In becoming the first golfer ever to win the Women's Open Championship two years running—and with a record score this year of 287—Professional Mary Kathryn Wright, 24, may be on the verge of dominating the ladies' side of professional golf in the same overwhelming fashion as did the late Babe Zaharias in her heyday. This tall and graceful blonde from San Diego proved last week at Churchill Valley Country Club just outside Pittsburgh that when she is right, and she is right a good deal of the time, there is no golf course short enough for the rest of the girls to play that is long enough to offer any serious problem to Mickey Wright. She blasts the ball out so far and so straight that she is easily capable of reaching virtually all women's par-5s in two shots, and there are very few par-4s that she cannot reach with a well-whacked drive and a six-iron while her competitors struggle to get home with a wood or a long iron.
At Churchill Valley, Mickey Wright turned an otherwise dreary tournament into an exciting display of big hitting. Going into the final day's round of 36 holes she trailed Louise Suggs by 147 to 145. Three and a half hours later Mickey had fired a breathtaking 69 to lead Miss Suggs, Joyce Ziske and Marlene Bauer Hagge by four strokes. Then, in the afternoon's muggy 90° heat she posted an equally aggressive 71 to come in two strokes under Louise's final total of 289 reached an hour earlier.
Since Mickey Wright hits a golf ball as far as a man does, what has kept her from running the rest of the girls right out of business? This year, for instance, even with the $1,800 she received for winning the Open, she is still only third in money won for the season. Both Betsy Rawls ($11,299) and Miss Suggs ($11,064) have won more than Mickey, who has picked up just a shade over $10,000. Miss Rawls has won five of the 16 tournaments played to date while Mickey has won only three. There are several explanations for the delay in what would seem to be the inevitable.
STILL A FLAW OR TWO
"Her work around the greens is weak," explains Marlene Hagge, who had her big year in 1956 when she won a record $20,285 and eight tournaments.
"Sometimes she loses her timing," says Mary Lena Faulk, the former women's amateur champion from Thomasville, Ga. "Then she starts hitting the ball off line."
"I think Mickey's already proved herself as one of the girls to constantly reckon with," said last year's leading money-winner, Beverly Hanson, in her skeptical North Dakota twang when asked if she thought Miss Wright would completely dominate women's golf the way the late Mrs. Zaharias did. "But I don't think anybody's going to own the Ladies' PGA. Remember, Babe had tremendous distance over everybody. Mickey has this advantage over most of the girls, but not all of them. The little distance edge Mickey has isn't going to give her squatter's rights to every tournament. Besides, Babe had a real psychological edge. When you walked on the tee with Babe you knew you'd walked on the tee with Babe."
"Mickey's not a good putter and she chips just fair," said Mickey's good friend and roommate on the road, Betsy Rawls. She was standing by the 14th green at Churchill Valley, where she had come to see Miss Wright clip through her final holes. Then she added: "But when she starts putting like she has been here, look out." At this point she turned, and just in time to see her roommate knock in a putt of 20 feet to go two under par for the round.
Louise Suggs best voiced the fear that churns in the mind of each lady professional. "She hits the ball farther than the Babe," Louise granted after finishing a dazed second by five strokes in last year's open at Bloom-field Hills, Mich. "And she gets it all on the fly. Babe got hers entirely on roll. I just wish Mickey had come along a few years later."
Actually, the fact that Mickey Wright hits the ball with such considerable loft ("That's the way the ball's supposed to be hit," she says) is probably what curtails her distance advantage on the harder southern courses where so many of the ladies' events are held. Here the rest of the field can roll their drives up to where Mickey's ball has dropped to an almost dead stop. But at Churchill Valley the fairways were soft enough to slow most of the roll. Miss Wright's putting was so spotty, however (37 putts on Friday), that it took her two rounds to get her offensive under way. Meanwhile, Miss Suggs, who is considered to be the most accurate driver and keenest strategist on the ladies' tour, had used to advantage the course's tricky topography to build up her two-stroke lead over the rest of the field.
The Churchill Valley layout is designed more for mountain goats than golfers. The area around Pittsburgh is pocked with hundreds of little hills and valleys, and the golf course has been put down like a slipcover around one of these cozy hollows. Holes 2 through 13 weave back and forth across one side of a flanking hill, and it is virtually impossible to obtain a level lie on any of the fairways along this stretch. The drop-off is so steep, in fact, that it appears as if a ball hit into the 5th fairway might suddenly turn under the urging of gravity and carom on down across the 8th fairway, bounce past the 11th green and 12th tee and way down into the valley floor along the 14th fairway. However, since it sacrifices in length (6,104 yards) what it gains in trickiness it works out well for the women.
During the first round of the final day's play, 41-year-old Patty Berg made an abrupt and dramatic move to win her first USGA Open championship. On the 170-yard 7th hole, playing with and three strokes behind the early leader, Miss Suggs, she hit a five-iron to the green that soared upward to the left, drifted in toward the pin nestled dangerously in the rear right-hand corner, hit inches in front of it and then hopped right into the hole. It was Patty's first hole in one in a competitive career that goes back 29 years. It also put her right back in contention, a position she maintained until a local photographer exploded the flash attachment on his camera just as Patty had reached the top of her backswing while attempting to drive off the 10th tee. Startled by this abysmally selfish and destructive act, she hooked wildly into the woods, took a bogey 5 on the hole and never threatened again, eventually finishing sixth with a 296.
Another brief challenge was supplied by Mrs. Hagge, a petite redhead with a long, swinging pony tail and a longer backswing. Marlene is a fantastically good putter. On Thursday she had made five birdies with five putts of about 20 feet and had to be satisfied with a one-over-par 71 only because she suddenly began to hit one wild shot after another and went 4 over par on the last three holes. On Saturday afternoon she went 2 under par following birdie putts of 18 and 50 feet on the 12th and 13th, but then struck another spell of wildness and finished bogey, par, double bogey, bogey for a 72 and a total of 292, tying with Ruth Jessen and Joyce Ziske for third place.
In last year's Open at Bloomfield Hills, Mickey Wright won the tournament by shooting a 3-under-par 70 in the morning that vaulted her into an untouchable seven-stroke lead. This year her Saturday-morning round of 69 popped her out front by four strokes. She missed only one fairway off the tee and needed only 27 putts. She is also rapidly making famous a putting technique that she picked up some three years ago in California, where it is extremely popular. This calls for using the putter as you would a plumb line to determine toward which side of the cup the ball should be hit.
"What you do," says the enthusiastic Miss Wright, "is to first determine which is your master eye [she's right-eyed]. Then, with the other eye closed, you get directly behind the ball in line with the cup. Holding the putter lightly at the top so that the force of gravity will pull it straight you hold the lower part of the putter directly over the ball. Then you squint with your master eye at the top of the putter's shaft and determine how far on either side of the cup it seems to line up. Then you step up and hit the ball firmly toward that spot.
"It's certainly not foolproof," Mickey adds, "but it's a big help in reading the greens."
In the afternoon, plumbing her way along with only 32 putts, Mickey stood on the 17th tee needing to finish par, par for a four-stroke victory over Miss Suggs, who had finished in 289. Mickey hooked her drive into the creek separating the 17th and 14th fairways, took a stroke to drop out and then averted disaster, after hitting her third shot into a trap on the right side of the green, by tapping in a five-foot putt. On the 18th hole, a 405-yard par-4 that doglegs around a creek on the left, she hit a soaring spoon shot that headed up toward the rough on the right side, then turned gently toward the green and settled smack in the fairway. Her next shot landed in the back center of the green 50 feet above the cup. She could have used five putts and still tied for first place. She needed three.
Though Mickey Wright set two records—by winning her second consecutive Open, and with a record low score—22-year-old Anne Quast, just graduated from Stanford University, also set a record. She became the first amateur in the history of this event to break 300. She finished 75-73 for a 72-hole total of 299. In addition, it was the second year in a row in which this cheerful, dark-haired youngster from Seattle had won the low amateur's silver pin.
The successfully defending Open champion, though she hits the ball like a man, still maintains a large quantity of girlish charm. Her five-foot eight-inch, 140-pound figure is a shapely one and her curly blonde hair tops a face that is dominated by a pair of pixyish, twinkling blue eyes. Mickey also shows a typical feminine reaction to some once-firm resolutions that she now finds rather irritating.
"I stopped smoking 15 days ago," she admitted after the tournament was over, "but I promised myself that if I won this thing I could have a cigarette." Another resolution shot, but it is still nice to think that if women's golf is to have an overpowering champion it will be such a likable and attractive one.