When Kelly Robbins was 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."