MEMPHIS, Tenn. – From a very young age, Robby Shelton was groomed to be a PGA Tour pro. The dream becomes reality this week with his professional debut at the FedEx St. Jude Classic.
“You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been told, ‘We’ll be watching your kid on Sundays someday,’ ” said Shelton’s father, Robby III.
Comparisons between Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods began in earnest when Spieth became the only player since Woods to win more than one U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. Woods captured the title three times in a row. Spieth won in 2009 and 2011. What happened in 2010? Spieth ran into Shelton, then a high school sophomore, in the second round of match play.
“He ‘Spiethed’ Spieth,” said Alabama men’s golf coach Jay Seawell, a witness to Shelton’s winning the last two holes for a 1-up victory. “It’s the only time I’ve ever seen anyone do that. He did all the little things Jordan is so good at, including out-putting him, and this little 14-year-old beat him.”
Was that the day when Seawell knew he wanted to recruit Shelton? “No,” Seawell said. “It was before that. I knew he could play when he was 13.”
So did the golf coach at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Shelton’s hometown of Mobile, Ala. He’d been eyeing Shelton since he was 7 or 8 years old, said Shelton’s mom, Deby.
Robby III bought his only son of four children a set of Titleist T-Rex clubs for his fourth birthday. The driver had a dinosaur head cover, and the set came with a videotape.
“All I had to do was show him the grip,” Robby III said. “He hit balls in the yard for about a week. He lost interest and stopped for about six months until one day he said, ‘Daddy, I want to watch that video that came with the clubs.’ I’m telling you, he sat down to watch that video and he never got distracted. When that video was over, he hit balls, and he’s hit balls every day since. Something clicked in that video. I had to take him every day to the range: rain, sleet, snow, Christmas Day. It didn’t matter. He wanted to go.”
Another defining moment for Shelton was a trip to the PGA Tour Champions’ Emerald Coast Classic in Pensacola, Fla., where Shelton got an autographed golf ball from Ben Crenshaw.
“I’ve always looked up to him,” Shelton said. “He’s a great putter, and that’s what I want to be known as.”
It awakened ambitions in a young Shelton to follow in Crenshaw’s footsteps, and his devotion to golf accelerated at age 10, when he announced that he no longer wanted to play baseball. Deby asked why. “I don’t want to mess up my golf swing,” he said.
Shelton played No. 1 on St. Paul Episcopal’s varsity team beginning at age 12. He became one of only four players to be a three-time Alabama state champion, taking the Alabama High School Athletic Association 5A state title in 2010, ’12 and ’13. He narrowed his college decision to Georgia Tech, Auburn and Alabama.
“There always was such traffic in Atlanta driving to junior events,” Robby III said. “Always wrecks on I-85.”
After an acquaintance died in a car crash during Shelton’s Georgia Tech visit, Robby IV turned to his parents and said, “I’m not going to Georgia Tech.”
His mother later confided that “I didn’t want him to go off to Atlanta anyway.”
Shelton had a tougher time choosing between in-state rivals Auburn and Alabama.
“We kept telling him he was taking too long and he had to make a decision. ‘You’ve got to call one of the coaches,’ ” Robby III said. “One night, he went out to the yard because he won’t talk to nobody in front of us, and we still didn’t know his decision.”
It wasn’t just any night. Shelton went outside during the power outage at the New Orleans Superdome, which suspended Super Bowl XLVII between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens for 34 minutes.
“Robby is a man of little words,” Seawell said. “He asked me if I still had a scholarship. I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, I’d like to play for you if you’d let me.’ It was a great day for me and Alabama when he said that.”
Shelton, shy and reserved, arrived at the Tuscaloosa campus in 2013 as the nation’s No.1-ranked junior golfer, and joined a veteran-laden team that returned as defending national champions.
“I’ve grown up 20 minutes from Robby my whole life, would see him at the golf course in town and not sure we had ever had more than 10 conversations, he was so quiet,” said former teammate Bobby Wyatt. “But he was always a great player.”
Shelton earned SEC player- and freshman-of-the-year honors in 2014. He played his very best against Oklahoma State freshman Zachary Olsen to earn a crucial point that helped lead the Crimson Tide to a repeat as NCAA champs. Shelton and Olsen combined for 22 3s on the scorecard. Shelton birdied six of the last seven holes to win 1 up.
Based on his reaction to his 12-foot clinching putt, Seawell said, “You’d have thought that he and Zach were just having a little Saturday afternoon match. That’s the way Robby is, and that’s what makes him special.”
Shelton played in the 2014 U.S. Open and made his PGA Tour debut at the 2015 Barbasol Championship, where he tied for third. The tournament, held opposite the British Open, marked the best finish by an amateur at a Tour event since Phil Mickelson won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open. If only Shelton’s putter hadn’t betrayed him. After Shelton missed a short one in the final round, playing competitor Johnson Wagner said to him, “If I were putting for you, you’d be 30 under this week.”
“I think he was disappointed he didn’t win,” said Shelton’s swing instructor, Tony Ruggiero. “Once he got in the mix, he realized he’s good enough to win out there. He can play at that level.”
Shelton represented the U.S. in the 2015 Walker Cup, and if anyone could cut through Shelton’s shield with a single quip it was teammate Lee McCoy, who marveled at Shelton’s ballstriking.
“We called him ‘Xbox’ because it’s like watching a video game,” McCoy said. “He makes the swing look so easy.”
Shelton collected seven collegiate victories during his three seasons at Alabama. He didn’t achieve all of his goals during his junior year, but pro golf beckoned. In a rare show of emotion, Shelton blinked back tears May 30 as he played his final hole of the NCAA Championship at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club.
“Coach hated to see him go, but he told Robby he was ready,” Robby III said.
All of this has brought Shelton to where he always wanted to be. His future looks bright, but there are no guarantees in the play-for-pay ranks. Shelton has seen former Crimson Tide teammate Justin Thomas flourish since leaving school early, but he also has observed Tide alumni Cory Whitsett and Wyatt struggle to earn status in the pro ranks.
“You see Justin and you just want to turn pro,” Shelton said. “It’s a lot harder than Justin makes it look.”
As a newly-minted pro, Shelton is piecing together a schedule of sponsor invites to Tour events (Barbasol Championship is his next confirmed Tour start) and plans to Monday qualify into Web.com Tour tournaments, with hopes of qualifying for the Web.com Tour Finals. He also signed an endorsement deal, fittingly, with Titleist.
It’s symbolic of how far he has come since his Titleist starter set. Some day, perhaps, those clubs with the dinosaur head cover could be displayed at the World Golf Hall of Fame. But for now, they have the best caretaker of all: his mother. “I wouldn’t even let my grandkids have them,” she said.