Kelly Robbins left nothing to chance at last week's McDonald's
LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Del. In bone-chilling cold and
a steady drizzle on Sunday, Robbins, a long-hitting 25-year-old
from Mount Pleasant, Mich., never stopped scrounging, coming up
with three back-nine birdies and a final-round 68, the lowest
score of the day, to defeat Laura Davies by one stroke for her
first major championship. Afterward, as Robbins accepted her
trophy and $180,000 winner's check, an LPGA official approached
Davies to console her on her second-place finish. Davies made no
excuses. Smiling, she whispered into the official's ear, ''She
was better than me.'' Indeed, Robbins had been better than
everybody from the moment she blasted out of the blocks with a
first-round-leading 66, but last week in Wilmington it took four
days for anyone to notice.
The oversight had nothing to do with the storm that drenched the
grounds of the DuPont Country Club on Sunday and cut attendance
nearly in half. What almost overwhelmed the LPGA's second major
of the year was the storm of controversy involving CBS golf
analyst Ben Wright and a story in last Friday's Wilmington News
Journal (page 16). In a story written by the paper's Valerie
Helmbreck, Wright was quoted as saying, ''Lesbians in the sport
hurt women's golf,'' among other inflammatory remarks. Wright
made vehement denials that he said any such things, but the
paper stood by its reporter, and the ''Did he or didn't he?''
arguments dominated discussions on and off the course until they
seemed to take the tournament hostage.
The week started peacefully enough. On Thursday, Robbins, who
finished second twice in the previous three weeks, took a
one-stroke lead over the quartet of Patty Sheehan, Dottie
Mochrie, Marianne Morris and Becky Iverson. But before Robbins
could tee off Friday, the buzz was all about Wright, who claimed
he'd been wronged.
According to the story by Helmbreck, the 62-year-old Wright also
spoke about the differences between the men's and women's game.
''Women are handicapped by having boobs,'' he allegedly said.
''It's not easy for them to keep their left arm straight, and
that's one of the tenets of the game. Their boobs get in the
way.'' Several LPGA players were also quoted in the article,
offering their responses to Wright's remarks. ''[Wright] is a
jerk,'' said Lauri Merten. ''He should be fired.'' Nancy Lopez,
when asked to comment on Wright's supposed remarks, said, ''He
shouldn't be doing women's golf if he feels that way.''
May 21, 1995
By lunchtime CBS Sports had issued a short statement saying that
Wright would not appear on Friday's telecast, which was being
aired by The Golf Channel. Instead he would be meeting with
network officials in New York City.
Then LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem weighed in-sort of-with
his own statement: ''[T]he LPGA does not have a statement with
respect to Ben Wright's alleged comments until we know more
about the facts.''
Wright, on the other hand, didn't hold back. In a memo given to
the players only, he reassured them of his support for the tour,
then lambasted the News Journal's story: ''I am disgusted at the
pack of lies and distortion that was attributed to me in the
newspapers this morning.... As a result, I currently am
exploring my legal options.''
By Friday afternoon nearly 100 extra media credentials had been
issued to such unexpected arrivals as the TV tabloids Inside
Edition and A Current Affair. Entertainment Tonight and E! sent
reporters to interview players, and radio talk shows from
Spokane to Chicago to Daytona Beach were calling the tournament.
For the most part the players were sanguine about the unwanted
distraction, though Beth Daniel's patience wore thin when a
reporter from Fox-TV, having cornered the LPGA veteran as she
came off 18 on Friday, asked at the end of the interview, ''And
who are you?'' The players quickly tired, though, of questions
about Wright. ''I'm disappointed the media have brought up what
is basically a cultural issue,'' Mochrie said after her
second-round 70 put her three strokes behind Robbins, who held
on to her lead with a second-round 68. ''We have breast cancer,
we have divorce, we have everything else society faces on a
daily basis.'' Davies, whom Wright allegedly said was "built
like a tank," was more dismissive of the whole flap. ''I
couldn't care less,'' she said. ''It's really not worth
commenting on. It's not my job to fire or hire Ben Wright. I
could say what he said is bloody ludicrous, but I didn't hear
him say it.''
For her part Robbins had no trouble keeping her mind on the
tournament. "I made sure I didn't read anything," she said on
Sunday night. "I let other people handle it."
Focus has never been a problem for Robbins, who learned the game
from her father, Steve, a high school biology teacher. She was
the dominant player on her University of Tulsa team when it won
the NCAA title in 1988. All week long she succeeded in steering
clear of the controversy while other players addressed it
''Your first reaction is, you're mad that it was even brought
up,'' Joanne Carner said. ''Then you read something like
'boobs,' and you think, What a stupid statement.... [But] I
can't imagine [Ben] ever talking to a woman reporter he's never
met and saying something like that. You know, Sunday night, when
you're half in the bag with personal friends, you might make a
statement like 'boobs,' but to someone you don't know?'' Lopez,
who said that the quotes attributed to her in the original News
Journal story were all accurate, seemed to sum up most of the
players' feelings on Saturday when she said, ''I truly want to
believe he didn't say any of it.''
If some players seemed eager to forgive, or at least, grant
Wright the benefit of the doubt, they also expressed
frustration at what they perceive to be a double standard.
''When women room together,'' Lopez said, ''they are gay. When
men do, they're just buddies. I don't think that's fair at
all.'' When asked whether high-profile golfers who are gay
should come out of the closet, Carner responded, ''Why don't
they ever do stories about gays in professional football?"
Wright's alleged remarks were also being discussed in the line
into the ladies' rooms, between police guards outside the
players' locker room, on the clubhouse patio and in the
grandstands. On Saturday one local woman handed out buttons that
read wright is wrong. Some players weathered the controversy
with humor. Australian Mardi Lunn was seen practicing shots on
the range with her driver extended as far out from her chest as
possible to see what the effect was. It wasn't good. She shanked
all of them. Before starting her round on Saturday morning, Jane
Geddes was overheard to say, in response to a friend's words of
encouragement, ''Thanks. Now, if I can only keep my boobs out of
Wright issued a second statement early Saturday, this time to
the press, offering a two-page, detailed rebuttal to Helmbreck's
original story. ''For the record,'' the statement said, ''I
never said anything to the effect that lesbians in women's golf
are hurting the sport or that lesbians were bad for the image of
the game.'' Shortly after Wright issued his statement, the
executive editor of the News Journal, John N. Walston, issued
one of his own, saying that the paper stood by its story.
Also on Saturday, CBS, expressing support for Wright, announced
that he would be back on his perch at the 17th hole for the
weekend broadcasts. Indeed, Lopez joined him there after her
Repeated efforts were made, to no avail, to contact Helmbreck
for a response to Wright's accusation that the quotes were
fabricated. Her only interview on the subject came on Friday, by
telephone, with David Kamens of The Golf Channel. Kamens, who
asked Helmbreck for background details on her interview with
Wright, said of his conversation with the 12-year News Journal
veteran, ''She walked me through it and read from her notes....
She was very believable.''
When Mechem called a press conference for Saturday, it was only
in part to address whether or not Wright uttered the offensive
statements, a question that Mechem said was still unanswered.
The other reason was to address a larger social issue. ''We have
read comments about lifestyle before,'' Mechem said. ''I have
come to understand that to a degree these comments are leveled
at all women's sports and, for that matter, at virtually any
successful unmarried professional woman. It is a way of
demeaning or trivializing their performance and their
accomplishments.... The LPGA's major problem and its biggest
challenge by far is not the personal lifestyle of its players.
It is much less complex than that. Any problem we have ... is a
Finally on Sunday the siege seemed to lift, giving way to the
golf, specifically to the two longest hitters on the tour,
Davies and Robbins. While Davies is able to power the ball
through sheer physical strength and tremendous leg drive, the 5'
9" Robbins says the source of her club-head speed lies
elsewhere. ''God gave me quick hands,'' she says. In only her
fourth year on the tour, she has also made a name for herself
with her iron play, ranking ninth in greens in regulation.
On Sunday, Robbins had to use all of the clubs in her bag to
beat Davies, though Davies bore a measure of responsibility for
losing. The championship slipped away from the Brit on the par-5
16th. After teeing off, Robbins and Davies were forced to wait
more than five minutes before hitting their second shots. For
Davies, one of the faster players on tour-''You see the ball,
you pick a club, and you hit it,'' she says-the wait proved
disastrous. She lost her concentration and missed a three-foot
putt for bogey. Meanwhile, Robbins nailed a sand wedge to within
a foot. Suddenly Davies, who had been leading by one coming into
the hole, was losing by one with only two to play. Despite a
valiant effort on 18, where she took out her driver, aimed for
the fairway beyond the dogleg on her left, then launched her
ball 270 yards over the trees, Davies could do no better than
par. The only problem that Robbins had was keeping her hands
warm. Her solution, however, was pretty simple. "I put my hands
under my caddie's jacket," she said.
When her final putt dropped in the cup for the win, Robbins
glanced skyward and let out a long breath that the tournament
itself seemed to have been
holding back all weekend. On Saturday, Mechem had said, ''As we
sit here, just a few yards away, some of the greatest golfers in
the world-and the best in women's golf-are playing the game with
consummate skill, but we aren't out there learning and laughing
and cheering.... What is wrong with this picture?''
With the small but vocal crowd around 18 applauding
appreciatively for Robbins and Davies as they finished their
play on Sunday, the answer to that question seemed abundantly
clear: absolutely nothing.