Every so often someone in the gallery would murmur, "I hope she cuts it too much," as Miss Catherine Lacoste of Saint Jean-de-Luz, France addressed a key iron shot. Once a lady even said, "Oh, I hope she cracks," after Miss Lacoste hit a rare imperfect drive. The fact that she was grinding up a very American-looking girl—Miss Shelley Hamlin of Fresno, Calif., who was game and pretty and said things like, "She's a super keen-o-type player"—had something to do with it. But it wasn't just chauvinism.
What it was, in the U.S. Women's Amateur championship last week at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, Texas, was that Miss Lacoste seemed too strong and detached a player to need or to attract any sentimental favor. She looked more like a steely-eyed Walt Disney chipmunk or, as someone called her, "La Bulldog," She latched on to par and wouldn't let go, and thus did la gloire of the 1969 American amateur crown go to the girl who is also this year's champion of France, Great Britain and Spain.
Nobody ever won such a grand slam before, and Catherine is the first foreigner to win the U.S. title since 1936. Through 105° temperature and lightning and rain, she continued to hit long enough to cause a shaken young Dallas-area boy to say, "Mom, she used an iron where dad would have used a wood." She went on sending her approach shots high in the air and plunk on the pin. And she putted well enough to get the job done and push on to the next hole. In each of her five matches she won convincingly and aggressively, and twice she came from behind. She appeared in a cowboy hat when she accepted her trophy and said, "I'm a Texan now and I hope to come back very soon." She was, as everyone said during the ceremony, a real champion.
She was not seen chumming around, however, with any of the other candidates for champion. Privately, one of her opponents said of her, "She is a magnificent player, even though her swing is basically bad. [She rises, if not quite up off the ground, at least way up on her toes, during her swing.] But if she's such a great player, why does she have to act like she thinks she's such a great player?"
August 24, 1969
Furthermore, Catherine's tone was more washed-out than triumphant when she disclosed to the press, under questioning, that she would probably not defend her American title next year. "I'm going to quit international competition very soon," she said. She had won all the tournaments she wanted to win. Her father, the tennis champion; and her mother, the golf champion, retired at their peaks. "I think it's a great thing for any sportsman, or any sportsgirl, to quit at the maximum," she went on. But the way she talked, things didn't sound so maximum. "I've had enough of it," she said. "I've had enough attention." Would she ever play competitively in the United States again? "I doubt it."
If Catherine does indeed settle down in France, it will come as a great relief to the leading lady golfers of this country. She first raised their hackles when she not only beat them all—including the pros—in the 1967 U.S. Open, but went on to complain about their over-seriousness and their unfriendliness toward her (SI, July 10, 1967).
"Catherine just doesn't understand," says one of the leading U.S. amateurs. "I've known Mickey Wright since I was 14, but I wouldn't think of going up to her and asking her for a round of golf." The reference is to the time during the '67 Open when Miss Lacoste sauntered up to a breakfast table full of noted U.S. lady pros and asked if anyone wanted to play a practice round—causing the pros' mouths to fall open and Catherine to feel rejected.
This year her visit may have been chilled by a misapprehension. She avoided criticizing the set of opponents—the amateurs "were very kind to me," she said at the end. But the story got around that, after Mrs. JoAnne Gunderson carner was eliminated in the first round, Catherine told somebody, "Now there is no one left worth beating."
No one knew exactly to whom she was supposed to have told that, and when she was asked about the alleged slight she snapped, "That is a ridiculous story. I didn't win a match before the 16th hole. I think that's enough competition."
What she did do, she said, was tell Mrs. Carner that, "It was a lousy thing for her to do, to get beaten. She beat me last year in the semifinals, and I couldn't get back my own. Of course I I said it in a kidding manner. I wasn't really cross."
But the U.S. ladies thought they had been disdained. That is apparently why Miss Hamlin said before the final round, without taking anything away from Cathy's super keen-o-mess as a player, "I don't want to beat her too bad. After all, she came all the way over here to play in our little tournament. No, no hard feelings. But a lot of little sneaky ones. I mean she's never kicked me or anything. But, as a lady said in the locker room the other day, she's about as diplomatic as de Gaulle. No, one-up wouldn't satisfy me. I do want to beat her bad."
Miss Hamlin, a 20-year-old Stanford student, played well enough in the 36-hole final round Saturday to crush most woman players. But La Grande Cathy was only one over par for the day, on a course which saw few par rounds. When she went four-up on the 30th hole, a lady in the gallery sighed, "Shelley's not going to make up a lead like that against her." Shelley hung in there with pressure putts, but the match ended on the 34th green, 3 and 2.
Miss Lacoste was not the only subject of conversation during the tournament. There was the weather, for example. Monday through Thursday the temperature stayed securely over 100°. The sparse galleries huddled in the sparser shade of scorched mesquite trees and swilled as much Gatorade and water as the players did. One man said his dog lay down and died of the heat the day before. Another maintained he had seen birds sitting in the street gasping.
Then on Friday morning, semifinals day, the rains came. They let up long enough for a few holes to be played on a course of suddenly intense green and against a sky of suddenly deep gray. Miss Lacoste, carrying a big red, white and blue umbrella and wearing a red shirt and turquoise blue corduroy jeans, was playing three-time champion, Mrs. Anne Quast Welts, wearing a cute little cutaway hat and pink shorts and carrying a little pink parasol. Mrs. Welts, who has won more matches—64 out of 77—in this tournament over the years than anyone else, has failed to advance at least as far as the quarterfinals in only two of 17 years. "And one of those two was the time I tried to play when I was pregnant," she says. "I was under the illusion that it didn't show. But then I saw the pictures."
Mrs. Welts, occasionally crying "No, Anne, don't do that" to herself, had Catherine down by three after 10 holes in the semis, but Miss Lacoste came storming back to win 2 and 1.
Even more impressive against the Frenchwoman were two new faces from Pennsylvania. Janie Fassinger, 17, of New Wilmington, hit so consistently far off the tee that people began to use her as a standard of comparison. Miss Lacoste had to play her best round—three under par for 16 hole, reaching all 16 greens in regulation—to stop Miss Fassinger, whose long blonde straight surfer's hair seemed to be giving her as much trouble as Cathy was.
Connie Hirschman, 22, of York, struggled through 38 holes in Wednesday's heat—20 to beat Mrs. Michael J. Skala in sudden death and 18 before succumbing to Cathy one-up in the second round.
The youngest new face, and perhaps the prettiest, belonged to a local girl, Nancy Hager, 16, of Richardson High School in Dallas, who went all the way to the semifinals before losing to Miss Hamlin one-up, and who announced, "I have learned that I am better than I thought I was."
Mrs. Carner's first-round loss was true to form, inasmuch as she generally either wins this tournament or loses early. If she had won this year, it would have been her sixth time, tying the record set by Mrs. Glenna Collett Vare, who dominated U.S. amateurs in the '20s and early '30s. JoAnne said the heat didn't bother her, although she came in from her defeat—to Mrs. Ann Baker Furrow, who was herself knocked off in the next round—with her forehead crusted with salt. Mrs. Carner, the only U.S. amateur who has beaten pros the way Cathy did in the Open, said she just couldn't get up for her match at Las Colinas. What with running the public par-60 course she and her husband own in Seekonk, Mass., she seldom plays competitively anymore. If she and Catherine had met in this tournament, the winner would have been regarded by many as the best woman golfer in the world. It will be a shame if the two of them never have another chance.