Her CUP of TEE : Emilee Klein was just another player on the LPGA tour before consecutive victories thrust her into the national spotlight. But her run of success began long before her quantum leap at the game’s top level.
As an amateur golfer, Emilee Klein grew accustomed to seeing her name at the top of the leader board.
At age 14 she became the youngest State Amateur women’s golf champion in history. Her winning ways continued through the junior ranks and two years of college at Arizona State, where she was a member of two national championship teams and was NCAA champion as a sophomore.
Last year she turned professional--and went more than a year without a victory.
The drought certainly wasn’t rare considering the tougher level of competition, but it was an adjustment for Klein just the same.
She was close a couple of times. She placed third in the LPGA Tour’s rookie-of-the-year standings, having twice finished second, once after two holes of a sudden-death playoff.
This year she had four top-10 finishes, including two thirds, before finally breaking through.
And how, she broke through.
Earlier this month, the 22-year-old from Studio City won the Ping Welch’s Championship in Canton, Mass.
A week later, she won the Women’s British Open--by seven strokes.
The British Open is not a major championship on the LPGA tour, but for Klein it was huge.
“Getting one win was a dream come true,” she said. “But two in a row will really get me some respect out here.”
Not to mention the healthy boost it gave to her bank account. Klein’s victories--worth a combined $199,000--vaulted her from 22nd to ninth on the LPGA money list with $356,716 in earnings this year.
Even her mother, Randee, and father, Bobby, made out.
In England, gambling on golf is legal. A wager on their daughter, a 25-1 longshot to win the British Open, netted a tidy profit.
Winning consecutive LPGA tournaments is somewhat rare--only two others have done so this year. To do it on different continents is quite unusual. And for a golfer to accomplish as much in only her second year as a professional is extraordinary.
But to those who have followed Klein’s rapid rise through the ranks, her success seems almost routine.
“I’m surprised it took this long,” said her half-brother, Bob, a teaching professional who gave Klein her first golf lesson when she was 9. “I watched her play for two weeks earlier this year and I knew she was close. It’s surprising that she won two in a row, but . . . nothing she does surprises me.”
Klein has vaulted from next to nowhere to the top of the leader board before. Two years after her first lesson she won a junior tournament. Five years after that, she won the State Amateur.
“The desire to win is just something I’ve always had,” Klein said. “I can’t explain it. It’s just something you feel--and I love the feeling.”
She’s familiar with it too.
Klein’s accomplishments are chronicled in a jumbo-size scrapbook kept in her parents’ home.
The book, 2 1/2 feet tall and two feet wide, is crammed with newspaper clippings detailing Klein’s success from her first tournaments through her high school career. Another eight-inch-high stack of more recent material is waiting to be presented in another book.
“I don’t think there’s going to be enough room for all of this,” Randee Klein said. “Especially now.”
Klein always has been close with her family, whose home in Studio City features a putting green in the front yard.
She is Bobby and Randee’s only child. Bob Jr., head pro at Graeagle Meadows Golf Club west of Lake Tahoe, is Bobby’s son from a previous marriage.
Growing up, Klein practiced with her father, a member at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, every day after school.
Bobby Klein would count out 100 balls for his daughter to hit into a net. Occasionally growing weary of that monotonous routine, Klein said she sometimes would cheat.
“When he went inside I would throw some back, making sure they made a noise so he’d think I hit them,” she said.
When Klein first turned pro, Bobby was her caddie. But that arrangement didn’t last long.
“The father-daughter relationship was very difficult on the course,” Emilee said. “We get along much better when he’s on the sidelines.”
Bobby Klein has been replaced as caddie by Ken Harms, who later became Klein’s boyfriend.
“He’s so supportive and pumps her up and makes her feel really good,” Randee Klein said.
“We have a running joke that she’s with someone who’s just like her dad. Then she always says, ‘Gee, Mom, you’ve never liked any of my boyfriends before.’ ”
The Kleins fly to tournaments about once a month to see their daughter play. If they aren’t at the tournament, Emilee phones home even before heading off to do any interviews. “We have a really close relationship,” Klein said. “And it’s not all golf.”
Her father said Klein “wears out shopping more than she wears out [playing] golf,” but even so, from an early age it was clear she was focused on a career on the links.
In high school at Notre Dame, Klein played in only selected matches, opting instead for personal practice.
“She always had a different agenda with her golf,” Notre Dame Coach John Skeeze said. “High school golf is so geared toward boys and she wanted to focus on what she wanted to accomplish.”
Klein missed out on two Mission League titles won by Notre Dame but did just fine on her own.
She advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur championship in 1991. Later that year, she won the U.S. Junior Girls’ championship and was selected Rolex Junior girls’ player of the year.
The next year, she made an immediate impact at Arizona State.
“She came in as junior champ but we figured it may take her a while to adjust,” Arizona State Coach Linda Vollstedt said. “But she goes out and wins the first college tournament that she enters.”
Klein was recognized as an All-American in both her years at Arizona State. After winning the NCAA individual title as a sophomore, she turned pro.
“I knew there weren’t any guarantees that she would stay four years,” Vollstedt said. “But I recruited her because she was very focused on her goal. . . . She was serious about playing on the LPGA Tour.”
But Klein had more in mind than merely making a living on the tour.
“I came to the tour to win,” she said. “That’s the enjoyment of golf for me. I still like to play, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much if I didn’t get some wins.”
Klein’s parents didn’t see her first tour victory in Canton. But they were there, though teary-eyed, the next week at the British Open when their daughter strolled up the 18th fairway at Woburn Golf and Country Club in Milton Keynes, England, with a seven-stroke lead.
“It was so exciting,” Randee Klein said. “But she’s still Emilee. She hasn’t changed.”
Some things have.
For one, the fan mail has increased. One 9-year-old from Minnesota wrote to tell Klein she has a shirt that reads “Emilee Klein’s No. 1 fan.”
The number of hits on Klein’s GolfWeb Internet column also have increased dramatically.
In her weekly column, Klein talks about life on the LPGA tour and the state of her game. In a recent question-and-answer session, she replied to an inquiry about her goals for the year by saying she hoped to win a tournament.