It was late afternoon, the summer heat was heavy and the only sound you could hear around the country club was the rhythmic plunk, plunk, plunk of tennis balls in the distance. Then Roberta Albers emptied a bag of golf balls on the practice tee, and soon there intruded another sound—click, click, click—as three-wood after three-wood arced out through the heavy Illinois air.
The scene was the Barrington Hills Country Club two days before the Women's Western Amateur championship last month, and Roberta Albers was at work long after the rest of the top women golfers in the country had called it a day. But that is not surprising, for she has always been different, and the difference now makes her one of the most interesting young women the game has seen in a long time.
Back seven years ago, when Arnold Palmer had won only one Masters and Jack Nicklaus was a sophomore at Ohio State, Roberta Albers was a famous golfer. Now she is 19, and hardly anybody has heard of her since those days when she was that little girl from Florida who was beating professionals at 12, winning the women's championship of Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club so regularly that the club gave up the event, shooting a 68 from the men's tees and going to the semifinals of the National Amateur at 14. She was a golfing prodigy then, and this summer she has showed signs of becoming one again.
It seems that every women's tournament in the last few months has been won by a teen-ager so young that she has to sneak into the clubhouse powder room to smoke a cigarette, but the sudden fame that comes with upsetting the good older amateurs has a way of disappearing like the smoke traces. Rarely does a schoolgirl convince older competitors that she is a player seriously to be reckoned with, a golfer who may still be making headlines after her contemporaries have settled down to be Des Moines city champions But that is how they talk about Roberta Albers.
"Roberta has tiger instincts," one of her opponents said recently. "She is tight and compact with everything—her thinking, swing and mental approach. You've never seen such concentration. She is thorough about every aspect of the game."
The women pros are reluctant to discuss her potential, but not because they don't recognize it. The United States Golf Association's amateur code is as strict as church law (before Vatican II), and an amateur whose name is even mentioned by a pro draws a frown of disapproval. It is only after a lengthy preface assuring you that Roberta has never shown the least interest in turning professional that LPGA Tournament Director Lenny Wirtz will admit he has been watching her progress closely for some time.
She has "a commercial swing," says Wirtz. "She plays the kind of game that would win a check on the pro tour just about every week. Roberta is not on the course for fun. She's out to win, and this fierceness and her size [she is only 5 feet 4] make her exciting. She is not a barrel of laughs, but this isn't a game for jokers. She is all business."
There is much about her that reminds one of another very determined golfer who didn't wreathe the world in smiles, Ben Hogan. Such an attitude seems to be better accepted in men, however, and many people have misinterpreted Roberta's drive to succeed. But it is a trait that Marlene Bauer Hagge, now a 32-year-old pro who 17 years ago was herself a teen-age phenomenon, recognizes and can explain: "Roberta is extremely quiet because of her desire to make good, and quite often such an attitude is misunderstood. The same thing happened to me. When I first started playing big-time golf my attitude was misconstrued as being defiant. I was quiet, too, but only because I was concentrating so hard in an effort to win. The public thought I was stuck-up."
Girls' golf is largely a game of flounce and fun. It has a kitty-cat quality to it that does not quite fit a Bauer or an Albers, who have that strain of tiger in them. Her opponents say Roberta never concedes a putt, which isn't exactly true, but putting is the weakest part of her game and she knows that not all gimme putts go in. They say she never tells anybody else, "Good shot." She denies it, and her coach backs her up. "Roberta told me I hit a good shot. It was three years ago," he says with a laugh. During her first practice round on a strange course she prefers to be alone so that she can think as she paces off yardages from pipe to barkless tree to green. "You can't turn concentration on and off," she says. "The first time I am on a course I can see it best if I am not disturbed." She plays no golf in the fall or winter and only occasionally in the spring, but she works on her game each night of the year by doing at least 50 fingertip push-ups and 12 deep knee bends and touching her toes 20 times. "My wrists are not big, and I need to build up my strength," she says. "I like to keep myself in good physical condition, though I think I may have become an exercise nut in the last two years." And of the accusation that might matter the most among her contemporaries, that she is a loner, she says, "I guess I'm not one of the group. People enjoy cutting me, most likely because I don't blend in. I like to work, and I like to see work pay off."
The need to excel, or as she puts it, "to do something until I'm good at it," is an essential part of her personality. "I have not learned to do a variety of things," she says, "because it takes so much time to do even a few things well."