It was fitting that this year's U.S. Women's Open began on the Fourth of July, for America's best golfers had a patriotic duty—to wrest their national title from a 23-year-old French amateur, Catherine Lacoste. And then there was that matter of restoring the star-spangled prestige of the ladies' professional golf tour. Lacoste, when she won the championship last summer, had upset the tradition that an amateur could never beat a field of pros, and she had done it with a casual ebullience. Observing the intense gamesmanship of one of her competitors, Susie Maxwell, she declared, "My word! It takes the fun out of golf, doesn't it? Why, that girl would leave you in a pool of blood!"
Well, last week at the Moselem Springs Golf Club in Fleetwood, Pa., Susie Maxwell, now married and playing as Susie Berning, left Lacoste and the rest of the 1968 Open field bloody as she led the tournament for four days and won by three strokes with a 289. Lacoste finished 13th with a 302.
Even the 13-stroke difference in their scores, however, cannot put amateur Lacoste out of sight, out of mind and back in her place, a fact that Catherine is well aware of. Before play began on Thursday she told of lying in bed that morning "hooting with laughter" about the position she was in. "They can't take the title away from me, no matter how badly I play this year," she said.
For Catherine has become a celebrity, an impish one who enjoys the discomfort her presence causes the pros. The galleries at the Open were filled with women wearing Lacoste dresses. The pro shop had stacks of Lacoste shirts, and the back of the official program carried an ad for them headlined: "It takes years to become a golf pro. It takes 60 seconds to look like one."
For all the excitement, Catherine was hardly a striking figure. She began the defense of her title wearing rumpled turquoise shorts cut below the knee, ankle socks, a red visor and a yellow Lacoste shirt.
"If one of our players showed up like that," LPGA Tournament Director Lennie Wirtz said, "I'd fine her $50."
The pros decided "not to try to out-dress Lacoste." They were subtle in evincing their distaste for her. At a players' meeting held the evening before the tournament began, LPGA President Kathy Whitworth made a point of welcoming all the competitors. "I wish you all luck," she told them. "And that goes for you, too, Catherine," she added. Lacoste was apparently delighted with the expression of good will, but most of the players in the room felt a steely edge to the remark, and the next day on the practice tee when Wirtz suggested Kathy might be more friendly, she told him to go soak his crew cut.
The professionals were sore at far more than the personal indignity of being beaten by a 22-year-old. The 1967 defeat had hurt their image. They lost a $115,000 TV contract to do a Shell series with the men professionals, in part at least because the men complained the women couldn't even beat amateurs.
They had been ribbed by spectators throughout the year, and, even worse, Lacoste had depicted them as ruthless opponents, which scarcely helped the feminine mystique that the LPGA tries so hard to cultivate with hair spray, cold cream and Clairol.
It was not surprising, then, for Lacoste to see the backs of 14 pros as she walked to the practice area on Thursday. They were acutely conscious of her presence, but the time had come to forget Lacoste and play golf.
In the first round Lacoste was paired with two of the LPGA's leading money-winners, Carol Mann and Marilynn Smith. Both pros wore fittingly patriotic red, white and blue outfits, but it was Carol who was dressed to kill. Resplendent in red blouse, white-lace stockings and blue mini-culottes, the 6'3" blonde looked like the American flag, or, as Lennie Wirtz put it, "the flag and the flagpole."
She was quite obviously the gallery favorite, and for the first day at least she played as if she could win the championship, finishing with an even-par 71. Lacoste, despite bogeys on the last two holes, shot a respectable 74. At the press conference which followed their round, Carol mentioned that the winner of the Open, "presuming, of course, that it is a professional," would be eligible to compete in the $35,000 World Series of Golf to be held in Springfield, Ohio in late August. Catherine couldn't resist a rub. "May I ask what you did about last year?" she inquired with a mischievous glint.
"We have ways of coping," Carol retorted.
Meanwhile, on the course in the late afternoon heat, Susie Maxwell Berning was shooting a two-under-par 69. Because she was a bride of only seven weeks, her married name was unfamiliar to the spectators watching the scoreboards. As a matter of fact, for a while it had even confused the pros. The first week she was back on the tour after her wedding she was paired one day with Mickey Wright and Sandra Spuzich. The night before, Susie happened to meet Sandra.
"Well, see you on the first tomorrow, Spuz," she said.
"No, you won't," said Sandra. "I'm playing with Mickey and an amateur called Berning."
On Thursday at times, Susie's gallery numbered only one, her husband Dale, whose cigars she carried in her golf bag, dispensing them to him throughout the tournament. When they met two years ago, Dale was a salesman for National Cash Register and, as he describes it, he picked her up at a golf tournament in Cincinnati and bought her a beer. Later he was transferred to San Francisco, and she now wears a gold cable-car charm around her neck, a memento of the days when she would win a tournament and could afford to fly to San Francisco for a date.
Friday was the day everyone went home from Moselem Springs mad—even Susie, who shot a 73, but bogeyed the last three holes. Susie now led her closest competitor, Murle Lindstrom, by four shots. Mickey Wright and Catherine Lacoste shot 78s and the defending champ was now 10 shots over par and had eliminated herself. Carol had a 76, picking up a penalty stroke for marking and cleaning her ball when continuous putting rules were in effect.
At a press conference Lacoste tilted back her chair and said, "All right, gentlemen. You asked to see me. What do you want to hear?" Why had she bogeyed the final two holes for the second round in a row? "I didn't have any arms or legs left," she declared. "I was a bit fed up with the game. It was a very long game, and you Americans play very slowly." Harrumph.
What slowed the Mann-Lacoste-Marilynn Smith pairing and actually stopped it for a while was Catherine herself. On 17 she had hit into some TV cables and rather than take the responsibility for moving the cables and making a free drop she demanded a ruling by a USGA official. After a couple of minutes, Catherine was complaining at the tardiness of the official. "Oh, relax," Marilynn Smith told her. "It'll give me time to put on some lipstick." Another three or four minutes. Catherine paced angrily. "Wait till you're my age, baby," Marilynn Smith told her and went off to sit on her shooting stick.
On Saturday Carol Mann and Susie Berning were paired together. "It's the first morning my wife has been nervous," Dale remarked. "She has a complex about playing with Mann. It's not that she doesn't like Carol or that they aren't friendly, but playing with her makes Susie uneasy. She can play with Wright and enjoy it and usually beat her. With Mann, maybe it is because Carol is so big and hits the ball so far."
Whatever it is, Susie played her worst round of the tournament, shooting a 76 that reduced her lead over Carol to two shots. But on Sunday she righted herself and ran away from the field, leading by as many as six strokes at one point. She finished with a 71, three strokes ahead of Mickey Wright, who closed with a 68. Carol Mann shot a 75 to tie Marilynn Smith for third.
With her $5,000 first prize Susie is going to buy a custom-made trailer that can be hitched to the 1912 Maxwell car Dale gave her as a wedding present. The two of them intend to use it to go to some tournaments this fall. They say the car won't go too far, which probably means they'll be staying close to home from now on. But they must have planned it that way.