Saturday, July 16, 2016

Clemson University wipes slate clean by hiring women’s coach Kelley Hester

Kelley Hester
Former Furman coach Kelley Hester (left) is the new Clemson women's golf head coach. (Golfweek/Tracy Wilcox)
Clemson University women’s golf needs a fresh start. Kelley Hester, a woman whose coaching career has centered around starting and rebuilding programs, is the right person to do it.
“Like the Etch A Sketch when you shake it up and it’s blank again,” Hester said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Hester has left Furman University for Clemson (where Curtis Cup player Alice Hewson is a student, but won’t go far. The two campuses sit only 45 minutes apart in South Carolina’s Upstate region, so Hester’s daughter can stay at her school and her husband can keep his job. 
The move to a so-called Power Five conference means more resources for the proven coach, and a better chance at winning a national title.
Clemson fired head coach J.T. Horton on July 1 amid team turmoil. Horton, who was hired to start the program in August 2011, had been investigated for what some team members described as a “hostile” environment. The school did not find that he had violated any policies, but the administration still decided to move in another direction.
The Tigers’ promising freshman, Lauren Stephenson, transferred to Alabama before Horton was dismissed. Hester isn’t sure exactly how many players plan to return for the 2016-17 season, as several have the option to graduate early. Clemson finished the season at No. 45 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
“I think we have a great nucleus of players,” Hester said. “While it might take some time to build the right team, I’m confident that we can get it done.”
Hester started the program at UNLV and was there for one year before moving to Arkansas from 2005 to ’08, where she recruited and coached Stacy Lewis, an eventual two-time major champion.
From there, Hester moved to her alma mater, Georgia, after Todd McCorkle resigned amid allegations from his players regarding inappropriate comments. The player exodus was so great, Hester had to hold campus try-outs that first year.
Hester spent five seasons at Georgia before she was let go. The Bulldogs finished 10th and 15th, respectively, at the 2008 and ’09 NCAA Championships. In 2011, Marta Silva Zamora, whom Hester recruited and developed, was named national player of the year.
Gutted by the loss of her dream job in 2012, Hester felt the need to prove herself once again.
Furman, a one-time power in women’s golf, sought Hester to bring the program back to relevance. Prominent alumna such as Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Dottie Pepper and then-Nike executive Cindy Davis raised the funds and the muscle required to land Hester.
In her fourth year at Furman, the assertive Hester brought the team to the NCAA Championship last spring for the first time since 2008. The Paladins won two Southern Conference Championships and junior Taylor Totland set a single-season school record with a 72.45 stroke average.
The general word from the alumni, Hester said, was that she did what she was brought to Furman to do.
“I can safely say that the program is as good as it has been in years,” she said.
While at Georgia, Hester said she underestimated the impact of Clemson starting a women’s program. She had no idea how many South Carolina kids grew up bleeding orange.
Add in the resources of a school such as Clemson – cost of attendance money (funds that go beyond the traditional room and board), the ability to help pay for summer travel and a hefty student-assistance fund – and Hester felt she’d be better positioned to land top recruits. 
As the NCAA has relaxed the amount of money that’s available to students, Hester said, it’s becoming increasingly hard for mid-major schools to compete.
Hester wants to win a national title, and she increases her chances at a school such as Clemson. The new match-play format potentially shortens that timeline even more.
“I feel like I’ve proven myself over and over again in my carer,” Hester said.
She’s in a good place now to do something special.