Ada, Mich. (July 23) – Meet Robby Shelton IV, a 14-year-old peach-fuzz-faced, braces-clad dragon slayer.
Sure, he looks innocent enough with the sound of muffled giggles completing nearly every sentence, but Shelton’s been on a tear on the links at this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. It works like this: The teenager from blue-collar Wilmer, Ala., grabs opponents when they least expect it and before they know it, their title hopes have gone kapooey. And it all just happens so quickly.
Just ask defending champion Jordan Spieth. The 17-year-old upstart from Dallas appeared safe enough in Thursday’s second round of match play until Shelton won the final two holes to snatch away his aspirations of becoming the first repeat Junior Amateur winner since Tiger Woods claimed consecutive titles in 1991-93.
Playing in front of a gallery that swelled seemingly by the second, Shelton displayed the calm his PGA Tour-tested opponent has gained acclaim for over the past few months. Shelton completed his 1-up victory by steadying himself enough to drain a clinching 6-footer for par.
The St. Paul’s Episcopal School student isn’t shy about admitting that he entered the championship only hoping to make match play against a talented and decorated field. His voice was quivering with nervousness after beating Spieth, the second-low qualifier from stroke play.
Even his braces were shaking, observed Greg Johnson of The Grand Rapids Press in the media room.
That’s partly because Shelton has been transformed from hopeful to championship headliner. After beating Spieth, Shelton seems increasingly composed with each encounter that passes and every win that he adds to a count that is now up to four match-play victories.
In the third round, not even a more than two-and-a-half hour weather delay could prevent him from playing a five-hole stretch from Nos. 9-13 in three under par to score a 3-and-1 victory over 17-year-old Andrew Lister of Haymarket, Va.
Pulling it off both times on the back [nine] was pretty amazing, says Shelton of his not-your-typical Thursday.
Shelton’s giant-killing ways continued in Friday morning’s quarterfinals, where he defeated Rolex Tournament of Champions and Thunderbird International Junior winner Anthony Paolucci of Del Mar, Calif., 2 up in a match he led almost the entire way. He’ll face Jim Liu of Smithtown, N.Y., in the semifinals, now within two wins from taking the title.
I think I have a [great] shot at it, Shelton says. Jim Liu is a good young player, the same as me, but I think I can pull it off the way I’m playing right now. Everything’s on.
That holds true for his mental game. Shelton appears calm through the twists and turns that accompany the uncertainties inherent in match play. After calling a penalty on himself that resulted in a loss-of-hole in his first-round match against Ben Crancer, of Kirkwood, Mo., Shelton immediately pulled himself together to score a 3-and-2 victory. The next morning, he scored a seminal win over Spieth.
We talked to some people who basically said, ‘You have to add a couple of strokes when you’re playing Spieth, just out of the pressure of the moment,’ says caddie Brian Barkeley. Robby didn’t add any strokes – he just played his game and does what he does.
Now, Shelton has a chance to win a USGA championship in his first start.
At first, I was really thinking about just trying to make [match play]. My game got better and better as the week went on, Shelton smiles. After beating Jordan, I knew I had the game to win. It’s like a dream come true.
One person who hasn’t been surprised by Shelton picking off some of the top juniors in the country is his father, Robby III. As a result of his son’s never-give-up approach, he’s been buying soft drinks after their rounds for eight years running.
We’ve seen him do that kind of stuff to older players, the elder Shelton says. He grinds ’em down until the end. When he gets down a few, we don’t worry about it. He always comes back.
What Spieth, nor the rest of the gallery, didn’t know.
Yeah, what he didn’t know. Robby III proudly confirms. Wasn’t expecting.
Shelton’s refreshingly fast pace both in his walk and pace seems an appropriate fit in complementing his career progression; a few practice swing , stance, swing and the ball flies right toward the target time after time. The simple but hard-to-retain 1-2-3 routine has served Shelton inarguably well. He’s won a trio of Junior Masters titles, was the individual champion at the Alabama 5A State Golf Championship in the fall of 2010 and finished second in sectional qualifying for the U.S. Junior Amateur. Despite being on the national stage, his steady approach hasn’t changed.
I know what to do, shrugs Shelton, who has the chance to become the youngest winner in the 63-year history of the U.S. Junior. I pick the shot and hit it.
So far, the weight of expectations doesn’t seem to be burdensome. Shelton appears as enthusiastic about the game as when he first picked up a club at age 4 after watching a playful golf cartoon.
No matter what happens the rest of the way, Shelton has enjoyed a fairy-tale week.
Andrew Blair is the communications director for the Virginia State Golf Association. He’s contributing articles at this week's U.S. Junior Amateur for the USGA.