Possibly because the drama of professional golf, starring Jack Nicklaus, is so easy to come by on television these days, a modest affair such as the U.S. Women's Amateur championship generates little excitement, even in the town where it is held. When 17-year-old Laura Baugh, a beautiful, Florida-born California doll teed off in defense of the national title last week on the ancient and trap-pocked course of the St. Louis Country Club, the temperature, the humidity and public disinterest were all at a record high.
Although St. Louis golfers are accustomed to playing on days that would make an iguana sweat, when Baugh drove down the bowling-alley fairway of the 1st hole, the gallery consisted of only 27 human spectators and an errant cocker spaniel. On the 2nd hole she picked up five spectators, but the spaniel wandered off, possibly disenchanted because the petite champ had bogeyed and lost the hole, or perhaps simply seeking the cool shade of one of the bosky dells that crowd St. Louis fairways. Three days later, when 18-year-old Mary Budke of Dayton, Ore. replaced Laura Baugh as champion by defeating Cynthia Hill of St. Petersburg, Fla. 5 and 4 in a sweltering 36-hole final, the gallery fluctuated between 200 and 400, the number increasing sharply every time the contest got near a concession stand serving cold drinks.
Although the Women's Amateur does not attract spectators as it should, the contestants remain loyal to it, and for that reason it is a spirited thing. In essence it is a congregation of very amiable and competitive dames who like to gather annually to socialize and destroy each other's golfing reputations in head-to-head play.
This year, as often before, some of the constant campaigners did not get by the two qualifying rounds of stroke play. Polly Riley, a 45-year-old Texan who was a finalist in 1953 and had survived the cut all but three times in 26 years, failed this year by nine strokes, so stricken by the heat that she did not recall finishing the second round. Barbara McIntire, a veteran of 22 straight years and twice champion, lost out by a stroke. Considering the attrition in the qualifying, Laura Baugh, who at age 16 last year was the youngest winner ever, seemed a likely repeater. She had youth to help her against the 95° heat, and she has a neat, down-the-middle game that is suited to the unforgiving character of the St. Louis layout.
The course is pre-World War I, designed by Charles MacDonald, a Scotch-American who borrowed heavily from the classic concepts of his ancestral land. From the women's tees the course is respectfully short—6,128 yards—but the greens are full of whimsy and the big sand bunkers nightmarish. A giraffe could hide in some of them. It is said that when the groundkeepers give the deepest sandpits at St. Louis a thorough raking they uncover old wood-shafted cleeks and the bones of poor souls who never got out.
In her manner on and off the course, Baugh seems totally cool and contained and dedicated to the perfection of her game. In the worst and best moments of a round she is almost as deadpan as the late Maureen Connolly. Off the course she is somewhat more outgoing than Duane Thomas. In her first two matches she proceeded excellently in de-tense of her title, performing few wonders but rarely getting into serious trouble, but in the third round she ran into Barbara Boddie, a veteran of nine previous title campaigns.
Boddie had once reached the semifinals, losing there to JoAnne Gunderson Carner, who fairly well ruled the roost until turning pro two years ago. When discussing the past and present of golf, Boddie loves to cry in her beer, largely, one suspects, because she likes to talk about golf and she likes beer. When she compares her own style with that of teen-agers such as Baugh, she refers to herself collectively as "golfers of my generation" or "golfers my age" in a fashion that suggests that she is about to disappear over the horizon into some kind of octogenarian oblivion. "I weigh 132 pounds," she moans. "I am 10 pounds over my fighting weight. I am 32 years old, and I don't know whether I can last another round in this heat." (Boddie comes from Shreveport, La., a town not noted for its cool, arid climate.) "I assume I will have some support from the gallery," she continues, "since just about everybody around here seems to be my age or older."
After talking herself virtually into the grave in this fashion, Boddie then shot the only subpar round of the tournament to beat Baugh 6 and 5. Whereas she had allowed Nancy Syms to win three holes during their match and Marilyn Palmer to get one, Baugh got none, Boddie's first three rounds were far and away the best in the tournament, and she might have gone all the way if she could have sustained that quality, which she did not. In the semifinals she met eventual winner Budke, who has made her way in competitive golf sometimes as a steady player and sometimes as a scrambler.
When she turned 18 last November, Budke left behind an excellent record as a junior in the Northwest. She qualified in the National Amateur last year, was runner-up in the last Intercollegiates, and is present women's champion of her home state. As she emerges now into the big time, in several respects she is reminiscent of Billy Joe Patton, the old happy wanderer of golf. Like Patton, she is brainy about the game but can also laugh at it. Like Patton, on some rounds she literally wanders, using the rough as much as the fairways. Like Patton also, she acknowledges that she is sometimes helped by what she calls "little gifts from on high." In her final two rounds at St. Louis her ball, outward bound, struck a spectator's shoe and dropped dead. Along a narrow fairway a large elm caught her ball, rattled it around in its branches for a while and then tossed it out to a good lie on the fairway.
On the way to winning the title at St. Louis, Budke's fortunes seesawed from the start. During a qualifying round she fell into a nasty trap on the par-4 8th hole and ended up with a quadruple bogey. She rallied to squeeze inside the cut-off with two strokes to spare. She took her first two rounds of match play 1-up and 3 and 2. Then on the third round her fortunes truly dropped and soared. After six holes Budke was 5 down to Mary Bea Porter of California. "I was wondering at that point what plane I could get back to Oregon," she said. Of the next 11 holes she won seven to go I-up. She needed only to halve the 18th, but nearly blew it, knocking a wood into the rough inbounds by barely an inch. She scrambled back to get a par 5, but her rival, Porter, sank a 30-foot putt for a birdie to tie the match. On the first extra hole Budke got what certainly qualifies as a little gift from on high. She knocked a skittering shot that "went forever" into the rough, but her opponent did far far worse. Blasting out of a trap, Porter twice put balls out of bounds and conceded the match.
Budke's semifinal match against Boddie promised to be a dilly and turned out to be a haphazard contest to see who could play less badly. After 18 holes their scorecard was littered with bogeys and Boddie and Budke were still even. On the first extra hole, Boddie was short of the green on her approach and needed three to get down. Budke caromed her second shot off the top of a bunker to get on in two and down in par.
Cynthia Hill, Budke's opponent in the 36-hole match for the title, was playing in her second final in three years. Budke, as if to prove she was no fly-by-night, settled down to a steady game, took the best Hill had—including a hole in one—and slowly stole away, giving an occasional hole hut getting two in exchange to win 5 and 4. As Budke headed into the last 18 holes and a subpar finish, Guy Hope, the pro at the nine-hole Riverwood Golf Course where Mary got her start, said, "Now she is finally playing the kind of golf she plays back home when something important like a 10¢ Coke is at stake."