Late last Friday afternoon on the back lawn of a country club in Springfield, Ohio, Mickey Wright was handed the largest check in the history of women's golf. It was two feet long, the numbers on it said $10,000 and for the two days preceding the check's presentation its probable existence shook the best players on the LPGA tour right down to the soles of their putters. For a moment or so Mickey Wright just stared at the check—the first prize in a new tournament called the Ladies World Series of Golf—as if it could not possibly be good. Then she stuffed it into her pocket, and with that motion the small-time realm of women's golf may have taken a significant step toward becoming a bigger, tougher and more interesting business.
Playing at the rate of $70 a swing, Mickey, who has won more championships than any other woman, needed about the best golf of her distinguished career to win the 36-hole two-day event at Springfield Country Club. She shot an eight-under-par 69-67—136. During her second-day 67 she had seven one-putt greens and sank a 25-foot chip shot. One of her primary challengers, Carol Mann, summed it up when she said, "Purse money like this pushes you beyond your capabilities."
It is hard sometimes to remember that, while the men play professional golf for almost $4 million in prize money each year, the women play for only $480,000. Arnold Palmer makes more in one 18-hole exhibition than the winner of the U.S. Women's Open. No woman professional golfer has earned in one year what Bruce Devlin received last Saturday for winning the Carting World Championship ($35,000). In short, the men's tour is far different than the women's. But now the women were also learning that the size of a check can grab at your throat.
Even before play in the Ladies World Series started last week, Lennie Wirtz, the LPGA tournament director, was predicting that more money would make the women better golfers. "They played for $3,750 first money at Toledo in August. That was the biggest purse we had until now," he said, "and you could see a change in the girls there. They became cautious, more concerned with their games. Why, I even noticed a difference in them last May when I put the World Series on the schedule. They began to work harder."
September 11, 1966
A big-money tournament for the six best women pros might never have materialized if a group of 13 Springfield business and professional men had not been looking for some action. In 1959 they formed an investment club called Buck Creek Enterprises, Inc. and by 1966 had parlayed their $50-a-month contributions into more than $80,000. In a conservative, early-to-bed, early-to-rise city, they took secret pride in their success as stock market speculators, as they traded in such volatile issues as suntan lotion, oil wells and The Pill. Staging the richest women's golf tournament of all time could hardly have been more adventuresome.
What the investors did not fully appreciate was that there had been little adventure in Springfield since 1780, when the Shawnees moved on. Springfield is an old town "older than the state of Ohio," the Chamber of Commerce points out, and it is settled in its ways. "We could be hosting the World Series of baseball," the sports editor wrote last week in the morning newspaper, "and the people wouldn't care."
Up to the day before the tournament began, only 900 tickets had been sold. By then the sponsors were estimating their losses at $20,000 and they had good-naturedly begun to refer to themselves as the Trembling Thirteen. Nonetheless, they were optimistic about a 1967 World Series, and some were even talking about how much money they will have made by the time of the 1976 World Series. There was considerable dropping of speculator's sentences: "This is like betting on Joe Louis when he was in the crib"; "You have to crawl before you walk." They figured the TV rights to next year's World Series could be sold for a quarter of a million dollars, and they said more than one large corporation was considering underwriting the purse. Hadn't Pepsi-Cola suggested that their board member, Joan Crawford, come to Springfield to make this year's World Series come alive? Joan came, and the Pepsi people got the soft-drink concession and practically everything else they wanted free. They even tried, unsuccessfully, to unhook the Coca-Cola machine in the pro shop.
The golfers who participated in the World Series qualified for it by winning one of the four major women's championships—the U.S. Open, the LPGA, the Titleholders or the Western—or by their standing on the season's money-winning list. A good measure of their ability is that they had won 19 of 22 tournaments on the 1966 women's tour. The field of six was the elite of the profession, and the players often seemed more conscious of the prestige attached to competing in the tournament than the fact that even the last-place finisher would take home $2,500, more than the winner of most tour tournaments gets.
Some of them had worked themselves into a frazzle over the event. "Three months ago," Carol Mann said, "I felt I was a good enough player to be in the World Series. I felt I was adequate and I could make it. I worked as hard as I could and I didn't skip a tournament. Now I'm exhausted. The difference between winning and losing is restraining your emotions, but now I am so tired I don't think I can handle them.
"You know, I'm glad about this tournament, but if we always played for a lot of purse money it could change people. It could make us colder and harder. You've got to get the chokes playing for that much or you have to be awfully cool. One or the other. I don't know if I want to become that controlled. I like to feel myself participating in things. I wouldn't like it if I couldn't sense myself. It would be like the death of a person, inside."
Another pro who made it to the World Series but was worn out by the effort was 102-pound Clifford Ann Creed. For four weeks she had dueled with Judy Torleumke for the last available invitation, one which was to be offered to the girl who finished highest on the money list.
Going into the last tournament prior to the World Series, Clifford Ann had a $1,693 edge over Judy in the money standings, but she was five shots back of Judy as the crucial tournament reached the final round. If Judy finished first or second that day and Clifford Ann was no better than seventh, Judy would get the World Series invitation. The two girls got into such a nervous state that Judy made a quadruple bogey 8 on the first hole of the final round, and Clifford Ann. who teed off later, took a 7 on the same par-4. When Judy shot a 78, Clifford Ann's invitation was assured. Meanwhile, Sandra Spuzich qualified for the World Series by winning the U.S. Women's Open, a victory which apparently surprised her as much as it did the equipment manufacturer who had terminated her contract two days before the event.
Kathy Whitworth, the Texan who is the LPGA's current leading money winner, said, "It scares me to think that there is that much money to be spent on sports purses. I certainly wouldn't have the nerve to ask for it. I think you ought to earn what you make. We try to put on a show and give people their money's worth, but I wonder about our being worth that much." Can you picture an Arnold Palmer fretting over such a question?
Even Mickey Wright felt there was "an unreal quality" to such a large purse. The women professionals, she said, seldom capitalize on their ability. "There is a drive missing in us that the men seem to have," she said. "Take, for instance, endorsements. I make about a thousand dollars a year from them. I may play one exhibition match a year. If any leading woman golfer had the desire, she could get someone to help her and make $20,000 or $30,000 extra a year." In keeping with her rather romantic and female approach to finance, Mickey spoke of using money she might win at Springfield to buy some California coastline that resembled Liz Taylor's retreat in The Sandpiper.
The other qualifier for the World Series, Sandra Haynie, said she wanted to invest in property, too. Her dream place is a ranch with horses near Lake Arrowhead. "But I guess $10,000 will make us all think more clearly," she said.
Carol Mann's thinking about the potential value of the top prize was, to say the least, muddled. "I'll pay some bills with it," she said. "No, maybe I will buy myself a present, a diamond ring. But I don't like diamonds. I'll put it in my savings account. But maybe the most sensible thing would be to buy A.T.&T. It's so low now that it must be a good buy. I hope it stays down for another week."
All of the golfers knew that the self-doubting and dreaming and analyzing had to stop by the time of the tournament if they were going to play championship golf. Carol sat under a dryer in a beauty parlor on Thursday morning, and it was there that she built a brave new world for the tournament. Sandra Haynie slept. Kathy Whitworth swung her five-iron in her motel room, and next door to her Mickey Wright was playing solitaire.
The tournament was going to mean a lot to Mickey, even if she was making occasional protestations to the contrary. She had given up golf last year at 30 to return to college, but when that did not satisfy her (SI, April 11) she tried to work out a system of playing in a limited number of tournaments. She decided last March to compete in two tour events, then take two weeks off, then play in two more. She stubbornly stuck to the schedule until the World Series, even though she found her golf and concentration just would be getting sharp at the end of the second playing week. She led at some stage in 13 of the 14 tournaments she entered, but won only four of them. Invariably her concentration gave out before the final 18. "Mickey, that schedule is crazy," Wirtz told her. "You are making yourself go home to Dallas after two tournaments and you know you really don't want to leave." (After her World Series win Mickey announced she would play in the 11 remaining tournaments on the 1966 LPGA tour, and her schedule be damned.)
Before the World Series began, Mickey was out on the Springfield Country Club course at dawn, practicing while the other five golfers were still in bed. On Wednesday she hit 150 golf balls—more, she said, than she had hit in one session in a year. When she came to the 18th tee at the end of one practice round she emptied the balls out of her golf bag and stroked 30 drives down the fairway.
By the time the girls teed up for the tournament at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, what they could win or lose in the next 36 holes had really hit them. "You all had funny looks on your faces," Lennie Wirtz told them later. "You mean we have silver dollars in our eyes," Sandra Haynie said.
It was good someone was seeing silver, because the sponsors certainly weren't. The crowd at tee-off time was hardly 1,000. By then the investors were being called the Thirsty Thirteen.
The gallery was made up largely of men, and you could hear them whispering, "My drives go up by that tree," and, "I use a five-iron from there, too." Men come to see the women professionals because most of them believe they could beat the girls and they enjoy comparing themselves with professionals, something they judiciously resist while watching Palmer or Nicklaus. It seems, however, that most women golfers are jealous of the finesse that is the trademark of the successful woman professional. Golfing housewives would rather stay away and maintain that women cannot play excellent golf because they are not strong enough.
After the pros had completed the first hole of the World Series many men in the gallery had to be wondering if there was something, after all, in what their wives had said. In their nervousness the golfers had sprayed shots into the rough, skulled them still deeper into trouble and finally been fortunate to end up with three bogeys and three pars.
"I watched them stagger down the first fairway," said Wirtz, "and I wondered what time night fell." But the first hole broke the tension, and for the rest of the tournament grim combativeness replaced the jumps. Wright and Mann birdied the 2nd hole and Haynie eagled it, and even though the 6,300-yard course was playing long, it took subpar golf to stay in contention after that.
At the end of the first day Carol came in with a 68, and both Mickey and Sandra sank long birdie putts on 18 for 69s. "If I can get the lead," Carol had said the night before, "I think the pressure will be off me. I think I have enough pride to maintain my game." Now she had her lead. On her way to the parking lot she passed two children trying to sell early editions of the Springfield Daily News. She happily bought all 38 copies so the kids could go home.
In the meantime, Mickey Wright was telling the press, "Carol is in the tight spot, having the lead." Mickey had long ago found that the only time she felt pressure in a tournament was when she was leading. "If you are in front, it's miserable, it's a horrible feeling," she said, "but if you are in contention, say a shot back going into the final round, you feel real joy. Then it's all aggression."
And by dinner Carol was getting uneasy. "Did you know Mickey used a six-iron into the 18th?" Wirtz asked across the beef. "Oh, Lennie, I don't want to know what she used," Carol snapped.
By 9 p.m. the players were in their motel rooms. Wirtz looked down the line of doors and said, "This is the hard time for them. When they are in those rooms. If they go out during the evening and they play badly the next day they blame it on going out, and if they stay in they blame it on staying in."
At 6:30 next morning Mickey was already up eating breakfast. By 7 o'clock she had decided to wash and set her hair to give herself something to do, and she must have done some aggressive thinking under the dryer.
When play began in the afternoon Carol lost her lead with a bogey on 3. A three-way tie held until the 7th, but there Mickey sank a five-foot putt for a birdie and took the lead that she never relinquished. Putting on an unbeatable surge, she birdied 10, 11 and 12 with putts of 12, 15 and eight feet. Now she was smiling and chatting with the crowd that walked along with her. "When you sink putts the way I was sinking them," she said later, "you figure that even if you make a mistake you can make it up." Which is what she did at 17, a 538-yard par-5 on which she clinched the tournament. After a good drive she topped her second shot. It went only about 100 yards. A "worm killer," said a member of the gallery. But her third shot reached the fringe, and from there she hit a spectacular chip into the hole for a birdie 4. With a par on 18, Mickey finished four strokes ahead of Sandra Haynie, who had to sink a 12-foot putt to win the second money of $7,500 and beat Carol by a stroke. Kathy Whitworth finished a stroke behind in fourth, at two under par.
As Mickey Wright sank her putt the gallery whistled and shouted and clapped. Programs were passed onto the green for autographs and the players gave away their golf balls. A mother asked Carol for hers. "I'm sorry," the tall blonde pro said. "I'm afraid I've promised it. Some little children made arrangements for it on the first tee."
When the 13 sponsors filed out for the formal presentation ceremonies they were $20,000 poorer, but they looked immensely pleased. And well they might have been. The gallery on the second day—much larger than the first—had been the warmest and most enthusiastic the women had ever played before. Carol kissed every one of the sponsors, to the delight of the crowd, and Mickey held up her immense trophy and smiled richly.
When she finally got inside the clubhouse Mickey turned to Carol Mann and said, "I just can't imagine that I have $10,000 right here in my pocket." "You don't," said Carol, who must have had her eyes on the check. Mickey pulled it out, and across the back of that glorious two-foot piece of paper was written "non-negotiable." But there was no reason to worry. The Trembling Thirteen soon delivered the real one.