OAKMONT, Pa. – It was all so hard to believe.
Like Kelli Shean was walking through a mirage in this U.S. Women’s Open.
“Just out of our dreams,” Stephen Shean said Thursday with his daughter’s name atop the leaderboard as she set up to play her final tee shot.
Amateurs playing their first round in their first major championship don’t do this.
They don’t march onto mighty Oakmont Country Club with less than two full practice rounds under their belt and have as much fun as Shean was having.
The story would grow even harder to fathom as the University of Arkansas senior closed out her round.
As Stephen walked up to the final green watching his daughter play her final shots, Oakmont head professional Bob Ford tapped him on his shoulder.
Ford introduced himself, then pulled out his cell phone.
Ford had a text message to deliver the family from three-time major championship winner Ernie Els.
Like Stephen and his daughter, Els is from South Africa. Kelli grew up playing golf in Els’ Fancourt Foundation for junior golfers. She is a product of his vision. She is among the talented young South Africans his foundation aims to help realize their dreams.
The fact that Shean was excelling at Oakmont doubly touched Els. It’s where he won his first U.S. Open in 1994.
“I just told the family that Ernie wanted them to know how proud he was of them and that he was rooting for them,” Ford said. “The message really touched them.”
Ford never met the Sheans before, but he said it wasn’t hard finding them.
“They had South African flags in their hats,” Ford said.
When Shean, 22, signed her scorecard, she led the championship at 1-under-par 70. By day’s end, she would be tied for second, a shot back. It didn’t diminish a moment of the thrill of this day.
Kelli choked up when she heard Els had reached out to her.
“That’s kind of unbelievable,” said Kelli, who didn’t start playing golf until she was 14. “The foundation got me around. They got me everywhere. Ernie taught me all the things I needed to know. Being able to interact with him and have any kind of relationship with Ernie Els is unbelievable.
“I just hope that he’ll be happy that everything that he pushed me into actually helped get me here.”
The foundation means so much to Els, he has the juniors in his program over to his home for functions.
“He treats people in the program like they’re his brothers, sons and daughters,” Stephen said.
Stephen, a steel salesman in Cape Town, can’t believe how far his daughter’s come because he wondered what hardships she might endure growing up with what’s turned out to be more a challenge than a handicap.
Kelli was born with a hearing disorder.
“She was diagnosed with a deterioration of the bones of the inner ear,” Stephen said. “We didn’t know when she was born. We didn’t know until she was 2 or 3 that something was wrong.”
Today, Kelli wears hearing aids, with the disorder slightly affecting her speech.
“Without her hearing aids, Kelli can’t hear anything,” said Shauna Estes-Taylor, Shean’s coach at Arkansas.
Estes-Taylor and her assistant, Mike Adams, have grown to adore the way Shean overcomes. They learned what media quickly discovered after the round. Shean can light up a room with her attitude and energy.
Shean made the fans at Oakmont marvel, too. Despite the heat and the tough conditions, she played like navigating the course's tough challenges was more joy than work.
“She’s just the most lovable person,” Estes-Taylor said.
Shean was a second-team All-American last season. Estes-Taylor discovered her at an American Junior Golf Association’s Thunderbird tournament. Though Shean’s talented, she’s won just once collegiately.
Asked what the key to Thursday’s round was, Shean didn’t speak of mechanics or technique.
“My attitude and just keeping calm, having a good time out there,” she said. “This course is hard. If you’re going to get mad over a couple of three-putts or a bad bounce or something, then I don’t think you’re going to enjoy it as much.”
With her boyfriend, Chandler Rackley, on her bag as caddie, Shean had an eager partner to help relish the moments.
“He’s made me love life so much more,” she said. “I have the best time of my life out there, so he’s really important to me.”
Anyone watching her couldn’t help feeling her joy.