Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings - 1. UCLA, 3. Southern California, 5. Arizona State, 8. California, 11. CU, 13. Arizona, 17. Oregon and 22. Washington. (The Buffs have never had a top 10 ranking.)
That lineup lends credence to Kelly's belief that that Pac-12 "is the most competitive conference in the country in women's golf." But she and her players are puzzled (and she admits motivated) by Cal continuing to be ranked higher than CU. "We've beaten them something like four of five or five of six times in head-to-head competition," she said.
That discrepancy can be resolved in late April (27-29) in the Pac-12 Championships at The Palouse Ridge Golf Club in Pullman, Wash. Other than expecting strong winds and knowing the layout is "big and wide open," Kelly said she has much to learn about the course. But the schedule affords the Buffs a tune up for that event; they have a dual meet set with Colorado State on April 15 at the Colorado National Golf Club, which also is big, wide open and can be breezy.
And it's home. The Erie course also will be the site of the NCAA West Regional in mid-May (10-12), and it appears to be an opportune year for CU to be hosting. The NCAA Championship field includes 72 teams, and if the Buffs are among them they will play in the West. The top eight teams from each region advance to the NCAA Championships, May 23-26 in Franklin, Tenn. The Buffs never have made it that far.
CU hosting the West Regional, said Kelly, is "great because we know the course, we'll be home and will have some support. On the other hand, what Brent and I have to do is make sure we don't get out there and try too hard - that's something playing at home will do. I know when I was on the tour and played at home, I had to make sure I wasn't trying to perform for other people . . . but that's where coaching comes in."
The Buffs made the NCAA field last season for only the second time in school history and were shipped to Daytona Beach, Fla., to compete in the East Regional. Kelly was happy to be in the NCAA field, but in all honesty a bit dismayed about the travel. Also, regional play occurs during semester finals week at CU, forcing Kelly's golfers into an early academic crunch time before crunch time begins on the course.
"Last year, they took finals before (the regional) and were finishing papers on the road," Kelly recalled. "It's really a mental grind getting ready for finals, then getting focused for your rounds of golf. It'll be the same way this year."
All in all, though, with the West Regional being where it is and the Buffs now being what they are, it's a very good grind. Their task now becomes to keep grinding and avoid complacency. It might have taken 15 years, but this is an enviable spot that Kelly & Co. find themselves occupying.