Several years ago Mickey Wright more or less retired to Dallas to find happiness at 32 weeding her periwinkle bed. Since then the women's professional golf tour has wound its weekly and monotonous way through interstate country, from Waco to Pensacola to Shreveport, seldom generating more excitement than the next Colonel Sanders finger-lickin' stand. But last week, at the first and richest LPGA tournament of the year—the $40,000 Burdine's Invitational in Miami—there were indications that 1970 might just be different. A trusty veteran—Carol Mann—took the top money, but look farther down the tournament summaries, down, down to 36th place. There is the name: JoAnne Gunderson Carner. The five-time U.S. Amateur champion, who long and volubly maintained (SI, Feb. 10, 1969) that pro golf was not for her, was out there among the rookies at the Country Club of Miami slicing, hooking, three-putting and sweating to earn a check for $305.
In this same tournament last year, playing as an amateur, she had trounced the lady pros, taken home the silver trophy and grandly left them the $5,200 first-place purse to pay their turnpike tolls. In the exuberance of that victory, JoAnne made some remarks that rankled, and ever since the pros have been ready for revenge. "Most of the pros don't show me much," JoAnne said at the time. "Some of them think they are the greatest thing walking, but give me the top 10 amateurs and we would beat the top 10 professionals."
After that volley of disdain, her announcement last October that she was turning professional was something of a shock. For a decade JoAnne had been the golden girl of golf amateurs, seldom bothering to practice, playing just a few competitive rounds a year, yet dominating the sport with her superb talents and walloping drives. In six LPGA starts, she had one win and two seconds.
For years businessmen have tried to lure JoAnne into pro golf. She stoutly refused, married, and with her husband Don Carner bought and operated a par-60 golf course in Seekonk, Mass. If she had turned professional six or eight years ago chances are the lady pros would be playing for considerably higher stakes now. She has Palmer-like qualities—a penchant for gambling and the kind of strength that leaves galleries delighted and impressed.
After all these years of refusing to be a pro, why, then, did she relent? Winning the 1969 Burdine's tournament had something to do with it, JoAnne says. But there were other things.
"I had become bored with golf," she says, "and I was making a sport out of seeing how well I could play with a minimum of practice and competition. We were working 14 hours a day, running our golf course. Don had a brain hemorrhage in June. And after that we decided to hire a manager to run it. We both like to travel, and we're going to enjoy ourselves."
The Carners bought themselves a silver Cadillac and a matching silver 31-foot trailer that has color TV, hi-fi and air conditioning. This is to be their home on the ladies' pro tour. Last week they pulled into the Yacht Haven trailer park in Fort Lauderdale where, on the eve of her professional debut, JoAnne cooked up a platter of frogs' legs for some neighbors and friends. The television was turned to a local sports program, and Kathy Whitworth, the top-ranked woman pro, was being interviewed. In her harsh Southwest twang she spoke for several minutes about the LPGA's fine young players and their extraordinary potential. JoAnne earner's name was not mentioned.
The cook kept on sautéing the frogs' legs and said nothing. Lying on one of the trailer sofas was a copy of a golf magazine called Tee, the cover showing Shirley Englehorn smiling broadly and the caption underneath reading "LPGA Winner of Burdine Classic, 1969." Miss Englehorn was runner-up to JoAnne in that tournament, but with a deft verbal finesse, Shirley became a cover girl. The established lady pros were getting some of their own back. At the moment, JoAnne and the frogs' legs were being fried. (JoAnne scored some points when the Burdine's people starred her on the cover of their 1970 program.)
Although she seemed confident, her practice rounds early in the week had been disappointing. She was not driving well, and her competition in these rounds was not ideal. Of the pros, only Patty Berg had offered to play an 18 with JoAnne before the tournament. The other days, she picked up games with local college students she found hanging around the first tee.
A year ago JoAnne was declaring with amateur bravado that she only looked at a course once before a tournament—otherwise she would find out where all the trouble was. But Carner, the pro, played the Country Club of Miami's West Course four straight practice days. "I've begun to feel obligated," she said.
Meanwhile, JoAnne's rivals were doing some feverish practicing, too. "I haven't seen them work this hard before," pro Bob Toski remarked at the tournament. Asked if she was working hard to beat JoAnne, Susie Berning said coolly, "I will play par, not her."
JoAnne has retained her aggressive head-to-head match-play approach. "I play people," she said. "I've got to get mad at somebody, so I'm going to play the LPGA's top five." She might be outnumbered, and certainly last week she was outgunned, but JoAnne deserves no particular sympathy and she expects none. "I brought all this pressure on myself," she admits.
There is no doubt that the old pros view her cautiously. Betsy Rawls said, "In the past JoAnne has never really committed herself to being No. 1. She has never taken on the pressure. When she was an amateur that always gave her an out. I wonder if she has really committed herself now. If she has, I think she will become No. 1."
Only two rookies in LPGA history have managed to win tour events. Last year no pro with less than five years' experience was victorious (and the average winning pro had 11). JoAnne knows these statistics, yet she has set three wins as her 1970 goal. Carol Mann is betting that JoAnne gets them. But most pros are skeptical.
For her first round as a professional golfer JoAnne showed up looking still very much like an amateur. She had her old amateur bag with all the medallions from past amateur events hanging from it, and her glove bore the emblem of the Country Club of Miami. She is gambling on a couple of quick successes to make a more lucrative endorsement deal on equipment.
She was paired in the opening round with two pros of gamesmanship, Marlene Hagge and Sandra Haynie. A pair of ladies from the U.S. Golf Association, which runs the amateur sport, stood on the first tee and blew JoAnne goodby and good-luck kisses as she walked out and teed it up as a pro. Some men in the gallery began arguing about how much she weighs. At 30 JoAnne is a broad, solid woman—"There's a lot there to love," her husband says with an affectionate pat. She put her first drive in a trap, and things did not improve much after that. Partner Sandra scored a 68 for first-round lead, Marlene had a 75 and JoAnne birdied the final hole for a Friday-the-13th round of 77. The day definitely had gone to the old pros.
JoAnne played the second round with two obscure players, yet even after her disastrous opening she continued to draw a sizable crowd. With nothing much to lose, she went out gambling, determined to shoot 86 or 68. She could have had the 68 had she not left seven putts from inside six feet hanging on the edge of the cup. Result: a 75 and a two-day score of 152. Sunday she had her worst round of all, an 81. "I've had my comeuppance," she said after finishing. "But keep the faith."
For the next few months JoAnne Gunderson Carner will be out there playing with the tour rabbits, but don't for a moment think the old hands aren't watching. They are not about to leave her roaming without supervision in their $700,000 lettuce patch.