It was not exactly a Fourth of July party, but the U.S. Women's Open, held last week, just outside the seashore resort of Atlantic City, came as near as a serious golf tournament can to being a high old time. Perennial champion Mickey Wright was back home in Dallas nursing a sore wrist and retirement plans, and the girls she left behind had emerged to sniff and rejoice at the unaccustomed possibility of victory.
"With Mickey gone it seems as if the lid has been taken off," burbled Carol Mann, a bumptious blonde who enjoyed herself considerably more than anyone else by winning her first Open and $4,000 with a two-over-par 290, two shots ahead of runner-up Kathy Cornelius.
At 6 feet 3 inches it is hard to keep Miss Mann under any kind of lid very long, but it did take awhile for her to build up steam at Atlantic City. Early in the week she had come down with a cough and a cold and had to rely on a pep pill in the morning and a dose of codeine in the evening to get her through each day. Thus alternately knocking herself out and jolting herself up, she shot an opening 78, then back-to-back 70s that gave her a four-shot lead.
Saturday night the pills didn't work—she did not get to sleep until 3 a.m.—and by the 11th hole on Sunday her lead was down to one stroke over the experienced 32-year-old Mrs. Cornelius. But she held on in spite of potential disaster caused by wild tee shots at 14, 16 and 17 and then birdied 18 for a 72 and her two-stroke margin.
So women's golf had a new U.S. Open winner and a new Wrightless look, but the scene of the change was old. The golf course, the Atlantic City Country Club, was built in 1898 right at the edge of Lakes Bay, five breezy miles across marsh and saltwater lagoon from the famed Atlantic City Boardwalk. Its most distinctive features are strong, shifting winds, very small, tightly trapped greens, a long golfing history and some unusual inhabitants.
It was here that the term birdie, meaning, of course, a hole played in one under par, is said to have originated after a ball hit a seagull. And it was here in 1948 that Babe Didrikson Zaharias won the first of her three Women's Open titles by shooting a 300. In addition to gulls that swoop overhead and the rabbits that occasionally dart out from under the bush, the Atlantic City Country Club is periodically overrun by turtles. On the first day of play last week they crawled along fairways, burrowed in sandtraps and even waddled across tees and greens.
On the second day the wind shifted, the turtles disappeared and Carol Mann came out. Her 70 got her within two shots of Mrs. Cornelius, and on Saturday she took permanent possession of the lead in most authoritative fashion. She was paired with Kathy, and by the second nine had whittled away the two-shot difference. Then came the three holes that set the course of the tournament. On the 13th hole, a 133-yard par 3, Miss Mann punched a low eight-iron shot that bounced up onto the tiny green and rolled to within four feet of the hole. After Kathy had two-putted from 30 feet for her par, Carol tapped in the short birdie putt that put her one shot in front. On the next hole, a 483-yard par 5, Miss Mann was in a greenside trap after two long wood shots. She blasted out a yard from the hole for another birdie. Over the green with her approach to the 15th, she stood by the ball with a wedge in her hand for a few frozen moments and then chipped into the hole for her third straight birdie and a four-shot lead. It was a surge that for all practical purposes ended the Women's Open, even though Miss Mann needed all the lead she had before finally winning on Sunday.
The tournament, and Miss Mann herself, helped highlight some distinctive characteristics of the women's pro tour It is long, arduous and demanding, just as the men's tour is, but performances are as unpredictable as a female's mood—witness Marlene Bauer Hagge's 72-82-72 the first three days—and there are ever-present elements of girlishness that can be most pleasant. Talking about her big shot on 15, Miss Mann said, "I got goose bumps when I chipped in." One can hardly imagine Arnold Palmer saying that. Or on the 18th tee, when she had a choice of really trying for a 69 or taking a 70, and she decided on the 70. "I was chicken," she said later. Asked about her size, she said, "It doesn't bother me. In fact, I'm somewhat of a ham. I like the attention I get. My four brothers are huge. One is an auto mechanic. He is 6 feet 5. I don't know how he gets under cars."
Friendly frankness has always been a part of Miss Mann's personality. Only 24, she has flopped around on the tournament circuit like an overgrown puppy dog for five years—sometimes playful, sometimes woebegone but rarely a threat to win anything but a ticket back home to Towson, Md. "She never used to be able to hit the ball out of her own shadow," one veteran of the tour says, "but in the last year her swing has improved tremendously." So has her confidence, which got a boost two weeks ago when she won the Lady Carling Open. "I've learned a lot by being in contention a few times," Miss Mann says. "I used to get too keyed up, too anxious. Now I keep control of myself." One of the tour's longest hitters, she is likely to continue to play well, for she is a firm believer in her "the lid is off" theory that women's golf will change because Mickey Wright is gone.
"When Mickey is out here hitting shot after perfect shot," she says, "it tends to flatten out the rest of us. Now the girls have a feeling that if they work a little harder and play a little better it will mean something. Now we all have a new incentive."
Judged by the holiday mood at Atlantic City, this must be true, but strangely enough it was still Miss Wright who got off the line that could be used to sum up this year's Women's Open. Some days ago she was talking about gamesmanship in golf, and said, "Watch out for a girl who has the sniffles." Watch out indeed, especially if the girl is 6 feet 3 and taking pep pills and codeine.
WHAT OF MISSING MICKEY?
The world's best women golfer, a tomboy who ruled for years, reveals on the following pages the reasons she is quitting.