Athlete of the Week: Smith has Sharks on right course

sjgolf-kellismithaowKelli Smith three-putted on the first hole, and she bogeyed the last. But in between she showed why she is the Mammy’s Kitchen Athlete of the Year, and one of the top golfers on the Grand Strand.

Smith fired a 2-under par 34 in nine holes at Blackmoor Golf Club to lead the Lady Sharks to a match victory, just the latest in a long line of impressive rounds for the junior golfer and team captain.

“I had never broken par before so I was happy overall, but it could have been much better,” Smith said. “I always seem to get nervous on the first hole when people are watching, but then I settle down. That’s something I’ve been working on, getting mentally stronger.”

In truth, Smith has been honing her skills since she was old enough to pick up a club, thanks in part to her father and Prestwick Country Club pro Jay Smith. The love of golf runs in the family since Smith gave up softball and swimming in the eighth grade to focus on the little white ball.

“My dasd always had clubs for me to hold and swing ever since I was real young. He encouraged me but not in a bad way. He made it fun, and that’s how I approach it now,” she said. “I gave up other sports because in golf, you can’t put down the clubs for two months and pick them back up where you left off. That part was frustrating, so I decided to play year-round.”

Coincidentally, the St. James girls golf program has taken flight during that time. Smith and a group of fellow Lady Sharks, including Smith Knaffle, Steely Hayes and others, helped lead the team to its first-ever Lower State Championship last year and a best-ever third-place finish in the state.

“We have eight girls that can shoot under 45 consistently, and a lot of schools don’t have that,” Smith said. “That helps a lot in matches but also in competition within the team. But it’s good competition. We push each other to get better, but we’re all really good friends.

“I remember when our goal was just to make it to state, and now our goal is to win it. Our No. 1 player Smith (Knaffle) played well and made all-state, but the rest of us didn’t. If we can play our best at state this year we have a real good shot to win it.”

Smith has two more years to reach that goal before tackling her next goal of playing golf in college. She attends the Horry County Scholars Academy and is already completing college courses, so some lucky college coach will get a freshman that’s well beyond her years in the classroom and on the golf course.

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