The village of Las Vegas never has listed enchantment among its tourist attractions, for the city is layered with a tangy sauce of neon, silicone and dollars both green and silver, ornamentation more comforting to the cold heart of a blackjack dealer than to the tender sensitivities of a poet. But last week this unlikely desert junction produced pathos equal to that of Erich Segal's and more drama than Lassie.
It was at the $100,000 Sealy-Fabergé Golf Classic that those who believe in the old American tenets of faith, hard work and keep your left arm straight found their trust reaffirmed as two housewives-mothers-short order cooks played hot potato with the $25,000 first-place check, highest in women's golf. Kathy Cornelius was the smiling, relieved winner, defeating one of her best friends, Judy Rankin, on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff over the Desert Inn Country Club course.
During the last hour or so of the final round on Sunday all sorts of people had a chance to win, but it seemed as if the mere thought of 25,000 bills was enough to turn putters to noodles. Carol Mann had the lead for a while, but a nervous bogey on the last hole did her in. Betsy Rawls missed a three-footer to bogey the 17th and that finished her. Rankin bogeyed 17 to give Cornelius the lead, but Kathy bogeyed right back to fall even with Judy. Both missed birdie putts at 18. On the first playoff hole, the 15th, both women sent their approach putts rocketing past the hole, Kathy six feet, Judy three. Kathy made it, Judy missed and that was it. It may not have been perfect golf, but in its negative way it was exciting.
The tournament has had a vein of excitement running through its entire—if brief—history. Sandra Palmer eagled the 18th hole from a bunker to win in 1971 and Betty Burfeindt made a hole in one on the way to taking the 1972 title. Off the course the players have been rolling sevens, too. Janet Caponi LePera was introduced to her eventual husband, a television director, at the first tournament, and last year golfer Chris Repasky met singer Tom Jones backstage after one of his performances at Caesars Palace. "He invited her to a party," said Carol Mann. "I don't know what happened, but she hasn't played very well since."
Usually any promotion that doesn't have the enticement of free money is a risky proposition in bacchanalian Las Vegas, a place where people couldn't care less about the consumer price index. They do like celebrity watching, however. Besides the regular spectators, guys who pick their teeth with matchbook covers and women in spray-gun makeup, one eager fan pedaled in on a bicycle from Atlanta, Ga. "The remarkable thing was that during the entire trip I didn't have a flat tire," said Edward Woolf, who has a 10-speed bike and a thirst for women's golf.
In a sport where Jack Nicklaus is rich enough to put MacGregor on his advisory staff, the women players have been playing catch-up for a long time. The Sealy-Fabergé is one of four $100,000 events on their schedule. Bud Erickson is in his fourth year as executive director of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, a job that once was about as glamorous as a rusted fender. Now the LPGA has scheduled 35 tournaments with combined purses of just under $1.5 million, the girls play a filmed television series and Erickson is negotiating for a tournament in Japan. Figure in the new wave of endorsements, television commercials and exhibitions that the girls are doing and you can understand why parents are giving their young daughters sand wedges for their birthdays instead of dolls.
The tournament in Las Vegas opened on an ominous note. Clouds scuttled in over the mountains on Thursday, dumping rain and hail on the Desert Inn course, canceling Thursday's round and shortening the event to 54 holes since the celebrities and amateurs, who paid up to $500 to play, could not linger an extra day.
The celebrity facet of the tournament is always interesting. Joe Namath says the Sealy-Fabergé is one of his favorite events, and Billie Jean King began a crash program of golf lessons so that she could participate this year. Instead of a one-day pro-am, the celebrities play right along with the women golfers for three days, trying to stay out of the way and offering encouragement.
On Friday tournament officials fretted nervously as the clouds hung low over the course. National television was scheduled for the weekend and another cancellation would wreak havoc with that. Rain fell late in the day and play was suspended for about an hour, but the skies softened and Mary Mills took the first-round lead with a 69. Kathy Whitworth, the tour's leading money-winner this year, a position she has held for seven of the last eight seasons, was not so fortunate. She came to the tournament hoping for a victory and $25,000, which would boost her toward her goal of being the first woman golfer to earn $100,000 in a single season, but she opened with an 81 that destroyed her chances.
The LPGA's stars do not have a record of hogging publicity. For instance, Sandra Haynie has won 27 tournaments in her career and probably would go unrecognized in a crowd of golf writers, partly because she never has won the U.S. Open. She shot a 70 en Friday and commented that it was "the best I've hit the ball in a long time."
Last year she injured her wrist hitting a shot out of some rocks in a tournament early in the season and had to lay off for five weeks while it healed. A month after she returned, she won three tournaments in a span of four weeks. "When I was thin, I used to play about 13 or 14 holes and get pooped," she said. "To hit it out there, it was taking everything I had. Now I'm stronger."
On Saturday it looked as if she might win again as Mary Mills slipped to a 76 and Sandy jumped into a three-way tie for the lead at 143, three under par. Sandy shot a 73 but putted like a guy shooting craps for the first time, missing birdie putts on six or seven holes.
Cornelius and Bonnie Bryant were tied with Haynie, Kathy shooting a 72 while Bonnie had a 71 despite bogeys on the 15th and 16th holes.
This is Cornelius' 18th season on the pro circuit. She is 16th on the tour's all-time money list, nearly $300,000 behind the more famous golfing Kathy—Whitworth. Cornelius is amazed that the girls are playing for today's improved purses. "A few years ago I would have bet a substantial amount that we wouldn't be playing for this kind of money. You used to have to go out and pound out those nickels and dimes."
Kathy and Bill Cornelius, also a golf professional, were married in 1953 and she turned pro "to get out of playing on ladies' day as the pro's wife." Three years later Bill gave her $150 and a secondhand car and she went out on the tour, winning the U.S. Open in 1956. At various times she has held the 36-, 54- and 72-hole scoring records for the LPGA and now travels the circuit with her husband and the younger of her two daughters, six-year-old Kay. "It's not a bad life if you don't mind living out of a suitcase," says Kathy, who also helps Bill out at the family driving range outside Phoenix during the off-season.
Bonnie Bryant came to the Sealy-Fabergé event by the thinnest of margins. She was one of the final qualifiers, securing a berth with a tie for 13th place in Louisville two weeks before, which, ironically, was her best tournament showing in almost a year and a half on the circuit.
Bonnie, the only lefthander on the tour, is a 29-year-old former semipro softball player who began playing golf only 10 years ago. She quit college in Visalia, Calif., decided she wanted to play professional sports, walked onto a golf course and told the pro that she desired instruction. After 18 months of eight to 10 hours a day practice, she was down to a five handicap. She turned pro and accepted a series of teaching positions. "I always knew what I wanted," said Bonnie. "Now I want to be one of the better players on the tour."
She looked that way on Friday and Saturday, stumbling on a double bogey after the rain delay the first day but generally playing with precision. She is one of the longest drivers on the tour, although inexperience has held her back. That power was evident on the final round when, having faltered badly, she hit two long shots to the par-5 18th and just missed an eagle.
Rankin spent Saturday night losing $14 at blackjack. Earlier in the week she was fretful because her swing had a faulty piston somewhere, but now she felt it was improving. She had shot 72-73 and was only two strokes off the lead.
"If the wind blows tomorrow, Judy's got a chance," said her husband Yippy.
Sunday the wind blew and Judy, winner of two tournaments in May, did indeed have a chance, but it was Kathy Cornelius who blew everyone down. She may still be the "other Kathy." but $25,000 will help.