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Original Issue


A prodigy at 12, Roberta Albers is one teen-age golfing has-been who refuses to live in the past

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."

The thoroughness with which one small girl has been able to follow this demanding philosophy is somewhat dazzling. At 7 she learned to swim, and at 8 was practicing the breaststroke two hours a day. By the time she was 9 she had a tankful of trophies and a promising competitive swimming career. That was the birthday she received a set of golf clubs, however, and she decided she did not want to become expert at a sport in which you were washed up before you could wear high-heeled shoes.

When their tomboy daughter turned to golf, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Albers were not displeased—she might, after all, have decided to be a shortstop—but they also tried to balance her competitive interests by having her play the piano. So Roberta attained near-professional skill at that.

She earned a straight A record in high school, was valedictorian of her class of 400 and won a leadership award—the I-Dare-You medal—given by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1964 she entered the University of Miami on a special scholarship underwritten by a university trustee who, on occasion, sponsors students showing an unusual combination of scholastic and athletic excellence. It was the only scholarship available to her, since the university has none for girl golfers. (Miami Athletic Director Andy Gustafson went to the same man to try to get a scholarship for a football player and was told "football can take care of itself.") Now a junior, she has maintained an A average while specializing in economics, finance and business law, and could get an academic scholarship.

Most of all, however, Roberta has been a golfer. She began playing at 6 when she would go with her father, a Tampa Frigidaire salesman, to a public park to watch him practice iron shots. "I remember," says Roberta, "that he could hit the ball so far I couldn't see it. Then he would let me hit it, and we would pace off how far my ball went." It was not too long before Roberta could hit a wedge 70 paces, 70 of her paces, that is.

About this time her family moved from Tampa to nearby Temple Terrace, where they bought a home just across the street from the Temple Terrace club, which the Albers joined. It is a good club—Walter Hagen and Jim Barnes used to play there back in the '20s—and Roberta soon had herself a course within a course. She would come home from school, drop her third-grade reader on the piano, pick up some cut-down wooden-shafted clubs that her father had given her and set off for "a round," which consisted of playing from the 4th through the 7th hole. She considered it a success if she could keep her score on each hole down to a single figure.

Soon the Albers family was thinking how nice it was that little Roberta was having so much fun playing golf. But things got more complicated. When she was 10 she was entered by accident in a boys' tournament in Sebring, Fla. The tournament committee, which had carefully corrected her entry from Roberta to Robert, was surprised to find that the "a" belonged on her name, and good-naturedly permitted her to play. She shot a 45 for the nine holes and won in her age group. The following year her father received a letter from the committee saying thanks just the same, but she could not defend her title.

Club members at Temple Terrace remember her well from that period. "She had pigtails," one recalls, "and her nose was always peeling, and she had this T shirt marked Temple Terrace Jaycees. She stood maybe 4 feet 3, and her elbows poked out everywhere. She was always on the putting green gambling against teen-age boys, and you can bet that she wasn't losing." The stakes were wooden tees, and Roberta remembers these lessons in pressure golf. "Those tees weren't free," she says. "They cost a penny apiece. The pink and blue ones were worth more. We bet them on long putts." Today tees are free for Roberta, but she will still dig around in boxes at pro shops looking for pink and blue ones.

At 11 she shot her first hole in one—on the 163-yard 15th at Temple Terrace—and won her second national Pee Wee golf championship, a title she was to take five times in six years. Then, at 12 and 13, she won her club's women's championship, a competition that was subsequently dropped on the understandable grounds that Roberta was too much for the older ladies to handle. In 1960 she played in exhibitions with people like the four-time U.S. Open champion, Betsy Rawls, and she competed in one open tournament in which she beat some of the more famous women pros.

She played in her first National Amateur in 1961 at Tacoma, Wash., where each morning she ate a breakfast of waffles topped with strawberries and whipped cream and gained eight pounds.

In the first round she beat a Portland, Ore. student 5 and 4. Nothing surprising in that. The next day she met the Tacoma City champion and eliminated her after 15 holes. She learned something that day, as well. On one hole her opponent skulled a ball out of a trap. It flew over the green and hit Roberta's caddie, whereupon the lady, correctly, claimed the hole. Roberta unzipped her golf bag, pulled out her rule book, checked it, slapped it back in the bag and walked off to the next tee. She was now being called the Tampa Tiger but there was obviously another tiger in Tacoma, too.

Anne Quast Welts, the eventual winner of that Amateur and now a three-time national champion, marveled at Roberta. "She's at that wonderful stage where it never occurs to her all the horrible things that can happen on a golf course." It was true. "I was on cloud 3," Roberta says today, "not cloud 9. Everyone else is on that," she adds laughing.

In the quarter-finals Roberta played 36-year-old Mary Pat Janssen. "All Roberta has to think about is her golf and her stomach," said a rightfully worried Miss Janssen. Roberta beat her 5 and 4, and the next day won again to become the youngest semifinalist in the tournament's history. She recalls thinking that night, "I'm playing with the big girls now. I could get beat." It was, she says, "the first time I ever doubted my ability." When she lost to Tish Preuss on the 17th hole the next day her tournament was over, but the doubt lingered on. She began to lose her confidence. Peggy Conley and Jan Ferraris, the other two fine golfers her age, had been scraping their way to the top, and they had learned how to scramble to stay alive. It was something Roberta had never been forced to do. "It would drive me nuts," she says, "to know I was hitting the ball better and hitting more greens, while they would be all over the park but still get down to halve a hole. I had started on top and was getting knocked down a little bit farther each tournament, while they just kept working their way up."

Roberta might now be an ex-golfer but for her own determination and a Sioux Indian named Ted LeCompte, who had been a good friend of Babe Zaharias'. A veteran with 100% disability from World War II, LeCompte spends his winters around Temple Terrace playing golf and coaching anyone who might ask him for advice. He once thought of being a golf pro, and he teaches better than a lot of them.

When Roberta's game went sour, LeCompte began to coach her. He tried to reassure her by telling her over and over again that she could depend on her swing. As one golf writer said recently, "If you took all the instruction manuals and arrived at a composite perfect swing, it would be Roberta's." It is a swing to envy, and it was as good then as it is now.

"I kept hearing Ted and my father say this, but it never penetrated," Roberta says. "I thought they were telling me my swing was good because they were my father and friend. Every time I missed a shot, it would get to me."

"When youngsters are 14 or 15 they suddenly realize that golf is hard," says LeCompte. "But they still don't realize they are human, that they will make mistakes. It takes time to learn to control yourself. Roberta needed to understand that she was going to miss five or six shots in a round. She had to convince herself she could still play and win even if she missed them."

For three years she did not win a noteworthy tournament, though each summer was completely devoted to golf. "I looked forward to summer, yet I dreaded it," she says now. "I would get on the first tee and freeze."

Her grandfather, Giulio Bottari, a Tampa dermatologist, became concerned about the hours she was spending in the sun and told her she must always wear a hat. She does, faithfully, and her forehead remains white long after the rest of her face is tanned. Her hats, in fact, have become a fetish. She has 10 of them, which she carries through the summer in a paper box. "I used to buy one at every tournament, but I would never wear a new hat until the following week," she says. "I had this feeling that if I wore it right away I would lose. Everything was so mental with me."

She planned to be a government student when she enrolled at Miami—having given up a whimsical notion that she wanted to be a veterinarian—but an accounting course got her interested in business school, and her endless string of A's has followed. Her life is in part summed up by the two magazines she subscribes to: Golf World and Business Week. "I don't think Roberta will ever turn professional," a USGA official said recently. "She will make more money in a few years as a stockbroker than Mickey Wright will earn in her whole career."

Perhaps, but this fails to reckon with the fact that Roberta Albers wants something back for her summers in the sun and is showing signs of getting it. She has hardly been home to Temple Terrace this year, moving from one big tournament to the next and giving increasing indications that she is at last going to be able to win with her picture swing.

Her activities in recent weeks show much of what she is, a combination of unsophisticated child and wary adult. They include 1) having her first haircut by a man, 2) eating her first Chinese meal ("Ugh"), 3) acquiring a copy of American Opinion, the magazine of the John Birch Society, and 4) sailing a boat for the first time. Conservative with money, of necessity, she estimates her eight weeks of tournament play will cost her about $500, including entry fees. She can tell you the student rate by air from Fort Smith, Ark. to Columbus, Ohio, knows the price of an automobile probably better than its owner and has figured out that you can get more laundry done for 25¢ in one kind of laundromat than you can in another.

But, above all, she has won a major golf tournament, the Trans-Mississippi. The night before she left Florida she worked out a new putting stance with LeCompte. She sets her feet wide apart and chokes down on the putter. The new technique gave her confidence about her putting, something she has not had in five years.

In the final match of the Trans-Mississippi she came up against exactly the kind of personality that she understands least, happy-go-lucky Peggy Conley. Like Roberta, Peggy is 19, but if one is the Tampa Tiger, the other is Pooh Bear. In 1964 Peggy had made the U.S. Curtis Cup team, and last year she had beaten Roberta in the Western Amateur when Roberta missed a two-foot putt.

Roberta takes unnecessary risks on a golf course, as most young players do, and at the end of 27 holes in the Trans-Mississippi she had gambled herself into being three holes down. "I told myself to forget all about Peggy Conley," she says, "to just play the last nine holes in par, and never mind how I got them." She did, shooting seven pars, a birdie and a bogey to win 1 up. She had not played her best golf, by far, but she had come from behind, she had scrambled back after bad shots and she had found out that that is how you win. It is a lesson one can be a long time learning, but if she has really mastered it the Tampa Tiger is on the loose again.