Story by: Tim Ritter, Photo by: Colin Kaparos (Fort Myers News-Press)
FORT MYERS, F.L. - Last year, all Rene Kelly wanted to do was qualify for the Wal-Mart First Tee Open, a goal she had fallen short of the year before.
This year, she's a veteran.
"Of course, when they call the names, you get really nervous, but they called me first," the affable Lehigh Acres golfer said of qualifying with an 89-84 earlier this month in the 36-hole tournament in New Hampshire. "That was good - I hate the heartache."
She also has a lot more on her mind than the Champions Tour event in Pebble Beach, Calif. Starting Aug. 31, the tournament will pair professionals with junior golfers from First Tee, a nationwide program that teaches golf and life lessons to children from various backgrounds.
Since last year's First Tee Open, Kelly has played in plenty more big tournaments, helped her team win the Lee County Athletic Conference in her final season at Riverdale High School, finished school with a 4.54 grade-point average and accepted a scholarship to play at Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C.
"She's an unbelievable young lady," said Cindy Darland, executive director of the Naples/Collier chapter of First Tee. "She's really grown. I'll have known her for two years in August and her maturity level and her level of experience is everything First Tee is about."
Kelly got her start in golf thanks in large part to First Tee, which she joined when she was 12 and credits with her growth on and off the course. She's taken those lessons a long way.
Now, after a busy school year filled with Advanced Placement courses, Kelly, an International Baccalaureate student, has just been happy to get back on the golf course more regularly so she can start refining her game for college.
It didn't take long for her to impress her soon-to-be teammates, beating several of Pfeiffer's players on her last trip to the school and losing to the team's No. 1 golfer by one shot.
"I have to bust my butt," Kelly said of her intention to take the team's No. 1 slot as soon as possible. "I told the coach I want to be captain so bad."
She's also determined to make a bigger splash at this year's First Tee Open, her last before her First Tee eligibility runs out.
"Honestly, I just want to play good," said Kelly, who was not happy with a performance last year that saw her miss the cut for the final day's play. "I want to be on TV more this year. It helps me to have attention on me."
Last year, she was paired with Gil Morgan after original partner and Bonita Springs resident Peter Jacobsen pulled out. Morgan was not that talkative after a poor performance the first day of the tournament.
"I could see by his gestures that he wasn't happy with the way things were going," Kelly said. "So I didn't really talk to him."
She's hoping for another chance to play with Jacobsen this year.
"I hope I get him," Kelly said, flashing her easygoing smile. "If not, Fuzzy Zoeller. His personality is just like mine."
She'll have someone else to talk to even if she is saddled with another unresponsive pro. For the first time, her father, Verzel, will be there to watch the youngest of his eight children play in a major tournament.
"I'm so proud of her because I taught her," said Verzel, who also has a golf-playing son, Shane, who is part of the team at Arkansas Pine-Bluff.
The avid golfer said his final child leaving the nest this fall will be a happy event.
"It's not sad; it's a matter of accomplishment," Verzel said. "My part is completed. I'm satisfied in the way I raised them."
One of the most important things he did to steer Rene on the path she's on was pointing her toward the First Tee program six years ago.
The program, which she's hoping to leave on a successful note, taught her many things.
"Golf can be frustrating," said Kelly, who's already looking into possible majors and careers even as her golf career is in full swing. "There are times I'm about ready to throw out every cuss word in the world. First Tee teaches you to calm down.
"It's not the end of the world."
Wal-Mart First Tee Open
- When: Aug. 31-Sept. 6
- Where: Pebble Beach Golf Links and Del Monte Golf Course, Pebble Beach, Calif.
- Who: 78 Champions Tour players and 78 junior golfers from The First Tee programs around the country. Lehigh Acres' Rene Kelly, a senior at Riverdale High School, will represent The First Tee of Naples/Collier. In addition to the Champions Tour players and juniors, 156 amateurs complete the field.
- Format: Professionals play 54 holes of stroke play, junior/pro teams play gross best ball and amateur teams play net best ball.