HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Maybe we should have seen this star-making NCAA performance coming.
At the 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur in Michigan, Robby Shelton was a baby-faced, painfully shy 14-year-old with a peach-fuzz mustache and gold Titleist hat. Ranked 229th in the country, he took down a hotshot prep named Jordan Spieth, who was only weeks removed from an auspicious debut at the Byron Nelson Championship.
Despite giving up at least 40 yards off the tee and nearly three years of experience, Shelton dinked-and-dunked his way to a stunning victory. His local caddie at Egypt Valley CC was Brian Barkeley, and even though he’d just met the kid earlier that week he sensed a star-in-waiting.
“It doesn’t matter who he’s playing against,” Barkeley said then. “He’s just so steady.”
The looper believed so deeply in Shelton, he told everyone he knew to come out and watch his early matches. “He’s going to do something special this week,” said Barkeley, and sure enough Shelton did, knocking off another top player, Anthony Paolucci (now with USC), in the quarterfinals.
“You just felt like he was going to find a way to win,” Paolucci said at the time. “It was a weird feeling.”
And it’s a feeling that his opponents have experienced ever since.
Within a few years of that breakout performance, Shelton blossomed into the No. 1-ranked junior player in the country and the most highly sought-after prospect. He was a three-time state high school champion in Alabama, a multiple AJGA invitational winner and a member of the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team.
“He’s been a finisher his whole life,” said ’Bama senior Bobby Wyatt, who grew up about 20 minutes away from Shelton’s hometown of Wilmer, near Mobile. “He’s always been a winner.”
Shelton was still a reserved kid with a monster game when he arrived in Tuscaloosa, but during his first season with the Tide he slowly came out of his shell. Soft-spoken with a camera in his face, he’s genuine, down-to-earth and wonderfully sarcastic in small, comfortable settings.
“(Assistant coach) Mike McGraw always gives us grief,” senior Cory Whitsett says, “like, ‘Look what you’ve done to the freshman! He didn’t talk like that coming in!’”
A few weeks ago, Alabama’s trainer thought it’d be fun to measure the players’ biceps. Shelton’s teammates had begun calling him “meathead,” because of his strict diet and near-obsessive habits in the gym. One day they went to Smoothie King for a post-round snack, and every player ordered a fruity drink … everyone, that is, but Shelton, who opted for the Carrot Kale Dream.
Anyway, Shelton stood up in front of his unimposing teammates and flexed. “It was just a rock, with a vein protruding at the top,” Whitsett says, shaking his head. “We’re all like, ‘Oh my God.’ He loves it. He loves trying to look good.”
Though he likely will get carded for the next 20 years, Shelton has turned his once-boyish physique into the build of a prototypical tour player – tall, lean and broad-shouldered, with a powerful, sturdy base.
More than his twice-a-day workouts, though, it is his range sessions that have become the stuff of legend at ’Bama. Like most great players, Shelton has a few quirks with his practice – in his case, he loathes seeing his shadow. So, in the late-afternoon sun, he’ll rotate his body nearly 90 degrees and hit balls to the left edge of the range, just to avoid seeing his action. On cloudy days, his teammates joke that he’s probably flustered being able to hit from anywhere.
The ribbing stops, of course, once the stripe show begins.
“I literally just sit there and my jaw drops,” says redshirt sophomore Tom Lovelady. “Straight up and straight down. The ball doesn’t move.”
Indeed, it didn’t take long for Shelton to earn his teammates’ respect and trust. He was Alabama’s best player this season, winning in his first start at Olympia Fields, adding another title in the spring at Reynolds Plantation and posting eight other top-10s.
In the NCAA stroke-play qualifier here at Prairie Dunes, Shelton shot 72-65-68 to tie for third individually, one shot out of the playoff. Then the fun began.
In the Tide’s quarterfinal match against SMU, Shelton was 2 down with seven holes to play when he chipped in from behind the green on 15, made another birdie on 16, and got up and down from the knee-high grass right of 17 to eventually win, 2 up.
Later that afternoon, he was all square with three to go against LSU’s Stewart Jolly when he holed a chip shot on 16, then knocked a 4-iron to 10 feet on the par-5 17th. Match over, 2 and 1.
The legend was growing, fast, but Shelton somehow saved his best for Wednesday’s NCAA Championship final against Oklahoma State. On the same day that he was named the Phil Mickelson Award winner as the nation’s top freshman, Shelton outdueled Zachary Olsen in what proved to be a pivotal point for the Tide.
In a wildly entertaining match, Shelton ripped off six birdies in his last seven holes – and nine of his last 13 – and shot 7 under to win, 1 up. On the final green, on live television, he sank a cold-blooded 12-foot birdie putt with his opponent in tight and looking to send the match into extras.
“Something just mentally clicks inside of me,” Shelton said afterward. “I know that I have to pull it off, and I know that I’m going to do it.”
McGraw walked all but five rounds this season with senior Trey Mullinax, but the partnership grew stale at Prairie Dunes. For match play, McGraw switched over to Shelton, per the kid’s request, and what the coach witnessed for the past two days was the “most impressive performance I’ve ever seen in a national championship.”
“There’s a calmness and confidence and composure that you don’t have as an 18-year-old,” McGraw said. “He does the best job of letting his clubs do the talking that I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t say anything about his game; doesn’t need to. All I did was remind him of how great he was and how he was going to get it back.”
Shelton delivered the second point for top-ranked Alabama on its way to a 4-and-1 victory over No. 2 Oklahoma State. In all three matches he trailed late on the back nine. Each time he prevailed.
“I never thought I could have as much faith in a freshman as I had in Robby Shelton,” Whitsett says. “It was like, ‘Well, we’re going to win that one.’ It didn’t matter how many he was down.”
Said Mullinax: “It was almost like a weight was lifted off of you when he’s out there playing because you know he’s going to do everything he can to win that match and that he will not quit until he does. He’s a fighter, he’s a competitor, and I’m glad that he’s on our team.”
This week’s NCAAs marked the final event for the Tide’s trio of seniors. The two-time defending champions will undoubtedly be Robby Shelton’s team for the next three years, or until he decides to test the pro ranks.
That leadership role brings new responsibilities – in the gym, in the classroom, in the team room, in the lineup – and Shelton says that he’s prepared to “carry the team on my back,” if needed.
“I’ve never met anybody who sees golf the way he sees it,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “He has a vision of what a ball should do, and then it actually happens. He wills it in, and he’s done that forever.”