The house in Saint-Jean-de-Luz abounds in stuffed crocodiles and laughter. The crocodiles are there because they have become the symbol of the family. Say "crocodile" in sporting circles in Paris and you are saying "Lacoste." And the same has become almost as true in Rome, Mexico City and New Delhi. As for the laughter, that is merely the residue of victory, as Branch Rickey might have said. The Lacostes can afford to relax and laugh. The Lacostes are winners.
Through a large window in the summer house in southwestern France, one can sec the rolling green hills of Golf de Chantaco, the golf club that has been in the family for decades, and, farther off, the browning edges of the Western Pyrenees of Spain, which have not yet been taken into the Lacoste family. It is raining. Curtains of blue-gray spray fizz against the house; the flowers in the slightly unkempt garden are drooping with wet, and the weeds in the slightly unkempt lawn are doubled over to the ground. No matter. This is the yard of a family that does not have to keep up a front. When you can walk down your block and come to a street sign bearing your father's name you need not worry about such status symbols as lawns and flowers.
At the moment, housebound by the rain, the Lacostes are looking at photographs. "Oh, Mummy, this one is wonderful!" says 22-year-old Catherine Marie Lacoste, amateur golfer, French champion and perpetrator of one of the grandest upsets in the sport when she won the U.S. Women's Open championship last July.
"I like this one of Murle Lindstrom," says the mother, Simone Thion de la Chaume Lacoste, a 15-time winner of French amateur golf championships. "She has such a lovely figure."
December 18, 1967
"A very attractive figure," echoes the father, René Lacoste, former Wimbledon and Forest Hills tennis champion and magnate of French industry, from shirts to ships to satellites.
"Oh, shut up, both of you!" the daughter exclaims in feigned annoyance. "You're only trying to make me angry!" Catherine Lacoste is aware that her own figure is less than Grecian—or really more than Grecian—but she can stand it.
In a country preoccupied with prestige the Lacostes of France have become national monuments almost on a par with the Cité de Carcassonne or the Musée du Louvre. In France the winner of a local boules tournament often finds himself treated like Marshal Foch. Imagine, then, the acclaim accorded the Lacostes. "They are the first sporting family of the world," says a Paris newspaper editor. "It is indisputable. You have only to regard the record."
Indeed, if one does regard the record, taking care to throw out such provincial activity as mah-jongg, caber-tossing and the Eton wall game, one cannot but agree that the Lacostes are unique. In two sports that are generally considered truly international—tennis and golf—the Lacostes have records that are remarkable not only for their high order but for their ubiquity. "They bash into competitions all around the world and have the nerve to win!" said an amazed British visitor to Golf de Chantaco. Simone Lacoste, back when she was Mile. Thion de la Chaume, was the first foreigner ever to win the British Women's Open, and before her retirement from serious competition she had won innumerable other championships as well. René Lacoste failed to become the first Frenchman to win at Wimbledon only because his teammate, Jean Borotra ("the Bounding Basque"), beat him to the achievement by one year. In 1926 "The Crocodile," as he was already known, became the first Frenchman ever to win the U.S. Nationals, repeating his victory the following year and leading his team to the Davis Cup for an encore.
After René retired from tennis, at 25, there followed a hiatus of several decades in the sports-headline life of the Lacostes, and then along came Catherine ("The Crocodile Kid") to win the U.S. Women's Open and send American professional golfers into snarling fits of frustrated anger. "It is satisfying," says René, "but one must not overvalue our family's achievements. We cannot be called a sporting dynasty."
Perhaps not, but as the Lacostes sit for a family portrait—the way they have many times since Catherine brought the U.S. Open trophy back from the New World—there is a sense of dynasty. Mme. Lacoste is dressed with studied nonchalance in a skirt, blouse and cardigan, plus a green crocodile pin and a pair of flat-soled, spikeless golf shoes. Her gray-blonde hair is perfectly groomed, her posture is precise and so is her British-accented English. She has about her some of the coolness, some of the chilling perfection, that one might expect to find in Princess Grace in 10 or 15 more years, if the Princess doesn't run to fat. Simone Thion de la Chaume Lacoste, well along in her 50s, has not.
Her husband is soft of voice and superbly polite and dominant. René Lacoste overpowers his surroundings. Sitting with him is like being in a room with an idling Maserati. He is, at 63, a slight man, still maintaining his playing weight of 155 pounds, and he has a thatch of parted while hair that is reminiscent of the late Carl Sandburg. His nose is on the large side, but it is his bespectacled brown eyes that draw one's attention. They slope down from the middle of his face on the same angle as a roof, and they give him a sleepy, pouncy look. He has two or three different explanations of how he got the nickname The Crocodile, but one only has to look at him to realize the truth. With his somnolent eyes and his strong nose and his quiet but powerful manner, he looks like one.
As the parents talk, their daughter Catherine slips into a chair in a darker corner of the room. She is a chunky girl, charming and vital, a deceptively friendly competitor who will give you her hat and her automobile and then kick you sharply in the shins for trying to come between her and a victory, any victory, in golf or bowling or crazy eights.
"It is easy to overdo this emphasis on us as a family," her father says. "The children do not like to do the same thing as the parents."
"No, and we don't like to be continually reminded of our parents, either," Catherine puts in, without hesitation, from the distant corner.
But it is hard not to be reminded, for the father of Catherine Lacoste remains, to this day, one of the authentic sports heroes of his native land. When Lacoste and his fellow "Mousquetaires" brought the Davis Cup home to France in 1927 the reception that met them was rivaled only by Lindbergh's at Le Bourget. At the height of his short playing career, Lacoste was regarded as the best tennis player alive, better even than the two American Bills, Tilden and Johnston, better even than his star teammates, Henri Cochet and Jean Borotra. Lacoste's matches with the tall, powerful Tilden were epic, and the frail-looking Frenchman almost always won. "I had studied his game carefully," Lacoste says now, "and I decided that by using a very short swing against him I could return the ball with his own spin on it. That's all there was to it. I retrieved and hit with the short swing. I did this every time and it annoyed Tilden from the beginning."
Big Bill was never famed for his composure, and no one ever drained the color from his cheeks or the nonchalance from his speech to the degree that Lacoste did. Tilden once wrote, "The monotonous regularity with which that unsmiling, drab, almost dull man returned the best I could hit often filled me with a wild desire to throw my racket at him." After Lacoste beat him for the American championship at Forest Hills in 1927, Tilden stalked off the court grumbling, "I never played better. That Frenchman is a machine."
"The comparison is not altogether incorrect," Lacoste admits. "You see, I was a retriever to a large extent, and my backhand was my better stroke, so I could return the ball from either side. It didn't matter. I started playing tennis when I was 10, and how can a boy of 10 win at tennis except by retrieving? He cannot hit hard enough to win. But the trouble is that ever afterward he has trouble attacking. I became locked into a retrieving game because my motivation was to beat my sister, and retrieving was the best way. She started tennis before I did, and she used to say, 'You are too young for the game,' and that made me angry. I couldn't go to the court with her, so I started to play against the wall. I got better and better and I beat my sister, and then came the day I could say to her, 'No, I don't want to play with you because you have a lousy backhand.' "
But in his prime Lacoste became much more than a retriever. He was a patient, intelligent player, often turning subtle discoveries about his opponent into masterful coups.
"The main thing was that I hated to play badly," Lacoste says. "I wanted control of the ball—always control of the ball. Of all the modern players, I would say Rosewall plays the most like me, though, of course, much better than I ever played.
"But for me, it was not so much the desire to win, to defeat somebody, to rub the nose in the dirt. It was the urge to do whatever I was doing well. If I won a match and played badly I would be annoyed, depressed. People still speak of the match I won against Tilden in Saint-Cloud in 1927 for the French Championship, but I did not like that match at all, because I think I played very badly. I won more by tactics and patience, and I hated my poor play.
"On the other hand, when I played against Tilden in the championships at Forest Hills we both played very well. I happened to win, although he had been leading in all three sets. After all, I had to win it in three sets. My future wife was there watching!"
At an age when most tennis players are still approaching their prime, the frail Lacoste retired from tournament tennis, partially on the advice of his doctor and partially because he considered the "play" phase of his life over.
"I did not find it possible to do both serious work and serious tennis," Lacoste says. "I have the one-track mind. I cannot subdivide myself. And besides, one had to live. Being an amateur tennis player then was the same as now. You could make a little money—I was paid I a word by The New York Times for some articles about my game—but I did not fool myself; it was not because of my good writing that I got so much money. So I retired and went into my father's company. He was the president of the Hispano-Suiza automobile company. And then I broke away and began going in my own directions. But I was never permitted to forget tennis. Wherever any of the Mousquetaires went in France, our record went with us. We have remained French heroes for 40 years and for one reason only: because no French team except ours ever won the Davis Cup. If one had, then we would be forgotten. Every now and then the four of us still play an exhibition. We hit a few balls and look ridiculous and retire gracefully. Tennis is too much of a game for me now. I play golf. The only tennis I play is against the wall, testing my rackets. So now you know my life story: from the wall to the wall in 50 years."
Neither René Lacoste nor his bride, daughter of the director of the Bank of Indo-China and other enterprises, was facing the poorhouse when René retired from tournament tennis in the late 1920s, but neither had they established any independent source of wealth. On one of his frequent visits to the U.S., Lacoste went about interviewing industrialists, asking advice on what sort of business to enter. A visit with old Henry Ford was followed by a visit to the Bendix plant in South Bend, Ind., where a bemused executive wrote out a licensing agreement permitting the French tennis star to manufacture Bendix-type engine starters in Europe. Thus began a Lacoste company called Air Equipement, which grew and merged through the years into Ducellier-Bendix-Air, a mammoth automobile, aerospace and parts corporation that turned more than $100 million in sales last year. DBA makes one part or another for just about every automobile manufactured in France or, for that matter, Europe. Lacoste also sits on the board of Le Nickel, one of the largest French corporations; helps run a Rothschild investment company called Sinord; is active in a big shipbuilding company called Société des Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire, which makes 200,000-ton tankers; and holds a dozen or so other directorships and business interests.
Ironically, the product with which Lacoste is most closely identified throughout the non-Gallic world is one that has never been more than a part-time activity for him, the cotton sports shirts bearing the little green alligator on the breast and the impressive label at the collar: "Chemise Lacoste." Now run by son Bernard out of an office in Paris, Chemise Lacoste sold something less than two million shirts last year and, with Catherine Lacoste's victory in the U.S. Women's Open, demand has soared so far beyond capacity that the company doubts if it will ever catch up. "We had a backlog of something like 200,000 at one point," René says. "Everybody seems to want them. It is worse than ever. Of course, for more than 20 years we have not been able to make enough."
The original Chemise Lacoste—and, indeed, the original knitted sports shirt as we know it today—sprang directly from the fertile mind and frail constitution of the tennis-playing René back in the 1920s. "I was always catching cold during tournaments," he remembers, "and I began to suspect that one of the causes was the 'floating' shirt that everybody was wearing in those days. Perhaps it is hard to remember now, but we all played in white shirts with cuffs and collars and buttons. It was exactly the kind of shirt you would wear to a dinner, except that we would not wear a tie. I wanted something more practical and more healthy, so I turned to what the polo players were wearing. They didn't wear collars, and they used a softer material and short sleeves. I had a shirtmaker take one of these polo shirts and add a collar. I began to wear this type of shirt, and I immediately attracted attention. In fact, long before I got the idea of going into the business, shirts of this type were being manufactured and sold as 'Lacoste shirts,' not as any kind of brand name but simply as a description."
In the early 1930s, while Lacoste was still learning the manufacturing business, he was approached by a friend who said that it was ridiculous for him to allow dozens of knitwear companies to turn out Lacoste shirts while he was not making a sou on his own creation. "He made me a little annoyed at myself," Lacoste says, "and so I agreed that he and I would start a shirt business together. The company prospered on a small scale until World War II, when we shut down because we did not want to sell crocodile shirts to Germans. After the war we started again. Then we began exporting them, and suddenly everything took off, exploded. Our shirts became so popular that at one time there were 50 commercial firms in America turning out shirts with a crocodile insignia—or an alligator, as the Americans have always called it. You could even buy little green alligators to sew on your sports shirts to make them look like Chemises Lacoste. We could do nothing about it, because it was impossible for us to register an alligator trademark. That trademark was already held by the company that makes raincoats. Finally we made an agreement with Alligator, and now they can use the trademark and so can we, but nobody else can."
Although the usually reticent Lacoste will talk your ears off about the quality of his shirts, the Peruvian and Egyptian cotton that goes into them, the cut and design and superior production methods, etc., he also is the first to admit that the simple gimmick of the crocodile played a major but mysterious role in making the shirts popular. "I cannot explain it," he says, "but it just caught on. People wanted to wear that little alligator. Isn't it strange how life works—the elements of pure luck that are involved? I was called The Crocodile, and it turned out to be a nice identifying mark. But suppose I had been called something else, something vague—the retriever or the getter—something you can't picture. Do you think we would have had a successful shirt called Chemise Retriever or Chemise Getter? I was very, very lucky."
One might expect René Lacoste, late in his middle years, to retire gracefully from all his business activities and enjoy the family's weekend home smack in the middle of the Saint-Nom-La-Breteche golf course near Paris, or the swank apartment in the 16th arrondissement, or the summer home overlooking the course at Golf de Chantaco; and to some slight extent he has. But his mind refuses to retire, and Lacoste periodically finds himself caught up in some new moneymaking enthusiasm, whether he likes it or not. The latest interest in his business life is the steel tennis racket, used with more than their usual success at Forest Hills by finalist Clark Graebner and semifinalist Gene Scott, and with total success by winner Billie Jean King. "It will be accepted more and more," the grand old man of French tennis predicts with less-than-typical modesty, "and it will be just like the history of Chemise Lacoste. For 20 years we won't be able to catch up with the demand for the steel racket. I do not state that as an idle boast, but as a simple fact. Already we hear that Wilson, our licensee in the U.S., cannot supply the steel rackets fast enough, even though they are not at all inexpensive [about $50]."
To be sure, René Lacoste was far from the only person to experiment with a metal racket, although he well may have been one of the earliest to attempt to string gut onto a metal frame. "I used to think, even when I was playing, that you could make a good racket out of something other than wood," he says, "but it was only what you call an idle thought. Then what happened in golf was an inspiration to me. For 30 or 40 years golf was played with wood shafts, and suddenly metal took over completely. And I would pick up my tennis racket and I would say to myself, 'You must do it! You must do it!'
"The trouble was there was no practical way to make a steel racket. It was easy enough to form a racket of steel tubing. But what do you do about the strings? I tried drilling holes in the steel, but two things happened. First, the steel became too weakened. Second, unless the holes were finished with almost the precision of a jeweler, they would cut through the gut. It was impossible.
"Then one night, at Christmastime, I was playing with some wire in our home in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and suddenly it came to me. We would use exactly the same steel that is used in golf clubs, and we would wind wire around the frame instead of punching holes through it, and to those wires we would string the gut. That was eight or nine years ago. There remained the problem of designing a machine to do all this. I made the design and took patents and licensed Wilson to make the racket in the U.S. There are many advantages to the racket, and it is no accident that some people who were not winning before are winning with steel. The racket is stronger. It does not warp, because there is no wood in it. There is no press required, because the frame is so strong. The throat is open, and there is less wind resistance. The strings stay tighter longer because, unlike wood, the steel is not distorted by the tension. And the racket transmits much more power much more easily because it is made of steel."
But, looking back on all his serendipitous inventions and discoveries, it is possible that Rene Lacoste in his wildest dreams never imagined that the most satisfying happening of his life was to come on his 63rd birthday, after he had created the Chemise Lacoste, invented the steel racket, become a wheeler and dealer in French industry and won a houseful of trophies of his own. In some ways this latest satisfaction in the lives of the Lacostes may be listed under the heading of The Rich Get Richer, or Them That Has Gets, or any of the other slogans used by losers to explain the success of winners ever since Paleolithic times.
In a word, the Lacostes opened a sort of golf "factory" aimed at producing champions, and one of the first finished products turned out to be their own daughter. "Catherine went to the U.S. Women's Open to learn a few things—for the experience—and she won it," says Simone Lacoste, in a voice still full of wonderment. "I must say we were quite surprised."
She shouldn't have been. As one of the bereted Basque workmen at the family's golf course put the matter not long ago, "The child is a Lacoste, isn't that correct?" Fifty-six chagrined American golf pros can ruefully testify: the child is a Lacoste.
This child Lacoste, the 22-year-old Catherine, humiliated the world's best women professional golfers by defeating them—abjectly—in the U.S. Women's Open this year in Hot Springs, Va. En route to her victory she broke three records, becoming the first foreigner, first amateur and youngest player ever to win the Open. More important, at least to Frenchmen, she scored a major victory for the athletic prestige of France, which has been sagging in all but winter sports ever since a miserable showing in the Tokyo Olympics. The French were already spending millions of francs to train their athletes for the 1968 Olympics in the ionosphere of Mexico City and more millions to turn lackluster Grenoble into a showcase city for the Winter Games in February. And now, at a cost to France of exactly nothing, zip, rien, a French girl had won the U.S. championship, the toughest women's tournament there is, the winner of which becomes, ipso facto, world champion for a year.
Small wonder, then, that the French embassy in Washington wasted no time in conveying compliments to Catherine in Hot Springs. The French minister of sports—a cabinet officer—cabled his thanks for her contribution "pour le prestige de la France." Premier Georges Pompidou telephoned his friend René Lacoste and wondered if Catherine would have time to join him at lunch in Paris. There was even enthusiastic talk at the time of awarding her the Ordre du Mérite and there was a congratulatory note from the King of Belgium. A Paris newspaper called the win LA PLUS BELLE VICTOIRE DU GOLF FRAN√áAIS (the greatest French golfing win ever), and another headlined, PARTIE POUR APPRENDRE ELLE A DONNÉ LA LE√áON, which freely translates as, "She went to take a lesson and wound up giving one." The AP called Catherine "De Gaulle's revenge," without specifying for what, and the New York Daily News said she was "the greatest thing to come out of France since Brigitte Bardot."
And while all this praise was ringing out, what was the heroine of the hour up to? Catherine Lacoste was going her own way, as usual, picking her pleasures in the independent manner that has infuriated the Establishment ever since her career began. First she pulled out of several U.S. tournaments she had intended playing "for the experience," further aggravating the ladies' golf-pro impresarios, who were already bleeding in their shoes over her victory. Then she drove off to Pine Valley for a crack at the course she had heard was the toughest in the world ("and it is!"). She visited friends in Boston and interrupted her dinner to sip champagne and chatter away with a homesick French chef deep in the scullery of The Ritz-Carlton. She drove off at her usual top speed to see Expo '67 and, when she was good and ready, returned to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. To this day she has not taken up M. Pompidou on his luncheon invitation and, instead of going off on a mad fandango of golf exhibitions and autographing parties and public appearances, she has returned to her family's golf club and to daily rounds with her own rat pack, consisting largely of caddies, ex-caddies, neighborhood Basque children, vacationing teeners and an occasional hot-shot visitor like Prince Ataulfo d'Orléans et Bourbon. "I have my own way to go," Mile. Lacoste says, in the high, throaty, mellifluous voice that Frenchwomen seem to have a patent on. "Is there anything wrong with that?"
If Catherine Lacoste were testing for a movie, her figure would be considered unfortunate (5'3", 138 pounds), yet she is a study in total femininity. She has brown, down-slanting eyes that came straight through the genes from her father, brown hair that falls in soft loops, a round sort of pie face and a smile that makes the marguerites want to grow.
So how does she manage to rub so many people the wrong way?
"I don't fully understand it myself," she says in a British accent much like her mother's. "In America they called me a loner. Well, I wasn't a loner by choice, I can tell you that! The American pros saw to it that I was a loner; not all of them, but almost all. And in France it's difficult for me to find friends on my own golf level, because there's simply no one else of my age on my level. My nearest competitors are 27 to 45 years old, and they don't like me one bit. They were reigning in French women's golf for a long time, and then I came along and...you know, it knocked them back a bit, and they didn't appreciate me."
"Look here," says an English journalist who has followed the Lacoste girl's career closely. "It's all quite clear, isn't it? This is a girl it is almost impossible to dislike, and yet she is always the center of a storm. The French amateur women hate her because she's made it all seem so easy, and the American professionals hate her because she doesn't need the money that they fight and scratch to get and the entrepreneurs of golf hate her because she goes around telling everybody that the game is not at all important and she would rather get married and have babies. You see? Nobody likes her except the galleries!"
More than anything else, Catherine Lacoste is a product of Golf de Chantaco, the spectacularly beautiful course built by her maternal grandfather, René Thion de la Chaume, and overseen for three decades by Catherine's parents. "Simone and I feel that we owe much to sport," says René Lacoste, "and we are trying to give it back with this golf course. For many years now Golf de Chantaco has been a place where good young players could practice and play for nothing and even take free instruction from the best teacher in France, Raymond Gara√Øalde. Luckily, it is a private course, and we can let the young people play as our protégés. Three out of four of the top amateurs in France either started at our club or developed here. It is what you might call our own assembly line for champion golfers."
The course itself may be the most densely foliated area outside the jungles of Brazil. The narrow fairways are lined like the walls of a corridor with sycamore and pine, oak and hazelnut trees, chestnut and walnut trees, tens of thousands of them, and all because of the German occupation in World War II. "The Germans were sending French workmen off to Germany," René Lacoste recalls, "and we had to figure out how to save the nine or 10 grounds-keepers who worked for us. So we found a funny old German law under which anyone working in forests couldn't be taken to another job. When the Germans showed up to take our workmen I explained, 'They are planting trees, they come under your law.' We kept up nine holes at Golf de Chantaco all through the war, but the Germans appropriated the other nine for training some cavalry units, and they left us with another permanent legacy, some very tough weeds that come from Asia. It must have been in the feed they brought in for the horses. You can still find this weed on the fairways. But we also got our 50,000 trees."
Catherine Lacoste first appeared on the Chantaco course at the age of 8 when she picked up a foreshortened driver and hit a ball over a hill and more or less out of sight. "That is what made me become a golfer instead of a tennis player," she says. "I could hit a golf ball 50 or 60 yards, and I couldn't get a tennis ball over the net. You can't at 8, you know."
By the time she was 15 Catherine was the best young player of either sex at Golf de Chantaco, but she was still having trouble with her driving—too many were going out of sight into the trees. It was then that she adopted her distinctive swing for tee shots. "I sort of wind myself up like a spring, and then I uncoil everything, like Gary Player," she says. "I go up on my toes and throw every ounce into the drive." Classic, it is not. Effective, it is.
The most characteristic part of her golf game, however—as much a trademark as the alligators on the shirts manufactured by her father—is her total abandonment, her laissez-faire attitude. She is no Ara Parseghian. There is not a member of Golf de Chantaco who can remember the last time she played safe. On the other hand, they can recite chapter and verse from the tournaments she has blown by going for the pin with the obsessiveness of a lemming. "It's just my character," she says. "I like to plow ahead and see what happens. If there's a possibility of reaching the green, no matter how difficult the shot, I go for the green. That's the game, isn't it?"
Playing in such a boisterous manner, Mile. Lacoste became, inevitably, an in-and-outer, and although there are those on both sides of the Atlantic who think that she is inherently the best lady golfer alive, no one will ever know for sure, because she does not intend to change her game. On a day when everything is clicking, her shots sizzle. On a day when she is bad, she can be very, very bad. In 1966 she set an alltime women's record of 66 on the treacherous Sandwich course in England. But, despite her acknowledged superiority over the French female players, she was not able to bring home the French Open before this year. When she finally did, it was in her customary bulldozing manner: eight and six over Brigitte Varangot, the perennial winner.
Before Catherine left France for the U.S. Open this year, her father told a newspaperman, "In life you have to choose. Catherine has declined her selection for the European Championships for that reason. In the U.S. she can learn, and at her age she still has a lot to learn. She will play in the U.S. Open. but without any particular aim. If she finishes in the first 10, it will be a good performance." Catherine left France, in other words, with somewhat less fanfare than Lafayette, or, for that matter, somewhat less than her father 40 years before. But anyone, including the old Crocodile himself, who thought she was playing the Open "without any particular aim" was either kidding himself or the public. As a friend of the family put the matter with Gallic precision, "The Lacostes don't play for practice." The American pros soon found that out.
Catherine's differences with the Americans began even before the opening ceremonies. First there was a little harbinger. To wit: "I had met Jan Ferraris two years before. She's 20 years old, a pro and not a bad player at all. When she arrived in Hot Springs the Sunday before the Open I was so happy to see someone I knew. I was in a bathing suit with a towel, getting ready to go in for a swim, and I said, 'Come have a swim with me!' She looked shocked. She said, 'Oh, no, I haven't got a swimming suit with me!' I must have looked quite astonished, because she said, 'None of the pros carry swimming suits in their luggage.' I was so astounded I didn't know what to say. Here's a girl of 20 traveling all about the country in the summertime, and she hasn't got a swimming suit! And I suddenly realized what a difference there was between me and the American pros. With them it's business, business, business. In between rounds they sit in their rooms and figure out how they could have played better. They fidget and smoke and putt on the rug and worry. And because I would go out at night and do things like dancing the Charleston and swimming and bowling, they treated me as though I were some kind of a freak. 'Look at her!' they would say. 'She's in the pool again.' I would just smile politely."
A day or two before the opening round Catherine walked into the coffee shop at the Cascades Inn and spotted three of America's best-known lady golfers having breakfast. "I wouldn't dream of mentioning their names," she now says, "because it would be unfair to single them out. They're the same as most American pros. Anyway, I didn't have a game for that day, and I wanted someone to practice with. So I walked over, and I said, 'I wonder if one of you hasn't got a game today?' They laughed outright, all three of them. They said, 'Of course we've got a game!' What did I do? I just sort of backed away. What could I say? My word! Imagine, a foreigner going up to them and being treated like that! Why, if I'd been sitting there with two other French girls and some American girl had come up, why, we'd have broken up our own threesome to give her some practice. My word, it's simple etiquette! It isn't as though I'm some sort of ghastly player or putting on airs by asking to play a round with them."
At the end of the first round of play the visitor from France was tied for second with a 71. That was hardly good enough for anybody to care if she spent her time swimming or not. But on the next day René's daughter turned in one of the wildest rounds a U.S. Open gallery has ever witnessed. It was not so much her score, but the way she achieved it. On a difficult course, she made birdies at 2, 9, 11, 13 and 14 to go four under par and eight shots ahead of all the pros. She had only to play a tight, safe game to come in with a score that would have ended the Open right then and there. Instead she slashed boldly away, got into trouble and wound up with a 70 that should have been a 65. And while the chunky mademoiselle went off to see Namu, the Killer Whale with some vacationing kids she had befriended, the lady pros began to gabble. A previous winner of the Open announced, "No amateur could ever win this tournament!"
Catherine was now five strokes ahead of the field, but on the surface all was still sweetness and light, largely because she was not yet being taken seriously. "Should she manage to keep her fast pace and win the title, there will certainly not be any hard feelings among the U.S. professionals," The Roanoke World-News reported in what turned out to be the Dewey-beats-Truman motif. Lennie Wirtz, the tour director for the Ladies PGA, was quoted as saying, "They all love her. She played in our Open two years ago and when she went back home she sent every member of the tour a gift. Of course, it was a Lacoste shirt, but it was still a nice gesture." Catherine, who probably will be buried someday in a Lacoste shirt, especially appreciated Wirtz's choice of words.
Still, there had to be a few nervous shivers by certain members of the tour. If an amateur should win the tournament the whole ladies' professional golf tour would have to go through 365 days with no Open champion to advertise. There would be no pro champ to pick up the thousands of dollars in endorsements waiting for the winner at the 72nd hole, and every member of the tour would suffer financially because of diminished attendance during the year. Nothing like that could be allowed to happen.
On the third day Catherine played her first nine holes with atrocious abandon, four strokes over par. The pros and the impresarios began to relax. She was falling apart as expected. But her touch returned on the back nine. "And then they really began to apply the pressure," Catherine recalls. "I was playing with Susie Maxwell, and after I missed a putt I lined it up again and shot it over for practice. Now, this is quite illegal in some PGA tournaments, but under USGA rules you are permitted to take practice putts if no one is waiting behind you. In other words, if you are not delaying play. I had checked into all this on the first day, and I had taken practice putts earlier in the Open without anybody saying a word. But now there was Susie Maxwell marching over to the referee and saying, 'She just practiced again on that green. She's got two penalty strokes coming.' And the referee said, 'No, she hasn't.' And Susie Maxwell said, 'Yes, she has. The rule is written right there on your card.' The referee took out his card and said, 'Show me.' And she just turned around and walked away. Can you imagine? Later on Margie Masters tried to do the same thing to me, only I didn't find out about it just then, so it didn't bother me. I asked some of my friends about such behavior, and they told me it was quite clear that both the girls knew the rules, but they were trying to upset me. Perfectly normal in American golf, they said. My word! It takes the fun out of the game, doesn't it? Why, those girls will leave you in a pool of blood! I'm not blaming them, please understand. I'm just saying that it takes some getting used to."
On the fourth and last day of the Open the nerveless Catherine Lacoste, still five strokes ahead, suffered an attack of—well—nerves. "It wouldn't have happened," she says now, "but in American sports events television runs everything, and television decided that I should not begin my round with Margie Masters until 2:30 in the afternoon. Waiting and waiting and waiting, I got a pain in my stomach from the nervousness. But as soon as I hit a few practice balls, it went away. I think the tension might have had more of an effect on Margie Masters. She double-bogeyed the first hole, and how embarrassing it must have been for her! She was two in the bunker near the green, and she came out about four or five yards from the pin and went about a foot and a half by, and then missed that putt. Unbelievable! So now I was seven strokes up with 17 holes to play. I don't think that helped my concentration at all. I do know that starting with the 10th hole my whole game went sour. I took five straight bogeys. Imagine. One of my friends came up and said, 'Come on now, you've got to hold on.' But on 16 I shanked a seven-iron. I heard one of the pros say, 'That's Deadsville!' The ball lay on a path directly behind some television cables, so I asked that the cables be cut. Everybody acted very shocked and said I would have to play over them. I wound up with another bogey, and now I figured that I was only one stroke ahead of Beth Stone and Susie Maxwell."
The 15th annual U.S. Women's Open was won on the 71st hole. It was won on Lacoste guts, and the pros will still be babbling about it by the time the 30th Open is played. The hole is a 355-yard par 4, narrow and treacherous and shaped like a boomerang. Many of the ladies had been hitting nice safe three-and four-woods off the tee, leaving themselves another three-wood or four-wood to the green. Catherine Lacoste, having bogeyed six of the seven previous holes and almost blown her lead, pulled out her brassie and blasted a gigantic drive in a towering loop around the trees, cutting the angle off the dogleg and leaving herself a straight 110 yards from the pin. "People asked me later if I thought very much before I made that drive," she says, "and, honestly, I had to answer that I didn't. I remember, I just said to myself, 'Well, I'll hit it and see what happens.' "
Now she had another option. She could hit a safe iron to the left edge of the green, avoiding all hazards, and try to get down with two putts for her par. Or she could try to loft the ball over the pond that lay directly in front of the pin on the right side of the green and have a good chance for a birdie. She went for the pin. The ball cleared the water and stopped almost where it hit: 10 feet from the hole. Catherine drilled the putt so hard that the ball hit the back of the cup, squirted up, and then dropped into the hole for a birdie 3. When she crisply parred the 18th hole of the final round the rout of the pros was completed.
As soon as the Open was over, Tour Director Wirtz played the role of the good loser. "All right," he quipped, "you pros will line up under the trees and receive your 50 lashes." But earlier in the day he had had a few harsh words with Catherine, and evidently, as she now recalls, he was still piqued. "It started when I arrived at the club for the last round," she says, "and he walked up to me and said very briskly, 'I heard that you might not be playing in the Lady Carling next week.' And I said, I don't know, I might and I might not.' You can imagine how much my mind was on the Open right at that moment, not on some tournament the next week. So he said, 'Well, you'd better let me know.' I said, 'All right, I'll let you know this evening. I won't know myself till then.' He said, 'You've got to tell me before 9 o'clock this evening, otherwise you'll be too late.' I should have answered that an amateur has a right to do what she likes, that I was not one of his paid players that he can order around. But I was too polite. Anyway, right after I won I called my mother and father, and then I rushed back to the club for the ceremonies. Just as I arrived I met Mr. Wirtz walking toward his car. I was surprised to see him getting ready to leave before the awards, and I suppose I sort of expected him to congratulate me, but he didn't say a word. So I said, 'Mr, Wirtz, I'd like to tell you that I won't be playing in the Lady Carling tournament next week.' He looked at me for a moment and then turned his back and walked off. He didn't say a word! It wasn't a quarter of an hour after I'd won. I tell you, I was shaken by that! I suppose, looking on his side of things, he felt that it took something out of his girls for an amateur to win the U.S. Open. But I still think he acted terribly naughty."
Relaxing at her home in the land of the Basques, Catherine Lacoste shows no resentment over her experiences in the New World. "How can I be angry?" she says. "I won, didn't I? To be angry, you have to take something very, very seriously, and I don't take golf that way at all. I'd never turn pro, and I'd rather have acute appendicitis than get involved in something like the tour. I have a lot of fun here. I enjoy going to the interpreters' school at the Sorbonne, and I enjoy working in my three languages—French and English and Spanish—and I enjoy playing the guitar and painting and playing golf with my friends whenever the notion strikes me. But toward the end of each golf season I begin to get a strong feeling of wanting to put my clubs away and saying to hell with it. After that I hardly have a golf club in my hand for five months. To tell you the truth, I'll probably chuck the whole thing in two or three more years and get married."
Her father, the old Crocodile himself, comes silently into the room and sits next to his daughter. "We are different, Catherine and I," he says to no one in particular. "I played to improve myself, to play well, not just to beat the other person. But one cannot deny it is a pleasure to win."
"Yes, we are different," Catherine says, after her father wanders off to another part of the house. "In fact, we are opposites when it comes to sport. I play to win. I want to win. But I'm also cabotine. You can't translate that exactly, but it means you can do well when you want to. You can rise to an occasion. That's me: cabotine, a bit of a show-off. But I'd never do what my father did against Tilden, win a big match and go off the court angry at my play. Never! I'd feel quite happy. Next year in the U.S. Open I would be satisfied to shoot a 390 if I won. Yes, indeed. That would suit my personality exactly. But miracles don't happen two years in a row. Do they?"