Beating Cancer & Winning a Major Gives the McGill Sisters Reason to Celebrate
By Jeff Babineau
Shelley McGill O’Keefe says she loves everything about Thanksgiving. One highlight arrives just before the traditional dinner begins, when each person gathered around a bountiful table takes the opportunity to articulate what it is that makes him, or her, grateful.
When it was Shelley’s turn to speak this year, she might have taken a little more time than usual. Same for her younger sister, Jill McGill.
Seven months past her 50th birthday, Jill won her first professional golf tournament this summer, capturing the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio. Jill was a college hotshot, a two-time All-America at USC and 1993 U.S. Women's Amateur champion who seemed destined to win a bunch when she stepped onto the LPGA nearly three decades ago.
It didn’t happen. She worked hard at her game, contended on occasion, but never did get the opportunity to stand on an 18th green somewhere, anywhere, holding a champion’s trophy and preparing a speech.
“I just always had this feeling that something was not right,” Jill said after returning to golf competition for the first time in a decade. (In recent years, she filled her competition void by playing “old ladies” tennis.)
“I was never comfortable," she said. "I wanted to win, and I worked to do it, but there was something that was holding me back. I think, at 50 years old, I shed a lot of whatever it could have been.”
Jill proudly calls herself a “learner,” and she frequently tries to impart this important lesson on her two children, daughter Bella (10) and son Blaze (6): Life presents a never-ending opportunity to learn, whether one is 5 or 50. Winning in golf at any level is difficult, and Jill’s scorecard always has been one that transcends success or failure. She will ask herself, have you grown and improved on past experiences? “That’s all I can do,” Jill says.
And some days, she has learned, the verdict is accompanied by a nice trophy.
On Jill’s bag at NCR was her big sister, Shelley, who is three years older than Jill, and is as competitive as God makes them. Shelley played college soccer and later became a member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team (1995-2000). When she finally tired of taking on moguls and healing from the many injuries they rendered, she decided to give golf a try. She had watched the game at the highest level serving as a caddie for Jill on the LPGA in her skiing offseasons. At 30, she had a solid foundation and understanding of the game when she hit her first shot.
Six months later, Shelley would pass the PGA of America’s 36-hole Player Ability Test. (Did we not mention she is competitive?) Shelley is a PGA Professional and TPI-certified instructor who ran a junior academy at Spring Creek Golf and Country Club, not far from home in Lodi, Calif., before stepping aside because of fatigue last summer. In addition, Shelley oversees three different local tours for U.S. Kids Golf, helping to operate 60 junior tournaments a year.
At NCR, as an Ohio summer gently gave way to the more serious days of September, one of golf’s best stories of 2022 took stage. Jill outplayed a handful of the game’s top names – Annika Sorenstam, Juli Inkster and Laura Davies among them – to win that first pro title. She did an admirable job of keeping her head down until the end, and Shelley did what she could to keep her younger sister calm, sharing jokes that kept her loose. How focused was Jill on a shot at a time? She had no idea she was about to win until Sorenstam gracefully stopped Jill from tapping in a short bogey putt on the 18th green. Better to mark it, Sorenstam told her. Enjoy the moment. You’re about to win.
Golf can be a game of “we,” and Shelley was a big winner that day, too. That’s why the tears were flowing so freely as Jill signed her card and her sister stood outside the scoring area, holding her face in her hands in disbelief. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer 18 months earlier, Shelley had been residing in a foreign and uncomfortable place. Having endured major surgery and six rounds of chemotherapy, Shelley was thankful to be there for this, and for her sister. Just the way she always has been there as a supportive force.
Jill said her breakthrough was more a byproduct of a new mindset more so than anything she did physically with her golf game. Having such a long break away from golf gave her time to rethink how she approached the sport. When Shelley told her Jill was exempt into the 2022 U.S. Women’s Senior Open (this was the fourth edition) as a past U.S. Amateur champion, Jill thought she could be competitive. Check that. She knew she could be competitive.
“Then it was a matter of reframing the sort of approach I wanted to have, and the sort of player I wanted to be,” Jill said. “My approach in terms of giving yourself grace and acceptance on the golf course.
More from PGA
A Major Dream Comes True for Taz Wilson at Congressional Country Club
PGA Coach Bryan DeMarco Battled Cancer With What He Learned From Golf
“I think Shelley has experienced that (grace and acceptance) going through what she went through. They caught the cancer early. I can’t help but imagine that when you are given that diagnosis ...”
Jill’s voice trails off. Having played an outdoor sport since she was very young, Jill had encountered her own scares from melanoma. She had surgery on her upper lip because of skin cancer, and said she recently had three biopsies come back positive. It makes her think of her sister, and the emotional turmoil Shelley had to negotiate once she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in February of 2021.
“The wheels really start turning,” Jill said. “It really does make you jump forward in your thinking. What do I want? I want to live in the moment, because that’s what I have. But I also want to make sure that I’m going to be around for more moments, especially with kids.”
Like Jill, Shelley is married with two children – a daughter, Kelley, who is 12, and a son, Kashel, who is 9). Shelley is an open book about her walk with cancer, thorough with the most minute details, her wish being that some of her missteps or assumptions might be avoided by others. By talking about her experience, she might reach someone in a similar place. Maybe she will save a life. This isn’t an obligation. Shelley considers it a calling.
In the winter of 2021, Shelley had been feeling lethargic and went to see her obstetrician for an annual checkup six weeks before she would be diagnosed with cancer. Her bloodwork and tests did not show anything out of the ordinary. Weeks later, she experienced pain during intimacy with her husband, Kelly, which he found unusual. Only at his continued prompting did Shelley go back to seek more answers. Acting on advice of her OB, this time she agreed to a rectal exam.
“What I didn’t understand,” Shelley said, “is what an important step that is. It’s not standard care; it really should be. I didn’t think twice about it, but that’s how they feel behind your uterus.”
That’s when a tumor was found. Shelley was diagnosed with cancer in both ovaries on Feb. 2, and a week later, she had surgery. Soon after she would begin the first of six rounds of her chemotherapy.
“Even the oncology nurses asked me how I caught this so early (Stage 2). Typically, it’s caught in Stage 4,” Shelley said. “They asked, ‘(the) Pap smear (from her first visit, six weeks earlier) didn’t catch it?’ Nope. Pap smears only detect cervical cancer. That’s what a lot of women don’t know. There is not a screen test yet for ovarian cancer. And it’s the No. 1 gynecological killer of women.”
Shelley points people toward a group called OCRA (Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance), which conducts research, raises funds to develop ovarian cancer screenings, and supports survivors. Shelley’s heartfelt message to others is the importance of doggedly advocating for yourself when it comes to your health. It’s not that the medical field isn’t there to help when medical issues arise, she said, but the more a person can do to help guide them through that journey, the more details they can provide, the better.
“I made some mistakes,” Shelley said, “and I don’t have a problem being open about it. As my brother (Mike) told me, and it’s so true, you need to be the squeaky wheel.”
With Thanksgiving on their doorstep, Shelley and Jill have a good deal for which to be thankful, and often golf is at the forefront. For Shelley, something that got her out of bed and gave her purpose in 2021 was taking aim at that summer's U.S. Senior Women’s Open qualifier. Her surgery was in February; the qualifier was July 2. It gave her a goal. She played, walking and completing 18 holes, said she shot “a million,” and two days later underwent her final chemo session.
Watching Jill win in August was an incredible life highlight, too. Forget the emotions that poured out after Jill won; with Jill holding a commanding lead coming in, Shelley had to hang back in the distance on the 16th fairway so that Jill didn’t see the tears that already had begun.
“You’d better get your (stuff) together,” Shelley told herself. “You have two more holes to go!”
Golf is the vehicle that has allowed Jill to travel around the world, and visit so many cool spots. Last week, with her husband, Patrick Byerly, taking turns with Shelley on the bag, Jill played in the TaylorMade Invitational at Pebble Beach. Her newest trophy means she will be back at Pebble Beach Links and on the Monterey Peninsula in July, competing in the U.S. Women’s Open. Shelley will be there.
For Jill, having her husband and children on hand to see her win at NCR this summer – she had told her children they could fly to Ohio is she was in the top 10 after two rounds – was a special moment for all.
“I definitely feel that this is Act II,” said Jill, who in her LPGA career amassed 24 top 10s and earned $2.3 million. She laughs. “We had a big intermission – I went out and got some snacks – and I’m ready for Act II. I don’t know how long this act is going to be.
“What is super-cool is that my daughter – and my son, for that matter, though he’s so young – gets the opportunity to see her mom doing something in terms of going out, working for something, loving it, bringing joy ... hopefully in an inspirational way to her that gets her wheels turning, thinking, ‘What do I want to do?’”
For Shelley, golf has given her an avenue to pay things forward in sports, a longtime passion of hers. She always knew that golf and golfers formed a distinct community, but her cancer let her view that through an entirely different lens. When she was being treated, and home resting in bed, wiped out, professionals from the PGA of America’s Northern California Section stepped up to help run her junior academy and her many tournaments for U.S. Kids. She never will forget the generosity.
“Why I’m so grateful for golf is the special times that I have had with my sister, and the experiences I have gotten out of golf,” Shelley said. “But it’s really the community that totally stepped up for me, to support me, when all of this stuff was happening.
“When I was super-sick, the golf pros in my area took over and ran my academy. Nobody complained. They asked me, ‘What do you need?’ The same thing happened with the golf courses ... we’re here to support you. Members at my country club helped to run those tournaments. Pros stepped up. So many people. People would send food, Uber Eats deliveries at my door. This was during Covid. It was so overwhelming, my husband would say, ‘Shelley, you have to have all these people stop texting me.’ “
The McGill sisters are close, and talk on the telephone just about every day. Geography kept the sisters apart this Thanksgiving. Jill and her family will spend the day in Texas, attending the Dallas Cowboys game. Shelley, 16 months removed from her last chemo treatment and in remission, will be home with her husband and children in California.
But when Jill & Shelley’s time to speak at the Thanksgiving table arrives, you might give them some space. What makes them thankful? So much. Yes, this one is going to take some time.