As its own special version of Armageddon crept closer last week the tight little world of the Ladies Professional Golf Association entered a state of suspension. The country's best women golfers were gathered at the Pleasant Valley Country Club just outside Sutton, Mass., but the talk was not about the $50,000 Eve-LPGA Championship, the most prestigious event run by the women pros. Instead it focused on Jane Blalock, a determined, iconoclastic, 26-year-old blonde who is a fine golfer, the tour's leading money-earner and, to hear the LPGA tell it, a cheat.
Miss Blalock stood accused of golf's most appalling sin, the one of deceit. The LPGA claimed proof that the tour's Most Improved Golfer the last two years also had been improving things on the greens, moving her ball away from spike marks. For her alleged transgressions she was suspended by the LPGA for a year.
As acrimonious rumors whirled around Pleasant Valley, everybody seemed to agree on at least two points: Jane Blalock was fighting to survive, and the course, this week anyway, was not living up to its happy name. The controversy deepened as the week lengthened and wounds were opened that would fester far beyond this Wednesday, when the LPGA and Miss Blalock would meet in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta to contest her $5 million antitrust suit against the association. The LPGA planned to make all its evidence public at the hearing. Jane would leave it to the court whether she had been suspended wrongly.
The public seemed amazed by the harshness of the LPGA's ruling. Nobody should have been, supporters of the association point out. In their strict view golf is a game that survives on integrity. Other sports may applaud those who can bend rules to their advantage, like the baseball pitcher who throws a spitball or the football lineman who has become adept at holding against the pass rush. But by its nature golf demands that its players strenuously police themselves. In those rare cases when they do not, the ones who are caught cheating are dealt with summarily. This year the men's tour lifted the playing privileges of Rogelio Gonzalez, a Colombian, after he altered and turned in an incorrect scorecard at the Greater New Orleans Open. A few years ago an American professional was caught moving a ball marker forward a foot or two on the back of his flanged putter. He would walk toward the hole, surreptitiously dropping the ball marker considerably closer to the cup than it had been. Found out in the fall, he was suspended. He was allowed to rejoin the professionals the following spring.
The present scandal surfaced almost a month ago. After the second round of the Bluegrass Invitational in Louisville the LPGA executive board—the five-woman ruling body of the tour—called in Miss Blalock and informed her she was disqualified from the tournament, contending she had been observed moving her ball illegally on a green. A $500 fine was levied.
Currents of tension and apprehension swept through the tour. They increased when Miss Blalock was ordered in by the executive board for two more meetings, first at the Titleholders Tournament in Southern Pines, N.C., next in Baltimore at the Lady Carling Open. After the latter the board suspended Miss Blalock for a year. Subsequently she countered with her lawsuit and obtained a temporary restraining order against the suspension. The war was on.
The executive board claims that Miss Blalock has been under suspicion for over a year, that there have been repeated violations, that witnesses in the gallery at Louisville had observed her replacing the ball to the side of her marker on the green and that Janie tearfully admitted to her guilt. Miss Blalock was denying everything.
The adversaries in the confrontation seem as disparate as fire and rain. On one side stands the executive board made up of playing pros: Cynthia Sullivan, president; Judy Rankin, vice-president; Linda Craft, secretary; Penny Zavichas, treasurer; and Sharon Miller, member-at-large. These five represent the Establishment on the tour, the workers. On the other side is Jane Blalock, a girl who by her own definition is not a mixer. The women's tour is one of the bastions of conservatism, but Jane has the peace symbol on her bank checks and on her golf bag there is a sign, POW'S NEVER HAVE A NICE DAY. While she is now the tour's big money-winner, she is also a girl who has never paid her dues by serving voluntarily, as have many other pros, on a tour committee.
Jane Blalock grew up in Portsmouth, N.H. and as a teen-ager compiled a lukewarm amateur record in the New England area. Her golfing talent appeared so meager when she graduated from Rollins College in Florida that she returned home to teach school. After an unsatisfying year she borrowed some money from her mother and drove back to Florida, where she contacted Bob Toski, recognized as one of the finest teachers in golf. Toski was impressed—in particular with her tenacious attitude—and agreed to tutor her. Jane stayed in Florida for five weeks, living in a rundown, bug-infested hotel for $12 a week. At night she propped a chair against the door to keep out unwanted visitors.
The following winter she returned to work at Toski's club. She cleared $42 a week plus room and board in exchange for which she labored almost from dawn to dusk retrieving balls on his driving range, serving as a starter and doing odd jobs. She also listened as Toski advised students on the practice tee. At 23, having never won a tournament outside New England, she became a pro.
"Her determination was something that really impressed me," says Jan Ferraris, Jane's traveling companion for her first few months on the tour. "You could just read it in her face. Even though she had done nothing as an amateur she had this confidence in herself. Jane could tell that her perseverance was going to pay off, that she was going to make it. She did what a lot of other people can't do, put pressure on herself and produced. The more pressure Janie put on herself the better she got."
Jan was awed with the mental effort Janie put into the game. Frequently during long drives between tournaments Jan would ask Janie what she was thinking about. "My swing," invariably was the reply. "We'd be watching television," says Jan, "and all of a sudden she'd say, 'I just thought of something.' She'd get a club and go to the mirror and work on her swing."
Jane Blalock's single-minded devotion to her game undoubtedly is one reason why she is not particularly admired by the other women. As the husband of one of them said prophetically before play began in Sutton, "It takes a certain kind of person—and I know I wouldn't want to be that kind—to be able to play well while all this is going on. I think Janie is that way."
Jane won less than $4,000 her first year, picked up her first title and $12,000 the next and last season jumped to third on the money list with $34,000 and two victories. Despite her troubles she had earned as much by midseason this year, winning two tournaments, including the Dinah Shore-Colgate event in Palm Springs, Calif. worth $20,000.
But last week many of Janie's peers were treating her like anything but the group's leading money-winner. They snubbed her and her family, put pressure on her friends to ignore her and seemed determined to continue the mistreatment until she was ruined. As one player said, the majority apparently wanted to plow her under.
"I like to feel that I am a compassionate person," said Janie one evening, reviewing the situation. "And it disturbs me that I see so many other girls without compassion. The last few weeks I'd walk into a roomful of people talking and they'd stop when they saw me. It was like everyone knew something except me. It was a feeling of complete anxiety. I couldn't eat. I'd lie in bed with my eyes open. If I ever came close to losing my mind, it was then. They were playing games with a person's life. I don't think they realize it."
But there was another game being played, one with sticks and dimpled stones instead of stinging names, the one for the LPGA Championship, the third-richest event on the circuit. Jane arrived filled with apprehension and started with a bogey by three-putting the first hole, but then she settled down to subpar golf for most of the day until she bogeyed three of the final four holes. Still, she had played well enough to share the lead with seven others.
"Look at her," said one of the golfers as Janie was surrounded by reporters, a sight often repeated during the week. "If I had been caught doing what she was doing, I wouldn't have the nerve to show my face around here. I'd be in South America."
"If I can get by today, I can do anything," said Jane. "It's really hard to put into words the way I felt, playing. I knew it was going to be either real good, or real bad." And then she added: "I had a good putting round—even over the spike marks."
Jane could laugh but, like a raindrop skidding haphazardly down a window-pane, the hysteria surrounding her gathered momentum as the tournament progressed. Her father said there was a newspaper article that suggested Janie had a drug problem stemming from the medication she took for a back condition. Another rumor had it that Janie's fellow pros would boycott future tournaments if she continued to play. For fear of sabotage she took to carrying her putter and driver back to her motel room.
All this was bound to have some effect. In the second and third rounds the gallery continued to swarm after Jane, much as the curious flock to airplane crashes and automobile wrecks. Her putts stopped falling, and first LPGA Committeewoman Miller and then Kathy Ahern took the lead.
Sharon Miller is a 31-year-old former schoolteacher from Battle Creek, Mich. who failed to win in her first six years on the tour. Earlier in the week Sharon pulled seven bass from ponds on the golf course property, and she seemed on her way to landing a bigger catch after her second-round 72. Alas, on Saturday she played like a fish out of water, shooting a fat 79, and fell back into a tie for second place with Miss Blalock and Sayoko Yamazaki.
Miss Yamazaki is one of a quartet of Japanese girls on the women's tour this year who spend their time smiling and bowing—and driving to distraction those American girls who attempt to analyze the visitors' golf swings. They move back off the ball on their backswings, then move back into the shot in a swaying motion on their downswings. Very bad form. Very good results.
When she is connecting, Miss Ahern, who shot a 76 and took the lead on Saturday, might be the longest hitter on the tour. "It doesn't get this cold in Texas in November," she said after her round in the blustery weather. That was quite a statement for Kathy, possibly the shyest person ever to come out of the Lone Star state. "Sometimes she gets embarrassed when she hits a good shot in front of a large gallery," said Judy Rankin.
Sunday dawned bright and clear, quite a change from the earlier weather, and there was no evidence of Miss Ahern's embarrassment, either. After Miss Blalock caught Kathy by birdieing the first hole, the 23-year-old Texan reeled off five birdies on the front side and charged into an insurmountable six-stroke lead. She finished with a 69 and the first-place check for $7,500. Jane had to be content with second place, which was a rather remarkable accomplishment under the circumstances, and $5,400, money that will be spent or returned depending upon the outcome of her legal case. Before the tournament she posted a $10,000 bond which insured that if she lost in court, any money she won on the golf course would be remitted to the LPGA.
But what happened in the tournament was never as important during the week as what was happening to Jane Blalock and the LPGA. The entire affair raised inevitable questions about the administration of a sport in which peers sat in judgment of a fellow competitor. A few years ago, before Lenny Wirtz resigned as executive director of the LPGA, he decided what should be done in delicate situations and submitted his recommendations for the women's endorsement. That changed when the women forced Wirtz out and hired Bud Erickson to replace him. Now executive director more in name than fact, Erickson does the women's bidding. His primary duties are to develop new business by signing up tournaments. Erickson did not take part in the meetings between Miss Blalock and the executive board.
"We're not denying her a right to earn a living," he said last week, perhaps forecasting the LPGA's legal argument. "She can always teach history."
"Rather than teaching history, I think I'm making some right now," was Jane's dry reply.
Certainly she is making the kind of money she could not as a teacher. Conservatively, a year's suspension would cost Jane Blalock about $150,000: $50,000 in prize money she might have won and $100,000 in endorsements, legal fees and future damage to her golf game as she tried to come back after a year's absence from competition. As Erickson said last week, perhaps inadvisedly, "I know one major airline that was talking to her about representing them and I think they're going to seriously reconsider any contract now."
Janie's supporters argue that if she indeed had been under suspicion for a year, why was she never told about it? And if there had been repeated instances of cheating, why had not penalties been assessed as they occurred and the rules demand?
Convinced of her own righteousness, Jane rejected a protective cover offered by Erickson. "We told Janie we were going to suspend her," Erickson said, "but we said we'd let her announce that she was dropping off with a bad back or some other imaginary ailment. We couldn't see any reason to embarrass her."
Jane's back pains are not imaginary, but maybe, says her old coach Toski, her defense is. "I think Janie got into this habit [of moving her ball away from spike marks] subconsciously. She has a compulsion to win. I believe she needs psychiatric help. The other players tell me this has been going on for a while and they have affidavits, pictures, everything to prove their side. The sad part is that Janie doesn't need to resort to this because she has the talent to win."
Just as sure on Janie's side was her caddie from the Suzuki tournament who contacted her with an offer to testify in her behalf. Obviously it was all very confusing and perhaps in the end, even with a judicial finding, nobody will know for sure whether the game's brightest new star did, one or more times, knowingly or unknowingly, improve her chances of winning by edging her ball slightly to the side or whether she was a victim of her own lonely success. Saddest of all, no one—Jane Blalock or whoever—could be the winner.