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It’s Golf, fer Sure : Valley Girl Klein One of the Favorites in LPGA Stop at Oakmont

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s what Emilee Klein has learned so far about playing golf for a living. She knows where the best malls are, she knows how to swing a driver that’s almost as long as any 18th hole, she knows how to win tournaments and she knows she made the right decision when she was 12.

That’s when Bobby and Randee Klein asked their daughter to sit down on the sofa at their home in Northridge and told her to make a choice: golf or horses. Hitting golf balls or riding Crowd Pleaser and Honest Abe.

Klein thought she knew the right move, but she wanted to make sure, so she went to an equestrian camp and rode horses for week.

“It just about killed me,” Klein said. “So I said ‘OK, I’ve had enough.’ ”

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Actually, many of Klein’s activities and sports already were getting eliminated, one by one, such as volleyball, track, ballet and piano.

Randee Klein said Emilee called a halt to her skiing days at Mammoth because it was too cold. Bobby Klein traced the end of Emilee’s ice-skating career to the time when a bigger girl skated backward and flattened her.

Like the horses she left behind, Klein never really looked back and wondered if she had done the right thing or whether she was destined to stand knee deep in bunkers for a very long time.

“They weren’t something I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” she said. “Golf, I sure hope it is.”

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So far, you’d have to say the results are encouraging. In a little more than two years since she left Arizona State, the 22-year-old Klein has won twice--in consecutive weeks, no less--had nine top-10 finishes, banked nearly $700,000 and earned a reputation for being tougher than titanium.

When the $650,000 Los Angeles Women’s Championship begins Friday at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, Klein will be one of the favorites, along with Annika Sorenstam, Dottie Pepper, Liselotte Neumann, Patty Sheehan and Brandie Burton.

She also is probably the sentimental favorite, mainly because her parents are members at Oakmont, which has put Klein in the ticket business. At last count, her ticket request for the tournament list was 30 and growing.

Klein knows the greens at Oakmont like the carpet of the house where she grew up in Studio City. She sometimes played Oakmont still wearing the high school uniform from classes at Notre Dame in Sherman Oaks.

It’s the first time in 10 years an LPGA event has been staged in the San Fernando Valley area, so the pressure on a real Valley Girl could be like way totally big or something, you know.

Klein said she probably will be nervous, but not for long.

“I’m here to play golf,” Klein said. “I’m not here to entertain.”

In her brief professional career, Klein has managed to do both. She left Arizona State after two years, turned pro for the 1995 LPGA season and wound up making more money than any rookie that year. Klein played in 27 events and finished second twice, losing to Mary Beth Zimmerman in a playoff at the State Farm Rail Classic.

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Last year, Klein played in 30 events and made $463,793 to finish ninth on the money list. At the Ping Welch’s Championship at Canton, Mass., Klein shot a final-round 65 to edge Karrie Webb and win by two shots. The next week at Milton Keynes, England, Klein led wire-to-wire to win the Weetabix Women’s British Open by seven shots.

It is the kind of year that tends to catch your attention. For Klein, it vaulted her into the main show ring, along with Sorenstam, Webb, Laura Davies, Pepper and Michelle McGann.

What they all want to do, basically, is clobber everybody else.

“It’s important to me to beat the best players, and Emilee is one of the best,” Sorenstam said. “We all become better players by having rivalries.”

What Klein does best is whack opponents with consistency. She plays golf as though she were painting by numbers. She puts the ball here on the fairway, then over here to leave a wedge to the green, then a nice putt from below the hole.

This kind of play has birdie written all over it.

That’s what Linda Volstedt, her coach at Arizona State, knew about Klein the moment she saw her in junior tournaments.

“You could just tell by looking in her eyes,” Volstedt said. “There was no question where she was heading. When I watched her, she had such a look of determination. She was probably the most focused kid I ever had.

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“And Emilee is so extremely consistent with her swing. I mean, she puts the ball just where she needs to. She just knows what she needs to know. I’m sure she’s on her way.”

Exactly where Klein is going is not yet settled. It’s not as simple as it was when she was a kid and her parents laid out her choices, then backed off.

“I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to,” said Klein, who has earned $58,436 this season, including a playoff loss last week to Kelly Robbins at West Palm Beach, Fla. “They pushed me enough to make me know you have to work at what you want to be good at.”

The Kleins said they had seen enough of overbearing sports parents, especially in figure skating, to know there had to be a different way of raising a child interested in sports. At 9, Emilee started playing golf, helped along the way by her older brother, Bob.

Bobby Klein said there was no way his daughter should have been treated in the same manner as a boy.

“Girls are not like boys,” he said. “Boys play from dawn until dusk, play their little games. Girls do as little as possible so they can go to the mall and hang out with their friends. What we tried to do with Emilee was to have her do the least amount and be good at whatever she chose.

“She probably practices as little as anybody out here. But she stays fresh. The whole objective is to enjoy it and stay fresh.”

Randee Klein said they limited Emilee to 30 minutes of piano, for instance.

“If you make them work and work and work, then it’s not fun anymore,” she said. “I saw a lot of parents who drilled their kids until they were sick of whatever they were doing.”

Klein entrusts her swing to Hank Haney, a Dallas pro who also works with the Southern Methodist golf team. It is a swing that is enormously effective, even off the tee, although Klein doesn’t hit it that far.

But what she does hit is the longest driver on the LPGA Tour. The shaft on her Callaway driver measures 50 inches. At 5 feet 5, Klein is only 15 inches taller than her driver.

Oh, well, it hardly matters. There are much more pressing issues still pending for this golf-playing reformed equestrian.

It’s a matter of direction, and Klein is quite certain of hers.

“You don’t want to come out here and be mediocre,” she said. “I want to work at it. I want to win tournaments. I want to be the best in the world. That’s what I’m aiming for.

“You’re not going to win every week, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”

There you have it, all orderly and everything. In fact, it may be that the only thing Klein hasn’t sorted out yet is how to cram everything into the one-car garage at the home she shares in Lake Nona, Fla., with her fiance, Kenny Harms.

Harms used to caddie for Klein and now caddies for Hubert Green on the Senior PGA Tour. Klein and Harms plan to be married in January 1999.

Maybe by then, they’ll figure out how to put two cars, two wave runners and one golf cart in a one-car garage. Maybe by then, they’ll have a bigger house.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Los Angeles Women’s Championship

* Dates: Friday-Sunday.

* Course: Oakmont Country Club (6,276 yards, par 72), Glendale.

* Purse: $650,000.

* Winner’s share: $97,500.

* Television: Fox Sports West (Saturday, 4-6 p.m.; Sunday, 3-5 p.m.).

* Last year: First-year event; Oakmont was site of GNA-Glendale Federal Classic from 1985-87.


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