Just who is Kelly Robbins? She's a smalltown 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.