A Natural's Progression Kelly Robbins, the most gifted American on the LPGA tour, would rather not rush her long climb to the top

May 03, 1998

When Kelly Robbins was 2 1/2, she could whack a plastic golf
ball off the front porch of her house in Mount Pleasant, Mich.,
and reach the road 60 feet away. Watching her, Steve Robbins
started to suspect that his daughter might be an athlete.

A few years later, though, when Kelly began kindergarten, he was
afraid she might grow up to be a hermit. "Kelly was very quiet
and shy," he says. "I remember her saying she didn't want to
ride the school bus. I asked why, and she said, 'It's too noisy,
and there are too many people on it.'"

The Robbins's house was the last stop on the school-bus route,
and the only open seat left for Kelly was the one right behind
the driver. "The back of the bus was the cool spot; I was very
uncool," Kelly says. "I hated that school bus."

Ladies and gentlemen, start your analogies. Robbins's feelings
about her life as one of the top attractions on the LPGA tour
are a lot like her feelings about that bus: too much noise and
too many people. While she doesn't hate the LPGA, Robbins could
do without all the attention. It's the same attitude that Fred
Couples famously described during his salad days in the early
'90s when he said that he didn't answer the phone because he was
afraid someone would be on the other end.

Robbins's laid-back demeanor and relaxed yet powerful swing have
brought frequent comparisons to Couples. "I once said that you
shouldn't mistake Freddy's nonchalant attitude for a lack of
desire," says ABC golf commentator Judy Rankin. "I think that's
the case with Kelly, too. She comes across as whatever will be,
will be, but there's great desire there. I don't think she wants
to come off as somebody who bet the farm and lost. The fact is,
she has the talent to bet the farm."

The 28-year-old Robbins is the LPGA's version of the Stealth
bomber. She's as long as anyone but Laura Davies, and while the
public has fixated on the budding Annika Sorenstam-Karrie Webb
rivalry, Robbins has quietly established herself as the best
American on tour. She has seven victories, including a win in
this season's opener, the HealthSouth Inaugural, and an
unnoticed major, the 1995 McDonald's LPGA Championship, which
she won while everyone was preoccupied with Ben Wright.

There are those who believe that Robbins is poised to slingshot
past Sorenstam and Webb. "Kelly will be Number 1, I don't doubt
it for a minute," says LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley. "It may
be this year, it may be next year, but it's going to happen."

Robbins nearly dominated last season. She finished third in
three majors (the Dinah Shore, the U.S. Open and the du Maurier)
and 11th in the LPGA Championship. She won twice (at the Diet Dr
Pepper National Pro-Am and the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic), lost
in a playoff and was among the top five in 13 of her 28 starts.
That's a lot of chances to win, and a potentially Godzilla-sized
year. The key was Robbins's deadly accuracy. She ranked first in
greens hit in regulation at 78.7%, believed to be the best on
any major U.S. tour since the statistic was established in 1980.

"The only thing I can't understand is why Kelly isn't Number 1
already," says Tammie Green, who teamed with Robbins in the '96
Diners Club Matches. "I think she's comfortable being in that
third position. Once she gets past that, you're going to see
Kelly Robbins dominate."

"Her game, part of the time, is better than Annika's and
Karrie's," says Rankin, who captained Robbins and the U.S. team
to victory in the '96 Solheim Cup. "Whether that will ever be
true week after week, I don't know. It's one of her great
attributes to shake things off quickly and go on. As good as she
is, she's less of a perfectionist than Annika or Karrie.
Sometimes that's good. Being a perfectionist made Ben Hogan
great, and not being one made Arnold Palmer great. You have to
be yourself to do well."

Just who is Kelly Robbins? She's a small-town girl who remains
close to her family--she built a house for herself on a lake in
the woods west of Mount Pleasant--but keeps the media at arm's
length. She would rather not say exactly what her place looks
like or where it's located, other than to say it's three miles
to the nearest supermarket. "It's the last thing I have left
that's private," she says, apologizing. That Midwestern humility
is what makes Robbins popular with other players. Ask her about
herself and she's likely to ramble on about her fishing, not her
golf.

Robbins nevertheless knows how to have a good time. In Japan at
the Nichirei International last fall, Cindy Figg-Currier, who
babysat Robbins on occasion back in Mount Pleasant, prodded her
into singing the Sheryl Crow hit All I Wanna Do during a karaoke
session at the team hotel. At the Solheim Cup, in Wales, Robbins
provided a measure of comic relief one morning when she showed
up for breakfast in the baggy T-shirt and shorts she had slept
in, not the team uniforms the others were wearing. "She lent a
college atmosphere to our team room that was a delight," Rankin
says. Robbins blushes when the story is recounted, and quickly
explains that she had an extra hour before her tee time that day
and that's why she wasn't dressed.

Robbins was the only member of the Solheim Cup team to play in
all five matches in '96. She was one down going to the par-5
18th hole in her singles match against Alison Nicholas. Robbins
hit driver, four-iron to the back of the green and two-putted
for a birdie to win the hole, halve the match and secure the
half point that clinched the Cup for the U.S. "When the pressure
is on, she growls like a bear and gets tough," says Chuck
Parisi, Robbins's regular caddie. "She's proved it time after
time. You're either born with that or you're not."

The game has always been fairly easy for Robbins. She has quick
hands that generate remarkable clubhead speed. On the final hole
of the first round of last year's Jamie Farr event, which she
would win by eight shots, Robbins drove into a steep fairway
bunker and faced an uphill shot of 150 yards into a two-club
wind. "We were looking to put the ball somewhere on the green
and save a good round," Parisi said, "and she hit it up there
about two feet. That was one of the better shots I've ever seen.
On a difficulty scale of one to 10, it was a 10."

The three primary reasons for Robbins's success are Riverwood, a
kid-friendly public course in Mount Pleasant; her father, a
retired high school biology teacher who also coached the golf
teams; and natural athleticism. Kelly played shortstop for her
summer league softball team. "The Central Michigan coach used to
tell me, 'She can bat cleanup for me anytime,'" says Steve
Robbins. Kelly was also an all-state point guard. Care to
challenge her to a shooting contest? "I wouldn't," her dad warns.

Mount Pleasant, a town of about 12,000 if you subtract the
Central Michigan student population, has surprisingly produced
three touring pros: Dan Pohl, a longtime fixture on the PGA
Tour; Figg-Currier; and Robbins. Riverwood, which is owned by
Figg-Currier's family, nurtured all three. Juniors were always
welcome there. In the mid-'70s the Pohl boys, Dan and Larry,
were routinely dropped off at the course with their bag lunches
in the morning and played all day, "when we weren't busy chasing
each other with a club," says Dan. More than a decade later it
was the Robbins girls--Kelly and her younger sister, Laurie--who
hung out at Riverwood hitting shag bags full of wedge shots onto
a practice green near the clubhouse.

Dick Figg, Cindy's dad, watched Kelly grow up on the course.
"Ever hear Bob Rotella's definition of commitment?" he asks. "Of
the chicken and the egg or the pig and the bacon, which one do
you think is committed?" He laughs, then adds, "Kelly was
committed."

She practiced on days when bad weather closed the course. Her
dad was usually out there with her, leading some of the locals
to think he was a stage father. "I'm sure they thought I was
snapping the whip, but I was out there because Kelly wanted to
be there," says Steve. "The other part was, teachers aren't paid
a lot. We were going to have to take out loans for the girls to
go to college, so we agreed, as a family, to try golf as a kind
of occupational training. They were trained for a trade, in a
sense, hoping that they might get scholarships. I don't know how
much they wanted to do it for us, but it was an enjoyable thing.
We had times during the summer when they wanted to do something
else, so we walked a fine line to make certain they had other
interests."

Says Kelly, "Some people blamed my dad for not giving me a life.
That's so unfair. He knew what it was going to take to get where
I am now. No, I didn't go out with friends a lot, but I made
that choice. Pops didn't make me do anything. Some people
couldn't understand why a 14-year-old would rather be practicing
golf. Now I think they respect what he did. I wouldn't trade the
way I did it for anything."

It's hard to argue with the results. Kelly got a scholarship to
Tulsa and helped the team win the NCAA title in 1988, when she
was a freshman. She left school after four years without earning
a degree and turned pro in 1991. Laurie received a scholarship
from LSU, where she played two years and finished third in the
1992 Southeastern Conference tournament. Although she gave up
competitive golf while in school, Laurie got her degree, in
biology.

Kelly is now preparing to take the final step. "People keep
asking me about Karrie and Annika and getting my game to their
level," she says. "Well, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing.
In golf, it's all you. That's what I like about it."

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK STAR POWER Fans are impressed by Robbins's length, but it's her unmatched iron play that separates her from other players. [Kelly Robbins]
COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER FAMILY PLAN Steve Robbins, who subbed for Kelly's caddie last week, viewed golf as occupational training for his two daughters. [Steve Robbins and Kelly Robbins]

"Some people blamed my dad for not giving me a life," Robbins
says. "That's so unfair."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)