One of the memorable performances in the history of women's golf was accomplished last week by tall, blonde and strong Mickey Wright as she mastered both a long golf course and a short attack of nerves to win her third U.S. Women's Open in four years. Her 69-72 in Saturday's testing 36-hole finale were two of the best rounds of her golfing career. Her winning 293 not only defeated runner-up Betsy Rawls by six strokes, it showed beyond any doubt that the 26-year-old Miss Wright is the finest woman golfer of this—and perhaps of any—era.
The tournament was held on the Lower Course of the Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. This is a rolling, bending, heavily trapped, tree-enshrouded layout that measured 6,400 yards—a staggering distance for women. It is the same golf course—though it was then stretched out to 7,000 yards—on which Ed Furgol won the 1954 Men's Open title with a 284. But the strong women's field of 83 was delighted at the prospect of tackling it.
"Ooh, it's fabulous," cooed Marilynn Smith, former Ladies PGA president, on the evening before play began. "It's the best course we've ever played. But you have to be able to hit pretty far."
"It's the toughest yet," agreed Miss Wright, the pretourrey favorite. "My hitting length is going to help me here. Also, I hit the ball high. J can reach these heavily trapped greens on the fly. I have the advantage. Now I have to take advantage of it."
July 9, 1961
Mickey did exactly that the first day. Making the most of her length off the tee, she reached 15 greens in regulation figures, studiously avoided all of the course's approximately 100 sand traps and finished with an even-par round of 72. She considered it a very good round, and it tied her for the first-day lead with surprising JoAnn Prentice, the slender, pretty professional from Birmingham, Ala. Then came a second-day disaster that left Mickey and her fans candidates for tranquilizers. She shot a dreadful 80. It dropped her into a two-way tie for seventh with Louise Suggs. Actually, the round was typical of what makes Miss Wright such a fascinating, if irritating, golfer to follow, for it was caused by an emotional, not a physical, collapse.
"I got so keyed up after leading the first day that I couldn't sleep," she explained later. "And I committed the unpardonable sin of letting bad putting get to me. I kept hitting the ball closer and closer to the hole and still missing the putts. Then the roof fell in. If I'd had my emotions under control, it never would have happened."
But the 80 snapped the tension that had hit her after the first day. The next morning Mickey followed the same rampaging pattern of her two previous Open victories. In 1958 at Bloomfield Hills, Mich., when she carried a one-stroke margin into the final day's 36 holes, she overwhelmed the field in the morning round with a 3-under-par 70 that jumped her lead to seven shots. The following year in Pittsburgh she trailed Miss Suggs by two strokes at the halfway point but, on the morning of the final day, broke into a four-stroke lead with a 69.
"I just love to play in the morning," she said. "The earlier the better. If I have to wait four or five hours before I tee off I get so jittery that I'm lucky to be able to play at all."
Calm and collected
At Baltusrol, on that final morning, Mickey was as calm as a matron on her way to the bakery. "I couldn't have been more relaxed," she said later. "I wasn't the leader any more [she was four shots back of Ruth lessen and Miss Prentice], and I didn't expect anything from myself. You always seem to score better when you feel that way."
She drove erratically, but her iron play was stunningly accurate and she seized six birdies with putts from 10 feet or closer. She turned imminent bogeys into pars on four different holes with deft, sure chipping and pitching. She came in with a 3-under-par 69. On such a long, exceedingly difficult course (some observers said it could be compared to a 7,500-yard course for men), Mickey's 69 rates as very likely the best round ever played in this championship. It sent her into a hurried lunch with a two-stroke lead over her old friend, Defending Champion Rawls.
Her afternoon round of 72, for sheer hitting ability, was even more impressive. Her only birdies came on the first and 7th holes, both 460-yard par-5s. She reached the first with an immense drive and a three-iron, the seventh with a drive and a four-iron. The swarming galleries that lined each hole saw Mickey give a demonstration in casual perfection. Statistics bore this out. In the morning she had hit 12 greens but needed only 27 putts. In the afternoon she hit 16 greens but, playing safely for pars, she used 36 putts.
This was Mickey Wright's fifth tournament victory of the year. It put her ahead of Miss Suggs in money won ($11,249 to $10,334) and, while her personality lacks the uninhibited color of the late Babe Zaharias, she probably ranks ahead of the Babe in both long hitting and golf finesse. What's more, with the dramatic performance by the winner, the caliber of the course and the size and enthusiasm of the galleries (a record 10,000), this year's Women's Open seems to have established the 16-year-old event, at last, as a truly first-class championship.