LAS VEGAS – Standing on the 10th tee, Alabama coach Jay Seawell sensed there was something amiss with his star player.
Sophomore Robby Shelton is normally very stoic, quiet, reserved.
Wednesday at the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters, Shelton seemed uncharacteristically amped up – breathless, even, so much so that his coach reminded him a few holes into his round to, you know, inhale.
Four and a half hours later, the reigning NCAA Freshman of the Year was in the ninth fairway, sitting at 7 under for the day and pummeling the top field in college golf by seven shots. His adrenaline-fueled coach still wanted more, of course, but while waiting to play Seawell smiled and told Shelton, “You know, I didn’t recognize you this morning.”
“I was tired of losing,” he replied. “I wanted to win this tournament.”
He did that, all right, and in the process also helped remind everyone here – teammates, opponents, coaches, agents, tournament officials, volunteers, media members – just how talented he is.
Playing alongside No. 3-ranked Lee McCoy of Georgia, Shelton dusted him by nine shots in the final round en route to a tournament-record 15-under 201 (67-69-65). After opening the season with six consecutive top 10s, Shelton earned the fourth individual title of his career, and by far his biggest.
Every chance Seawell gets he reminds observers that we’re watching the best player in college golf. He might be right.
“He just doesn’t take weeks off,” he said. “Heck, he doesn’t take shots off – mentally, physically, emotionally. Sure, he has weeks where things don’t go the way he wants them to. But he still finishes fifth.
To his point: In Shelton’s 19 career college starts, he has four wins, nine other top-five finishes and no result worse than 17th. That’s not a misprint.
“Consistency - I base my entire golf life after that,” Shelton said, “because then you’re basically just like an ATM on the PGA Tour.”
Alabama’s players aren’t padding their stats in cupcake events, either. According to the Sagarin rankings, the Crimson Tide’s schedule is the 15th-most difficult in the country. Shelton doesn’t hide. Everywhere he goes, he’s playing the best.
While his shy personality may keep him out of the spotlight, it’s his bulletproof mental game that distinguishes him from the rest of the elite players.
Shelton is infuriatingly unflappable – just ask the field at last year’s NCAAs. In the quarterfinals against SMU, he flipped a late 2-down deficit and won, 2 up. Later that afternoon, against LSU, he made back-to-back birdies on 16 and 17 to win, 2 and 1. And then, in the championship match against Oklahoma State, he ran off six birdies in his last seven holes (and nine in his last 13) to stun the Cowboys, 1 up.
It’s cold-blooded, the way he welcomes a challenge and then crushes the competition.
“I love being under the radar,” he said. “I’m a quiet guy. I love just cruising along.”
On Wednesday, while tied for the lead in the No. 1-ranked college event of the year, he knocked his first approach shot to a foot, went out in 32 on the tougher back nine and matched the low round of the week.
“He just kind of plods,” Seawell said. “He jabs you to death. You don’t really notice that you’re getting nicked, but then you can’t keep up."
Sophomore Dru Love likes to say that he will walk past Shelton and can’t tell whether he’s 3 over or 3 under. And then later, when Shelton turns in the lowest score at the end of the day, he’s not the least bit surprised.
“He’s just so steady,” Love said. “It’s hard to explain how good his golf mind is. He does all the right things to win every week.”
Yet this season is markedly different for Shelton, still only 19.
For starters, this Alabama team is in the midst of a rebuilding effort. The two-time defending NCAA champions lost three starters to graduation and a GB&I Walker Cupper last fall because of homesickness. Here, they finished 14th in the 15-team field, and Seawell said this was the first time since May 2010 that his squad started on the back nine on the final day, a spot usually reserved for the also-rans.
Unlike last year, when Shelton was sheltered by three All-American seniors, this is undoubtedly his team. No, he hasn’t become a rah-rah cheerleader or, really, any more vocal; he just prefers to lead by example, with his play.
His body is changing, too. Since he arrived in Tuscaloosa he has packed on 20 pounds of muscle (up to 185), gained 30 yards of distance (now above-average in length) and increased his ball speed by about 15 mph. Despite drawing the attention of every top agent, Shelton has already committed to spending at least another year in school.
“I just don’t think I’m ready yet,” he said. “I need one more year.”
Looking for a PGA Tour comparison? Shelton possesses many of the same attributes as Jim Furyk: Consistent. Student of the game. Blue-collar attitude. Complete command of his swing. Dogged competitor. Mentally strong. He has the results to back it up, too.
“He’s ready for his coming-out party,” Seawell said. “He’s not just a little shy kid anymore. He’s ready for what his game is going to give him. Physically and mentally and emotionally, he has a chance to be a star on the big tour.”