A reviewer given the chance to elucidate on the atmosphere of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association tour might well come up with such snappy descriptions as "fresh," "light," "entertaining" and maybe even "wholesome." But somewhere along the line he must face another reality, one that is, unfortunately, more a plague on women's golf than a pleasantry. To wit: the LPGA tour is probably the most static of all our national sports shows. This statement would seem to fuel the constant debate that goes on among those on the outskirts of sheer fandom as to which sporting events are strictly routine and predictable, therefore flat, tedious and undeserving of so much attention.
There are some people, for instance, who believe the tactical development of pro football has caused each game to look alike and every season to resemble just one long exchange of downs between the Eagles and the Lions. Others say track-and-field meets are so repetitious that contestants could mail in their times and distances every week and the results of the competition would not change.
Men's golf used to be the biggest culprit in this respect. Arnie and Jack, Billy and Gary won. Everybody else lost. Drive one, putt two, turn to another channel. Pretty simple, really. Since the PGA now has a lot of other guys who can win, and since football and track have too many followers to argue against without being punched in the mouth, the undisputed champion of regularity—and too often monotony—has become the women's pro golf tour. There, every week, every tournament, all of the following are certain to take place:
1) Paul Jerman, the tournament supervisor of the LPGA, will make an unpopular ruling, after which several girls will cry, moan and complain and then admit that Paul was right after all, kiss him and make up.
2) A man with a blue baseball cap and a black-and-blue handicap will come out of the gallery to shake his head and say something like, "Jeez, didja see that one? These girls know how to hit it like you won't believe."
And 3) Kathy Whitworth will either a) win the tournament or b) scare whoever is winning it right back under her hair dryer.
Over the past four years, in fact, Miss Whitworth has beaten enough people out of enough money to force many of her sister golfers into hocking their dryers and taking up shuffleboard for a living. She has been the leading money-winner on the tour every year since 1965. She has led the Vare Trophy standings (for low-scoring average) three of the past four seasons. She was named Woman Athlete of the Year twice (1965 and 1966) and LPGA Player of the Year all three times the award has been given. Probably more than anyone else, Kathy Whitworth must also take responsibility for making each week's tournament a chase instead of a race for most of the other 50 touring women.
The men's tour has been dispossessed of its Big Three image for several years now, but the ladies' triumvirate marches on, unwilling to make room at the top. Of the 91 official tournaments of the LPGA schedule during the past three years, Mickey Wright, scoring sporadically, Carol Mann, scoring zanily, and Miss Whitworth, just plain scoring, have won 59, or almost two-thirds. Last season the trio's dominance was most obvious. Kathy won 10 events, Carol won 10 and Mickey, playing less than half the season, won four. Total: 24 of 32 tournaments. No other girl won more than once.
To be sure, prospects for a more competitive tour are considerably brighter than these statistics indicate. There are other girls who have struggled for years along the tour and are just now bringing their games to maturity.
Players like Donna Caponi, Gloria Ehret and Margie Masters, now in their fifth year, and Pam Barnett and Sharon Miller, in their fourth, are all considered capable of stardom. Miss Ehret has already won the LPGA championship, as has Sandra Post, the 20-year-old Canadian who was such a delightful surprise last season. Sandra Palmer is another girl who has quietly developed into a solid contender after five years on the tour.
But though each of these players and a few veterans like Sandra Haynie, who won in Shreveport last week, Murle Lindstrom and Sandra Spuzich will always be around collecting checks, the fact remains that this looks like a typical year on the ladies' tour. And that means another Kathy Whitworth year.
Miss Whitworth's spring started auspiciously enough when she hung around the lead and then won the Orange Blossom in St. Petersburg by parring No. 1 as Marlene Hagge double-bogeyed No. 18. (The girls had been sent off on a "shotgun" start after the final round was delayed a day because of rain.) Kathy won the next week, again, by biding time until Miss Post, who looked like she had the tournament locked, blew to a 78 on the last day. Kathy won the third time by lapping the field at Port Malabar and then the fourth by coming from behind to tie Miss Wright, and then beating her on the first hole of the playoff. Just like that—presto—Kathy Whitworth had won four consecutive tournaments. Her streak was halted short of a new record the following week in Raleigh when Miss Mann won.
Kathy Whitworth joined the tour out of Jal, N. Mex. in 1959, a tall, fat girl with a bad temper who couldn't do anything but score. At the time Mickey Wright said she wasn't ready, and Carol Mann, herself a young amateur, remembers only Kathy's "neat little mouth sticking out of all this bulging flesh in her cheeks." Kathy weighed more than 200 pounds in junior high school, but she has lost weight every year since and is now a trim 145.
From the beginning, it seems now, Miss Whitworth was destined to play in the shadow of Miss Wright: the scorer vs. the stylist. Kathy's first big year was 1962, when she won twice and finished second eight other times, most of them behind Mickey. With the exception of 1964, when "I got a big head and thought they were going to hand me championships on a silver platter," she has won at least eight tournaments each season and has evoked comparisons with her chief rival, although never as much public acclaim.
The two competitors are entirely different types, Miss Mann believes. "I admire Mickey for her superior skills," says Carol. "Kathy has great inner strength. She is probably a better competitor because she had to be. She is the best under pressure of anybody who ever played this tour."
Miss Whitworth's putting is the object of constant amazement among her fellow players. They say that she never three-putts, that she never makes any mistakes on the green, that she is a magician, that she is an artist. "When she has to have a putt, I mean absolutely has to have it for victory, she gets it every time," says Sandra Haynie. "Post and I tied at Port Charlotte this year, and Kathy needed a seven-footer to beat us. I put on my bracelets and was ready to go home before she hit the ball. There wasn't going to be a playoff." Kathy's instrument of destruction on the greens is a metallic-gray Hagen "Tomboy" model that has a copper ring in its head and resembles something out of Dr. Strangelove. Carol Mann calls it The Weird Monster, and Kathy says people keep coming up and asking if it is a lucky penny she has inside her putter.
Sandra Post seems to talk for all of the younger players when she speaks of Whit. "I still get nervous playing with her," says Sandra. "She's got all those titles after her name. It's scary. The only time I wasn't nervous was when I met her in the playoff for the LPGA last summer. I knew I'd finish second, so I wasn't worried."
Instead, Sandra routed Kathy, 68 to 75. It was one of the few times Miss Whit-worth was unable to reach her "close-off point," that frame of mind where she shuts out all distractions, bears down and, as Carol Mann says, "doesn't let negative things happen to her."
So far, the only negative thing about Miss Whitworth's career has been her inability to win the Women's Open. She has never played well in the Open, she thinks, because she is always trying too hard.
"I get so high I just go nuts," she says. "I think it's because it's not one of our tournaments, and they always play it on the kind of plush courses we aren't used to. The USGA runs it, and it has so much tradition. You get up on that tee and they don't go on about what you've won or who you are. They just say, 'Now on the tee, Kathy Whit-worth. Play away, please.' It's just you, then. Wooooo, it's something."
This year the Open will be held at Scenic Hills in Pensacola, Fla., a course the pros know and one that Miss Whitworth plays well. "I think I have my best chance this time," she says. "I'm determined to win, because if I don't do it now I may never do it."
If Kathy Whitworth is true to her game as well as her word, everybody better put on their bracelets and get ready to go home.