At one point during her childhood, Kelly Fuiks (now Leadbetter) thought she might win a gold medal throwing a stick instead of using one. Fuiks appeared in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd on March 20, 1972, for setting a national 12-13 age-group record in the javelin at 127 feet, 3 inches. But Fuiks, who grew up in Phoenix, discovered golf at 14 and became a high school champion, earning a scholarship to Arizona State University. In 1977, she claimed the inaugural U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship at Yahara Hills Golf Course in Madison, Wis., defeating Kathy Williams, 1 up, in the championship match. She successfully defended her title in 1978 at Myrtlewood Golf Club (Palmetto Course) in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with a 5-and-4 win over Diana Schwab. Fuiks turned pro in 1981, where she met her husband, renowned golf instructor David Leadbetter. The two were married in 1983 and have three children: Andy, Hally and James. Fuiks played on the LPGA Tour from 1981-83 and again in 1987 before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She is now a golf instructor, focusing on the short game.
What’s it like to be the first champion of a USGA event?
I remember my boyfriend saying to me, You’re going to be the first one on that trophy. One funny story is that my daughter, Hally, started out as a Razorback at the University of Arkansas. And Emily Tubert won the Public Links a couple of years ago (2010) and one of the members [of the school’s golf club] bought a replica of the trophy with the names [of the champions] on it. So, the first thing I see when I go into the Arkansas clubhouse is this trophy with my name on it.
What do you remember most about the titles?
I was really excited. My mom and dad were from Wisconsin originally, so it was really neat that a lot of my family could be out watching when they had the first event at Yahara Hills. At that time, I don’t think I was the best player in the field, but I was very competitive and I was able to win my matches. The second one, I was a little better player. I had this caddie who was really awesome. He was from the area. He was over 60 years old, so he used a pull cart. I was the only player in the field with their caddie pulling clubs on a cart.
Was there a particular match that stood out?
In the first [WAPL], I won on the last hole. She [Williams] made a bogey and I made a par. In the second one, I had a semifinal match that went [to the 18th hole] and I was playing against a really good player, Sarah LeVeque. In the final match, I played Diana Schwab. Years later, she got paired with my daughter in the  SALLY (South Atlantic Ladies Amateur). I went to watch my daughter play with the same gal I had beaten 30-plus years ago. That was fun to see what she was doing. I remember [in that final match] hitting my ball from a water hazard over the green and down in this hollow, but I was really great at getting the ball up and down. I hit it to within a foot and she gave it to me and I won, 5 and 4.
How did you transition from the javelin to golf?
I had read the book, This Life I’ve Led, by Babe Didrikson Zaharias. She was my idol and I saw how she went from being in the Olympics [in track & field] to playing golf. It’s funny because none of my family played golf. I was 14 or 15 when I first started. I hated golf at first, because you would shoot 100 and the repetitiveness of it all as far as blisters [on your hand]. But then I got the bug after three months. I got better. As a freshman at Arizona State, I won a couple of tournaments.
What made you such a good player?
I was competitive. And I was a good putter. My boyfriend [at the time] was a good putter, too. We would just putt for hours. I never really played junior tournaments. I wasn’t groomed. I had so much to learn. I just set my mind one match at a time and came through it all.
As a WAPL champion, you received an exemption into that year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Edina, Minn. What was that experience like?
I played a practice round with Nancy Lopez the year she finished second [to Hollis Stacy]. And she was telling me, Kelly, I don’t think you want to take the ball out of the hole with your putter. This is how raw I was with the game. I grew up on Papago Golf Course [in Phoenix]. I was definitely a public-course player.
What kind of confidence did you glean from the WAPL victories?
It kept me in the game. I finished school, turned pro, got my [LPGA] Tour card and met my husband.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.