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Rockin' Robbins Kelly Robbins's win in the season opener struck the right chord for the LPGA

The high-pitched roar of race car engines, a slam dunk contest,
a confab on the latest innovations in sand and gravel, and the
long shadow cast by a certain round-eared icon. That's what the
LPGA was up against as it opened the season last week in Orlando.

O.K., because the LPGA's two best players, Annika Sorenstam and
Karrie Webb, decided to remain in hibernation, maybe the
HealthSouth Inaugural at the Grand Cypress Resort didn't pack
the marquee punch of the previous week's golfapalooza, the PGA
Tour's Mercedes Championships, in which Tiger Woods shot a 58 or
something to just miss catching Phil Mickelson. That doesn't
change the fact that the men didn't have nearly the competition
in San Diego that the LPGA had in Orlando.

Only the hearing-impaired wouldn't have heard the fine whine
coming from the NASCAR race taking place a few miles from the
course at the Walt Disney World Speedway. The papers were full
of stories about the ABL All-Star weekend, which included the
first jam session by women. Then there were the hard feelings
created when hundreds of attendees at a cement convention mixed
with pilgrims to Mickey Mouse's Magic Kingdom to book solid
every hotel in town.

The thing is, the LPGA always seems to be fighting something for
the public's attention, and sometimes one is left with the
impression that nothing the players do on the course makes much
of a difference. Last week the LPGA offered concrete proof
that--damn the distractions and other attractions--it can put on
a terrific show even without its two brightest stars.
Long-hitting Kelly Robbins, after opening with a 76, birdied 15
of the final 36 holes and rode a 67-66 finish to a two-shot
victory over Meg Mallon, who aced the 12th hole in the final
round. Robbins, an All-America at Tulsa, appears to be ready to
challenge for the top spot after finishing third on the money
list last year behind Sorenstam and Webb. "They can take as much
time off as they want," said Robbins on Sunday evening before
heading for West Palm Beach, where she will attempt to defend
her title in the Office Depot tournament that was set to begin
on Wednesday.

Robbins is the latest bit of good news for a tour that has shown
steady if not spectacular growth over the past decade. The LPGA,
in fact, would be considered one of the better success stories
in sports--if the PGA Tour wasn't overshadowing the women with
$4 million tournaments and $400 million TV deals. While the PGA
Tour goes for the big score, the LPGA plugs away in Dean Witter
fashion: one investor at a time. "If you talk about stability
and how it has grown, the LPGA is a very successful operation,"
says Judy Rankin, a former player who's now a commentator on ABC
and ESPN golf telecasts, "but the PGA Tour and the Senior tour
have had such tremendous success that women's golf pales in

The LPGA's numbers look good: 42 tournaments in 1998 (up from 35
in '93); $32 million in prize money (up from $14 million in
1989 and $4.4 million in '79); seven events with purses of $1
million or more, including all four majors for the first time;
and 32 events on TV, a new high. "Fifteen years ago the biggest
purses were $75,000 or $100,000," says 18-year veteran Jane
Crafter. "The growth has been there, but it hasn't been by leaps
and bounds like on the men's tours." Robbins's share of the
$600,000 purse at the HealthSouth was $90,000.

Still, the LPGA is headed in the right direction, and this year
there are some new reasons for optimism. Mercury recently signed
on as an umbrella sponsor for seven tournaments. Those will be
shown on either ESPN or ESPN2 and carry a bonus pool of
$250,000. LPGA members over 40 are also playing for an extra
$500,000 in the year-long Lilly Legends competition. The
HealthSouth was the concluding event in the first Legends
series, which began last July. Betsy King won the $125,000 first

Things look promising on the course, too. Everyone knows how
Tiger Woods has raised the level of competition on the PGA Tour
with his impressive play, yet the same sort of thing has
happened on the LPGA tour. Webb made a statement by becoming the
first woman to break the $1 million barrier, in 1996, then
Sorenstam won six times and more than $1.2 million in '97. Add
Robbins to the equation and it's easy to see why the LPGA has
made an impact on Generation Next. "The way they're playing is
inspiring," says Mallon, the '91 U.S. Open champ. "Younger
women see golf as an opportunity. All of a sudden female
athletes are starting to play golf instead of basketball. You're
not seeing country-club golfers here anymore."

Robbins, a native of Mount Pleasant, Mich., was a standout
basketball player in high school. She used her length to good
advantage last year, leading the LPGA in greens in regulation.
She won a pair of tournaments, lost two more in playoffs and
established herself as the most talented American on the tour.

Another impressive athlete is rookie Si Re Pak, 20, from South
Korea. She has already been called the Tiger Woods of women's
golf and has the same lean, muscular build as Woods as well as a
classic swing. Playing in her first event as a member of the
LPGA--she tied for first with Cristie Kerr in last fall's Q
school--Pak wound up 13th, eight shots behind Robbins. "She'll
win four or five tournaments this year," says Laura Davies, who
before leaving England for Orlando placed a 100[pound] bet on
Pak, at 66-1 odds, to win the HealthSouth.

Pak's presence was a reminder of one edge that the LPGA does
have over the men's tour. While the PGA Tour had to create a
series of new events to get the best players in the world
together more often, the LPGA already is a world tour. There are
stops on four continents in '98, and because the other women's
tours are so weak, just about every player of note is a member
of the LPGA. Of the 27 rookies on the tour this year, 14 are
from foreign countries.

As they say at the kingdom near Grand Cypress, over the roar of
the race cars, it's a small world after all.

COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK [Kelly Robbins golfing out of bunker]