A Tribute to Brittany Kelly
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian Emeritus
With the Women’s PGA Cup this week in New Mexico, we remember 2019 U.S. Team Member Brittany Kelly and her incredible life.
Years before she would stand toe to toe with her toughest opponent, PGA Professional Brittany Kelly epitomized what Roman poet Horace intended: that we all practice enjoying life to the fullest.
Carpe diem - the Latin for “Pluck the day” found its way into Horace’s “Odes,” and surfaced as the title of a 1938 Robert Frost poem, with a more widely accepted twist.
“Seize the day.”
Brittany Kelly didn’t pluck or seize the day. She held it hostage, gleaning every ounce of joy and excitement while pursuing her chosen profession, including both Section awards and triumphs and helping guide a historic U.S. Women’s PGA Cup Team.
Kelly, who waged a 19-month battle with ovarian cancer, passed Aug. 31, 2021, surrounded by her family at her parents’ home in Fishers, Indiana. She was 32.
“We are incredibly saddened to hear of the passing of Brittany Kelly from our Indiana PGA Section,” said PGA President Jim Richerson. “Brittany was a rising star in our profession and brought joy to everyone she came across. She was a strong competitor as we saw in her play at events like the PGA Professional Championship and Women’s PGA Cup. She also displayed that same fight in her courageous battle against cancer. We send our deepest sympathies and prayers to her family.”
The Assistant PGA Professional at Woodland Country Club in Carmel, Indiana, Kelly built a legacy of competitiveness, the ability to take upon any task while engaging her students and peers, and ultimately became a model for remarkable courage.
On Aug. 16, the Indiana PGA Section made Kelly the recipient of two special honors, which she accepted via a video, while her parents were in attendance. She became the namesake for the Brittany Kelly Indiana PGA Women’s Player of the Year award, and was the first woman in Section history when she was named — one year ahead — the 2022 Indiana PGA Section Golf Professional of the Year.
“It shows the impact that Brittany had on so many people,” said Indiana PGA Executive Director Mike David prior to the presentations. “She’s a great PGA Professional, a great person, and we want to recognize that fact.”
Living in the moment, scraping up energy — even when cancer threw up the stiffest barricades — were part of Brittany’s makeup.
“She was always one to bring all of us up when we were down, and that’s so silly, because she was going through cancer,” said her sister, Ashley Pogue. “But there she was, trying to make us feel better."
Memories came rushing to the surface for Ashley, 37, who is nearly 4½ years older than Brittany.
“I’m a Type-A first-born personality and always had a worry list, and things I had to get done,” said Ashley. “Britt would come by, take a quick look at my list, then write, ‘Britt’s Worry List’ — Check mark, none, check mark, none.
“She never dwelled on things, worrying about the future. It was living in the moment, and it’s always been that way. She loved breaking records and being the ‘first.’ No surprise there. That’s my sis! She always strived for excellence.”
From the fall of 2019, when Kelly learned that she was diagnosed with cancer, there was an umbrella of family, friends and PGA of America colleagues who had never met the young woman with the ready smile and boundless enthusiasm.
“And that’s what means so much to us when people care to know about her — who she is and who she was,” said Ashley. “We want to keep her story going, and I do feel it is inspiring and something that people can learn from.”
Brittany had that effect on her boss, too.
Patrick White, the PGA Head Professional at Woodland Country Club, called Brittany “simply one of the most amazing human beings I‘ve ever been around.”
“Throughout this whole fight, she never doubted herself. It’s tough to put into words what she means to me, my staff, my members,” said White. “I’ve learned more about myself going through her journey.”
Kelly’s effect upon the staff at Woodland Country Club, said White, “was like a Mother Hen, keeping us all in line.”
“When I look at a PGA Professional, there’s no one better than Brittany Kelly,” he said. “Her skillset. . . There’s no question that she could have taken any operation in the country and not only ran it, but improved it.”
Kelly’s health battle was a constant inspiration to those who may be in a similar position or locked in despair about how life has treated them.
“People that go through so many hard things, you can always learn from them when you are put in that position and you don’t have any other choice,” said White. “Brittany was able to look at it in a totally different way and used her struggle as a way to speak to others.”
Born Oct. 10, 1988, in Indianapolis, Brittany Kelly was the youngest of two daughters of Ken and Joni Kelly, a couple who met while students at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
The university would become the glue for the entire Kelly family, with Ashley, 37, her husband, Matt Pogue, and Brittany all Ball State alums embracing the cardinal and white school colors.
Ken Kelly was a prep pole vaulter, finishing third in the state before competing at Ball State, where he finished fourth in the Mid-America Conference (MAC). He met his future wife, Joni, in school and didn’t pick up golf in earnest until after his marriage. Soon, Ken was inspiring Brittany.
As a precocious 2-year-old, Brittany watched her father hit balls into the back yard. After observing him hit and then replacing the tee, Brittany got into the act and became the caddie, punching a tee in the ground and then pulling her arm back as her father hit a shot.
“When we got plastic clubs for her, she went into the yard, put a ball down on a tee and had the most beautiful swing,” said Joni. “She was only three years old.”
As she grew in love with the game, her parents said, she found it was something she wanted to do. “We never made her practice,” said Joni. “She knew that she needed to practice.”
From 2000 to 2014, Ken coached girls’ golf for 15 years at Carmel High School and combined both the boys and girls golf teams for five years during that period. Kelly’s 2013 team captured the state high school championship.
“I have a lot of great memories in sports, but among them are coaching a state champion team and 2018, when Brittany was in the PGA Professional Championship in [Seaside] California. It was the last time I caddied for her."
Brittany’s early achievements on the course included competing in the 2004 and ‘06 U.S. Girls’ Amateur Championship, and winning both the 2006 Indiana PGA Women’s Open and the 2009 Indiana Women’s Golf Association State Amateur.
PGA Professional Bob Prange was the first to give Brittany the fine points of her golf swing development, meeting her when she was a high school freshman and he was at the Bridgewater Club in Carmel, Indiana.
“She was very personable, very friendly. Always had a big smile and loved golf and being around golf,. she went on to a great career at Ball State,” said Prange, now a PGA Teaching Professional at Hunting Hills Country Club in Roanoke, Virginia. “It was enjoyable to work with her and spend time with her. My two daughters competed against her in high school, and they enjoyed their time in competition with her.”
Kelly made her second appearance in the PGA Professional Championship, last April 25 at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida. She earned a berth in the 312-player field as a member of the 2019 United States Women’s PGA Cup Team.
“When I watched her on TV last April competing in the PGA Professional Championship in Florida, I saw how hard she was battling it, grinded it out as she always did when I first knew her,” said Prange.
Brittany was another trendsetter in women’s golf at Ball State University, becoming a two-time Most Valuable Player (2009, ‘10), and the first female golfer in school history to be selected for an NCAA Regional. She became a two-time Academic All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) selection and a two-time National Golf Coaches Association All-American Scholar.
She turned professional in 2011, and earned PGA Membership in 2016.
Brittany was part of PGA of America history on Oct. 25, 2019, competing in the inaugural Women’s PGA Cup at Barton Creek Resort & Spa in Austin, Texas. The U.S. Team was victorious and captained by Suzy Whaley, now PGA Honorary President.
“Brittany exuded true joy in everything she did,” said Whaley. “Her spirit, competitiveness, grit, and her grace will always be with me in my heart. As a coach, captain and friend I was so privileged to be a part of Brittany’s world.”
PGA Vice President Jim Lindert wasn’t scheduled to attend the 2019 Women’s PGA Cup, but reworked his plans to witness the U.S. victory and meet Brittany Kelly. The two developed a friendship that became a stream of texts or phone calls while Kelly battled cancer.
“In the team room, Brittany had that blend of humor and inspiring conversation, but at the same point she had that ability to inspire the team to take no prisoners and win,” said Lindert, the PGA Director of Golf at the Country Club of Lansing (Michigan). “She inspired them to believe in themselves. She was the type of person that when you walk into a room, and she makes you smile. She had that infectious personality, and that’s something we’re all going to miss.
“She never once complained about what she was fighting. She would always talk about the positives. I think about the impact that she’s made in women’s golf.”
“I can go back to her competing in the PGA Professional Championship in April, and how remarkable was that? She was fighting the fight of her life and still playing the game of her passion. She was always thinking about how to make golf better and when she was unable to play, she was thinking about how she could help her friends to play better.”
Among Brittany’s teammates were PGA Master Professional Dr. Alison Curdt of Reseda, California, and PGA Professional Joanna Coe of Lutherville-Timonium, Maryland.
“I talked to her every day over the past month,” said Curdt, the PGA Director of Instruction at Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley, California. “I asked her, ‘What is your favorite golf memory?’ She said, ‘PGA Cup.’ I know our time is limited. My goal every day was to learn as much about her as possible, until we don’t get that chance anymore.”
Brittany opened the PGA Cup with a 69 to lead the five-team international field with what would become the week’s low individual round. She finished with a 74, which was enough cushion to help her teammates hold off Canada by four strokes and lift the new silver trophy.
“It is by far one of her greatest accomplishments of both of our playing careers, and also one of our favorite memories,” said Curdt. “It’s nice to play that movie reel in my mind and go back to that camaraderie and all of our families there.”
Brittany’s patriotism wasn’t confined to the outfits the team wore that week, according to Coe, the PGA Director of Instruction at Baltimore Country Club. “It was fitting that she played so well, and had so much spirit and passion the entire time. She was hilarious, could also be serious and heartfelt, and she was a leader. It says a lot about the depths in that girl.”
Coe said that Brittany “inspired all of us to get more involved in PGA leadership. She’s fighting for the little guy and to be a voice for us.”
As the pandemic raged in 2020, Kelly would call Coe, who sought advice on her chipping. “She would share information and send me clips that I could use,” said Coe. “Our friendship blossomed from there.”
Curdt said that Brittany is “the absolute best role model.”
“She really had the intention that nothing was ever going to stop her, and to continue to live life to the fullest until she wasn't able to anymore,” said Curdt. “I think those lessons are invaluable and to have a peer teach that to us is amazing."
During the LPGA National Championship last July, Curdt and Coe were among those vying for one of the eight spots in the 2022 KPMG [Women’s PGA Championship.]
“We were sending pictures to Brittany, who wanted to see what we were up to,” said Curdt. “She checked in on us daily, asked about our scores and pep us up. We ended up didn’t qualifying, but she was there to cheer us up.”
Brittany’s professional development, said Mike David, was never more magnified than when he reviewed her application for 2017 Section Assistant Professional of the Year.
“I was floored at how far her abilities went beyond playing. She was involved in everything at the club,” said David. “Working with her on the Indiana PGA Board of Directors, I saw her passion for the game, the passion for the PGA, and taking on any task. Throughout the whole process of her illness, her perseverance, her optimism, has been unwavering.”
During the last year of her illness, Kelly wore a teal wristband with the inscription “BK Strong,” a reminder of her unimaginable journey, a relentless spirit and to advocate for ovarian cancer awareness.
The wristband really could have been a signature piece for Kelly throughout her life.
“She manufactured so much positivity,” said Joni Kelly. “Whenever we would have got together, it was ‘When will Britt get here?’ She would always be the one who knew how to get things going.”
Joni was the daughter of parents who loved the game and were successful, and who each recorded a hole-in-one in a calendar year.
“If I hit a bad shot, she would say, “Oh, that’s OK. Try another one. I joined a Ladies League at Ironwood, and am getting a little bit better. Because of her, I got back into it. I have that memory of her and honor what she’s done.
“Britt made golf so much fun that when you hit a bad shot, she would quickly say, ‘Oh, that’s OK, try another one.’ I ended up enjoying the game that much more, joined a ladies league and got a little bit better. Because of her, I got back into it. I have that memory of her and honor what she’s done.”
Diagnosed in January 2020 with Stage 1 Clear Cell ovarian cancer, Kelly pointed to the PGA Professional Championship ever since. For Kelly, competing was as much a part of her makeup as it became the best form of treatment.
“I’ll continue to trust in God’s great plan and figure out the rest along the way,” said Brittany in April.
Brittany kept those who supported her on a GoFundMe Page — constructed by her sister, Ashley to help with her rising medical costs — writing a weekly blog while she had the strength.
“I was sitting with her when hospice care arrived at home, and the nurses checked her where her pain was, and asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, what is your pain?,” said Ashley. “She said, ‘7.’ I have seen her in pain and I thought, ‘How in the world does she say 7 when it is more like a 10?'
She has gone through so much, and hold it in and be strong for all of us.”
That inner strength and resolve, so much the DNA of Brittany Kelly, comes from a mixture of personalities, said Ashley. “I see my mom and my grandpa in her. She was clear what she wanted and very brave. A strong person is what we saw in her weakest moments.”
Kelly’s cancer was discovered after she recorded a season of personal milestones.
In 2019, she qualified for her first LPGA major championship, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, won the Indiana Women’s Open and helped the U.S. win the Women’s PGA Cup.
In addition, she became the first woman to win the Indiana PGA Assistant Professional Championship.
Following the Americans’ victory in the Women’s PGA Cup, a photographer asked the team to jump in unison near the gleaming trophy. Brittany was in full flight at the crown of a hill, framed against a brilliant blue Texas sky.
“One of my fondest memories is that winning smile and that incredible athletic jump after we won,” said Whaley. “That is how Brittany should always be remembered. For me, she will forever remain an incredible gift that came into my life.”
On Sept. 7, Woodland Country Club hosted its second Ribbon Pro-Member event, dedicated to Brittany and her family. The field will include several Women’s PGA Cup teammates and Whaley.
And there is one more special honor, now posthumously. On Sept. 14, a year after its ceremony had to be postponed due to the pandemic, Brittany became the first woman golfer inducted into the Ball State Athletics Hall of Fame.
Brittany Kelly is survived by her parents, Ken and Joni, sister, Ashley, brother-in-law, Matt Pogue, and two nieces, Kaylee and Kinsey.