At the start of last week's Women's Amateur golf championship in Rochester, N.Y. it seemed as inevitable as Bermuda shorts on ladies' day that long-hitting JoAnne Gunderson and straight-hitting Anne Quast Decker, the two exceptionally fine golfers from the state of Washington, would meet in the finals. But the early story line was just too pat. By the time the 23-year-old JoAnne had crushed 17-year-old Ann Baker of Maryville, Tenn. 9 and 8 in their 36-hole final match, the script was scattered in bits over the lovely old parkland course of the Country Club of Rochester. The tournament had evolved into a jumble of exciting matches and shocking upsets, and then had dramatically concluded with one of the finest performances ever seen at a Women's Amateur.
The hopes for a Gunderson-Decker final were fully justified. JoAnne had won this event in 1957 and 1960. Anne had won in 1958 and completely dominated the 1961 championship. This pair was a drive and a wedge ahead of the rest of the field. Anne seldom hits the ball out of play. JoAnne drives a ball 240 yards and has a deft touch on the greens.
But in the quarter-finals the good fortune that had been smoothing Mrs. Decker's path to the finals got buried in one of the course's 60 sand traps. During the first three days potentially tough opponents, including Southern Amateur Champion Clifford Ann Creed (SI. Sept. 3), had been upset before the defending champion ever had to face them. Mrs. Decker won her first four matches without ruffling a curl of her coiffure.
But though normally an optimistic, exuberant girl, she had premonitions of disaster as she gazed at the scoreboard on the morning of her match with Patsy Hahn, 22, the tomboyish Delaware champion. "Oh, I just wish everything hadn't been so easy," said Anne, who had played her first 57 holes in only two over par.
Her pessimism bore ripe fruit. Fighting a wayward hook, chipping and putting badly, she found herself 5 down after nine holes and was beaten on the 14th green.
Miss Gunderson had no trouble either, until the quarter-finals. There the strawberry blonde ran up against a petite but viciously determined Californian named Barbara Williams. The result was by far the best match of the week. Miss Williams is not afraid to smash the ball out of the rough with a wood or, like Arnold Palmer, bang her putts at the hole as if she meant to tear out the flagstick. Her fatal flaw at Rochester was a lack of distance. At 5 feet 2 and 105 pounds, Barbara not only gave away five inches and 40 pounds to Jo-Anne, she also gave up some 50 yards off the tee.
End of the rout
"I don't really mind," Barbara said of this discrepancy. "I figured I'd scrape around somehow."
Scrape she did. Three down to Miss Gunderson after 11 holes and seemingly on the short end of a big rout. Miss Williams cut the margin to one with a par and a birdie on two long holes, the 12th and the 13th. She won the 15th with a tricky 20-foot putt that ghosted downhill into the cup.
On the 16th, a tightly trapped par 3 of 140 yards, she hit a much longer shot that looked as if it, too, might go in, a three-iron that rolled just inches past the hole. That put her 1 up. She lost her lead on the 17th but sank an eight-foot putt on the 18th and now, suddenly and improbably, it was Miss Gunderson who had to sink a six-foot putt to stay in the tournament. JoAnne moved up to the ball once, but her hands were trembling so badly she had to back away.
"I've never been so nervous in my life," she admitted later. Then she got over the ball once again, and while Miss Williams looked the other way ("I should have stared that ball out of the hole," Barbara said) JoAnne squeezed down her putt. Two holes later a badly tired Miss Williams grudgingly lost.
The path that had seemingly been smoothed for Anne Quast Decker ultimately proved to be Ann Baker's ticket to the finals. This golden-skinned, golden-haired athlete thus became the youngest to advance that far since 16-year-old Margaret Curtis was runner-up in the 1900 championship.
Ann had been beaten in the first round of the Girls' Junior in Buffalo the week before and didn't expect to be in Rochester very long.
"I was worried about getting past my first-round match," she said in the strong accents of Tennessee. "I only brought enough clothes to last three days."
She beat Ann Casey Johnstone in the first round, however, 7 and 5, moved fairly easily through four other matches and beat Patricia Hahn in the semifinals 1 up. She was so excited that she hadn't slept the night before her match against Miss Hahn. Imagine, then, the kind of night she must have spent before facing the mighty Miss Gunderson in the 36-hole final on Saturday. JoAnne is nightmare material for any opponent.
Birdies and an eagle
Uneasy Miss Baker started the final match by bogeying four of the first five holes. She might have regretted this brief show of nerves had not Miss Gunderson made it completely obvious that nobody was going to beat her this day, nerves or no. First Miss Gunderson birdied the fifth, and then the ninth for a 4-up lead. Then at the 10th she hit the two shots that showed the difference between her and every other woman amateur today.
The hole is a 525-yard par 5 dogleg to the right. She hit a tremendous drive past the corner, lofted a high five-wood 20 feet from the hole and sank the putt for an eagle 3. Not even Ann Baker could have dreamed she would be confronted with that kind of competition.
By the 28th hole, where the match ended, Miss Baker had every reason to feel she had played good golf. But Miss Gunderson had had seven birdies plus her eagle, she was three under par and the championship trophy was hers again.
"Well, I did my best," said a not too surprised Miss Baker after it was over. She headed home for Maryville; high school starts this week.
"I've never played better," said Miss Gunderson happily. But she didn't seem to have anyplace to go. After winning three championships, just where does a girl golfer go?