Neshanic Station, N.J. – Last year at this time, Kristen Schelling was at home in Mesa, Ariz., watching highlights of this championship on television. From a wheelchair. She had played in the Women’s Amateur Public Links five times. She was looking forward to competing last year at Brandon Dunes. Then her dreams fell apart.
Now she is back, playing golf with a joy she never felt before. And if she is more sensitive than she once was, if she is somehow kinder and more appreciative, it is because of what happened to her and what she survived.
Last year Schelling had double hip surgery. She was in a wheelchair for four months. That happens to some people if they’ve spent years in sports, working out and running, pounding the pavement to get fit.
“I couldn’t walk very far,” she said. “I had to sit down after two minutes. I started falling. When I fell in the shower in March of last year, I knew I couldn’t continue.”
The surgery was scheduled for April and her college career, in which she carried a 3.5 GPA with a major in Communications, came to a halt.
“I used to get nervous on the first tee, but there’s nothing like being under anesthetic and hearing a guy as he’s writing on my leg, saying, ‘Not this one, cut here.’ Teeing off isn’t nerve-wracking compared to that.”
Golf had been a big part of her life since she was 11 years old. At 14, she shot a course record 62 at the par-71 Las Colinas Golf Course in Queen Creek, Ariz. In 2003, she qualified for the U.S. Girls’ Junior for the first time. In 2006 she won her state high school championship, made the Junior Ryder Cup Team, and then won a golf scholarship to the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. Life was great.
Then, the surgery for torn labrums, the elastic tissue on the hip joint sockets. The recovery meant months in a wheelchair. All she could do for herself was eat. The pain was so intense that many times she shouted, “Why did I ever do this?”
But there were lessons too. Good ones.
“I played a lot of golf sitting in that wheelchair. You start dreaming and picturing swings and they come to life. That’s when I started believing in whatever you tell yourself, that’s what’s going to happen,” she said.
Animated and wide-eyed, Schelling sat in the grill room at Neshanic Valley Golf Course. The worst is over. She has qualified and she will play. She smiles and seems happy talking about what happened to her, perhaps because in the end, it changed her life.
By October of last year, Kristen had turned in her wheelchair and then her crutches, in favor of a cane. She was back at school. On Oct. 26, she was driving home after physical therapy. It was dark and traffic was heavy on the freeway. Suddenly, the driver in front of her slammed on his brakes and Schelling plowed into him.
Police sirens sounded in the night and a dozen policemen arrived. In the darkness they put flares around the wrecked cars. “At first, I felt alright,” Kristen said. “Twenty minutes later I started feeling nauseous and disoriented. I went to the hospital and I was diagnosed with a severe concussion.”
She returned to her parents’ home in Arizona. Looking at lights was painful. She spent a week in her old bedroom, in the dark, not even looking at her cell phone, her laptop or a TV, “Not making my brain work,” she said.
At the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, she was put on anti-seizure medication.
“I was depressed and a little defeated,” she remembered. “It was one thing after another, but my dad was there and my mom was checking on me all the time and bringing me little presents to cheer me up.”
Through the months of recuperation, Schelling kept thinking about golf. She thought about favorite golf holes she had played. She visualized the shots she would play. She thought of the swing and the putting stroke and the feel of the game.
After awhile, she felt better. She started to hit balls again and went back to her college classes. On Christmas morning, at home for the holidays, for the first time since April, Kristen played nine holes.
“I played with my mother. We had a blast! We went out there and didn’t even warm up and just played and laughed,” she said.
Oddly, she believed she returned to the game as a better golfer. “I took a year off and I was a firm believer that taking time off was not a good thing,” she said. “But when you take time off, you forget bad habits. It’s like riding a bike, huh?”
In February, she was back in school and had nearly recovered from the brain injury. She was sitting in her car at a stop sign when she was rear-ended by a car traveling at a high rate of speed.
The collision drove her head into the headrest.
I thought, “Oh, no! This can’t be!”
A few minutes after the collision, she felt sick. This time she knew what was going on. “This can’t be happening!” she thought.
Again, she went through recovery, but she had a goal. “I was not going to miss the WAPL again,” she said. “In April, I started working on my game again. My dad filed my entry for me. He wasn’t sure about it. He didn’t know if my body could handle it, the disappointment of maybe not making it.”
Kristen was nervous at the qualifying round at Whirlwind Golf Course in Chandler, Ariz. “I hadn’t done this in so long. I can’t always do what I used to do, but I can’t worry about that stuff. Let me go do this. I want to try. I walked around thinking, ‘I still got it!’,” Kristen recalled.
She loved just being there, teeing it up and hearing her name announced on the first tee. “I loved just feeling the breeze blowing,” she said, “and feeling anxious and excited about competing.”
Kristen Schelling shot 73. She was co-medalist, qualifying to play in this championship once again.
She still suffers side-effects of the trauma. “I’m cognitively a little slow,” she said. “It’s hard.” She gets headaches and finds it hard to read small print. She has some anxiety and arrives for her tee time extra early, to relieve stress.
“I get worried and my mind races. You have to pull yourself back.”
That she was able to play well enough to get to the WAPL is something of a miracle. That she survived at all, is more than that.
Kristen’s dad, Ken Schelling, waited for his daughter on the clubhouse porch. His brow was furrowed. Talking about her is hard and he’s worried that she will be disappointed at how she plays.
“She’s only 80 percent,” Ken said. “She gets fatigued toward the end. But I’m just happy the light is back on.”
Kristen is realistic. “Of course, I’d love to play well, but the sun is going to come up tomorrow if I don’t,” she said.
There is so much more to life, she knows. She pointed to a staff person at a chair on the other side of the grill room. “I’m more appreciative of anything I see,” she said. “That woman cleaning the chair over there, so carefully, post by post, that’s really nice.”
She’d like to continue school. She has graduated from UNLV but still has a year of golf eligibility remaining. Hopefully, she’ll find a college coach who will add her to the team.
Kristen Schelling played Monday in the first round of stroke-play qualifying. Her round somehow exemplifies her life. She teed off, a little nervous, perhaps, and bogeyed her first three holes. But Kristen Schelling came back. She birdied three straight holes, the fifth through the seventh, and finished with a 76.
Perhaps no one swung the club with greater joy. At last, for Kristen Schelling, the light is back on.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at email@example.com.