Despite not being a fixture on the LPGA Tour after a promising junior and amateur career, Jessica Shepley has no complaints. Now the men’s and women’s assistant coach at Lee University – a Division II school in Cleveland, Tennessee, 35 minutes northeast of Chattanooga – the effervescent Shepley, now 38 and married with a stepson, wouldn’t trade her time as a touring pro for anything.
Yet when you ask about her start in golf and her first tournament, she lets out a laugh and is playfully embarrassed.
“I come from an athletic family and my dad coached me in softball. One day he said, ‘I just can’t stand watching girls cry or playing with the dandelions in the outfield so why don’t we try something else that we could spend time doing together,” Shepley says. “So, we started playing golf – which is something I took to right away and I played my first tournament on the Tyson Tour in London when I was nine.”
Paired with defending Ontario Junior Girls Champions Andrea Lavelle and Carrie Hilton, who also had an impressive resume, the young Shepley was clearly out of her league.
“I shot 170 and 181 for 36 holes. My dad went up to them on the ninth hole and apologized, saying he should have never put me in this tournament and that he was going to take me off the course,” she recalls. Carrie said, ‘You will absolutely not take her off this golf course because if you do that, she will never play again. She is having fun; she is taking a lot of strokes but she’s doing it quickly.’”
Hard work and encouragement from both Marlene Streit and Sandra Post at Trafalgar Golf Club quickly brought her tournament scores down dramatically and soon Jessica and her father began thinking of U.S. scholarship possibilities.
Fast forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s and she was on a roll, seemingly winning, or nearly winning, everything in sight including the Ontario Secondary School Championship, the 2001 Ontario Junior Ladies Match Play, 2001 Ontario Ladies Amateur and the 2001 Ontario Ladies Junior, followed by the 2002 Toronto Star Amateur.
“That was at the end of my junior career,” she says of those magical years. “Everything just clicked and came together. I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer and that stretch was a combination of hard work, tournament experience, and just having fun on the course all coming to fruition.”
Like father and daughter planned, the scholarship offers began to come in and she selected the University of Tennessee under Coach Judy Pavon, saying it simply felt right.
She earned a dozen top-10s and a NGCA Honorable Mention All-American at Tennessee yet admits the hyper-competitive U.S. college system was overwhelming at times. “The players are so good and most of them already knew each other from the big U.S. events but in hindsight I wish I was more confident in my abilities,” she says. “It’s a big thing to come down from Canada to an SEC powerhouse and see not only great golfers, but Olympic athletes and future NFL and NBA players. But it was very cool, and I loved it.”
Graduating in 2005 with a degree in Communications, Shepley turned pro and hit the road with conditional LPGA Tour status and limited corporate sponsorship money given her solid, but not spectacular, college career. Her status and subsequent professional results meant bouncing among the LPGA, Futures (now Symetra) and Canadian Tours – a situation many touring pros have said is purgatory. Shepley agrees.
“It’s tough to learn on Tuesday night you are teeing it up somewhere else on the LPGA Tour in the first group on Thursday morning,” she says. “There were last minute flights when I found out I got into an LPGA event and then when I got there, I wasn’t playing my best. In hindsight, I probably would have stayed one more year on the Futures Tour and not gone after that carrot right away.”
Shepley finally captured her first professional win on home soil that season at the 2009 Canadian PGA Women’s Championship in Dundas, just a stone’s throw from her Oakville home. She followed it up with a pair of CN Canadian Women’s Tour wins 2010 and 2011. When she won a Futures Tour event that same 2011 season, it seemed she was headed for the LPGA full time for the long haul. It wasn’t to be. After making just three of 10 LPGA Tour cuts in 2012, Jessica Shepley announced her retirement saying at the time that she wanted other things out of life.
Shepley also said being on the road for weeks at a time, ‘chasing the carrot’ as she says, was part of that decision as was her waning desire to put in the hours on the range. “The girls that are dominating the LPGA Tour are putting in extraordinary amounts of time and I wondered why I was wasting people’s time and money if I wasn’t putting in, or wanting to put in, what I needed to do to be at that level. I wondered what I was doing out there and that is when I stepped away.”
After some soul-searching, a refreshed Shepley returned in 2013 and capped her comeback with a second Canadian PGA Championship that same year, sending her confidence soaring and proving she still had game.
Unfortunately, the victory did nothing for her LPGA status and Shepley found once again that she was in golf’s purgatory, bouncing between Tours and playing wherever she could – often on short notice. With the results not coming and the enthusiasm of her victory quickly wearing off, Shepley realized her heart wasn’t in anymore and retired for good in 2014.
She married and did substitute teaching in the Florida school system while earning her Masters in Sports Administration from the University of Miami in 2019. In January 2020, she was named assistant coach at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach but just as she was getting her feet wet, COVID shut down the season and she returned to Orlando to wait for the green light when conditions improved. Seemingly out of nowhere, while waiting out COVID, fellow Canadian Brendan Ryan contacted her, saying she should meet with Coach John Maupin at Lee University. The two met several times and quickly realized it was an ideal match. At this level, a Division II school, Shepley says the players don’t aspire to LPGA superstardom, but she acknowledges she works with a great group of talented and enthusiastic golfers. About to enter her second season, Shepley is gaining valuable experience and hopes to wear a head coach hat somewhere someday. For now, though, she is content to learn the coaching ropes and provide guidance and direction to “another great group of kids.”
Asked if she left anything out on the course, Shepley said no but wished she had a more solid long-term plan in place but as she says, “It is what it is. It was definitely a grind, but we all know that going in, so I don’t think anyone is overly surprised, but you do hope it works out better. Still, I had an amazing time and am so glad I gave it my best shot. I don’t regret any of it.”