Before Kelly Robbins became one of the LPGA's Tour's brightest young stars and one of Michigan's most successful golfers ever, she was a fine short-stop and hitter on the sandlots of Mount Pleasant
"Some of the best hands I've seen," says her father Steven.
The same description works with her golf swing.
"She has a lot of natural ability, natural coordination that works with her swing, and she hits it with strength and grace at the same time," he says. "In golf, we've actually had to tone down the effect of her hands a little bit to improve direction and avoid too much spin on the ball."
The smooth, natural and yet powerful hand action is a Robbins' trademark. She is the one player on the LPGA Tour with a swing closest to that of PGA Tour star Fred Couples, simple, smooth, seemingly slow and yet generating tremendous power.
"We've tried to keep it simple, and it goes back to our shared philosophies of fundamentals, ball trajectory and building a swing that is consistent," Steve says. "If those things are right, other good things follow."
Good things have certainly followed for Robbins, a 26-year-old member of the LPGA's "millionaire's club."
"It's a blessing really," she says.
It started as a decision for a young athlete who loved basketball, softball, tennis and especially fishing. A pole, a lake: it's still her favorite way to relax. As for making money, golf was a rather easy choice.
"My father I think realized first," she says. "He saw athletic ability, he saw my love of competition and eventually he suggested that I might want to concentrate on one, and in women's sports then, well that really limited career opportunities to golf and tennis."
Golf became the choice in large part because Steve was a high school golf coach. and is still her only teacher.
"And part of it I'm sure was growing up in Mount Pleasant, and playing at Riverwood," she says.
Robbins is the third professional golfer to hail from Mount Pleasant, a remarkable statistic for any size community let alone one with 24,000 people.
Dan Pohl was first, proving it could be done. He even worked with Steve. Then Cindy Figg-Currier, the daughter of Dick and Betty Figg, who own and operate Riverwood Golf Resort in Mount Pleasant.
Then came Robbins.
All three remain active at the highest level, though Pohl has been limited by injury problems the last several years and has branched into course design. Figg-Currier is playing her 12th year on the LPGA Tour.
Robbins, in just four years on tour, has become the shining star, already 42nd in all time money starting this season.
In terms of golf's ultimate measuring sticks, wins and majors, Robbins is the most successful of the Mount Pleasant entrants, and one of the most successful golfers in Michigan history. She has a major championship.
Robbins won last year's LPGA Championship with three birdies in the final seven holes to catch and pass Laura Davies. It paid $180,000 and changed her life.
"I don't think it's changed me as a person, I don't like to think it would, but more people know who you are, the media wants your time and a few more endorsement things come along," she said. "It's made things a little crazy."
Robbins played 24 tournaments last year, winning a career-high $527,655 to put her over the million mark in career earnings. The LPGA title was the only win of the year, the third of four in her career, but she also had nine other top 10 finishes and five second place finishes last year, the most on tour. She may have been the tour's most consistent player. In the tournaments in which she made the 36-hole cut, she never finished lower than 40th. "I look at the seconds as missed chances in a way, but it wasn't like I lost leads in any of those, it was more like I came from behind by a several shots, like 20th, and gave myself a chance," she says. "I feel good about giving myself the chances to win. That's why we are out here."
Dottie Pepper, perhaps better known as Dottie Mochrie before her recent divorce, calls Robbins a golfer with unlimited potential.
Look at how young she is, how good she is already and how much she has improved just since she came out here," Pepper says. "She already putts much better than she did when she first came out, and she hits the ball so dang far."
Robbins consistently bombs her drives past Pepper and most others. She was second on the tour in driving distance a year ago with a 261.6-yard average on the holes surveyed, second only to Davies, and is regarded with awe by many of the other players when she has a driver in her hands.
Robbins would like to be known for more than her long game and is by those who follow the tour closely. Still, she hits the golf ball greater distances than most men, and people like to talk about such things.
"I always have to talk about it, so I've taken this line from my father," Robbins says. "I am blessed with the athletic ability for some reason to establish great club head speed."
She takes advantage of the power her swing generates. She led the tour in eagles a year ago, and was eighth in greens in regulation and 11th in birdies. Rare is the par 5 hole she can't reach in two shots.
"It is a great advantage because even if I'm struggling, I feel I will reach the par 5s and make some birdies no matter what," she says. "But I don't think I'm a bad putter, or my short game is bad. The putting is what I probably have to work on the most, but I'd rather have my long game than have to depend on a short game."
It's hard to argue with her on that point. Davies hits it farthest, and she was No. 1 in money a year ago, and Robbins hits it second farthest, and she was No. 2.
Robbins is not surprised by her success, maybe since success has come along for the ride since her days as a junior who could knock the ball past everybody else.
Eventually, she landed a golf scholarship to the University of Tulsa, won All-American honors twice, won seven tournaments, was part of a team NCAA title in 1988 and then made the LPGA Tour in her first at tempt at qualifying school.
"I wish I could say that something like this surprises me, but I've prepared for some thing like this to happen," she said after win ning her major last May. "And I'd like to think if you asked some of the veterans who have been out here for years, I'd hope they wouldn't say they were surprised, either." Pepper wasn't surprised. "I think that was just the first of many," Pepper says.
Greg Johnson is the golf writer for the Grand Rapids Press.