BIRTHDAY PRESENT FOR HERSELF

Until Susie Berning and her new/old putter took charge of the affair, the Women's Open looked like one of those awful parties at which all the guests were going to have a perfectly terrible time
July 29, 1973

When you want to choreograph a U.S. Women's Open, you take the world's best women golfers and get them all evil-lookin', hot and nasty over such matters as tradition, honor and glory. For snob appeal you add a golf course with blue sap in its trees, preferably one on which all the holes are uphill, throw in a labyrinth of horrors such as heavy, dull rough and ravenous sand traps and enough vegetation to blunt Paul Bunyan's ax. You harden up half the putting greens, leave the rest soft and give them all a Haldeman haircut. Then you stand back in your blazer and smirk while the whimpering girls flounder like paper boats in the Atlantic. After all, if they can't stand the heat, they ought to be back in the kitchen.

A Women's Open is a fractured love affair, equal parts of heartbreak and humiliation that help set back the players' psyches 11 months or so. You don't really win an Open, you sort of hang around and survive it. And that is what Susie Maxwell Berning did last week in the 1973 Women's Open at the Country Club of Rochester. She survived her small mistakes and one big, bad round, survived with a score of 290, which was two over par, but better than the rest of the mortally wounded field could manage.

This was not an Open won with birdies but one wooed with patience. Berning began the final round tied with young Pam Higgins, and after seven holes she had edged into a two-stroke lead over both Pam and a rallying Sandra Palmer. Then, in a matter of moments, after first Palmer and then Higgins double bogeyed the 10th hole, all Susie had to worry about was her acceptance speech. Her final margin was five strokes. It was her third Open title, one less than the record held jointly by Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls, and her second straight. Victory could not have been more timely. It came on her 32nd birthday.

All week long the Rochester course was positively vengeful. It consistently seemed to exact stern retribution from those lucky enough to master it for one round. Amateur Cynthia Hill took a three-stroke lead with an opening 68 Thursday, then shot a 79. On Friday Sharon Miller came from five strokes off the pace with a 69 and led by four, only to stagger to a 78 in the third round. One of the leaders, Sue Roberts, took a 9 on the 15th hole Friday and headed for oblivion. And Sandra Haynie, even par after eight holes in the opening 18, strained her wrist and withdrew after a 78. One player, Cynthia Sullivan, decided to use Open week as the one for marriage. The ceremony was Sunday night, but by then she had had two days in which to recover her equanimity, for she had missed the cut.

It took two similarly diverting subjects, 18-year-old Laura Baugh and Jane Blalock, to steal attention from the fluctuating leader board. A freshly minted professional, Baugh brings false eyelashes and dimples to a sport that can use a little makeup, while Blalock's travails during the past year have given her a new first name: Controversial.

Despite her 1971 U.S. Amateur title, the tour professionals did not like Baugh's backswing as much as the men did and smugly predicted a few weeks back that she would be better off as a TV weather girl or a home economics major, leaving a woman's job to them. But the Open was Baugh's fourth tournament since joining the tour a month ago, and her start has been auspicious—the best, in fact, in women's golf history. In her first tournament she tied for second at Atlanta, winning $2,480—quite a bit more than the $33.33 Jack Nicklaus took home for a 50th-place finish in his initial pro tournament. She has now cashed four straight checks worth a total of $3,956, which is more than Kathy Whitworth and Carol Mann won in their first seasons combined.

"I'm impressed with her improvement," said Judy Rankin, who ended the week as the tour's leading money-winner. "She used to not hit the ball very far. But now she hits it long enough to earn a living."

Baugh is equal parts sweet innocence, Harlow, Bardot and California Dreamin'. "What this tour needs is Laura Baugh in a halter top," Carol Mann joked early in the week before a putting green gallery.

Some golfers refer to Baugh as "The Machine," an allusion to her dedication. She has programmed herself with the discipline of a ballerina, and in the last few months at her home in Long Beach, Calif. her preparations became obsessive. Each day she was on the course at eight a.m. for 18 holes. After lunch she would hit practice balls until three p.m., belting them into a barren practice field, then walking out and picking them up. Then she would play another 18. She devoured voluminous amounts of ice cream to put weight on a figure that had slimmed to 89 pounds last summer. "All my friends were thin model types and I wanted to see what it would be like to be skinny, so I went on a diet," she confesses. "But it hurt my game. Last year was the first that I didn't gain any distance. So I started eating again and added 20 pounds. Now I'm hitting the ball 25 yards longer."

She also has grown fat with Business Manager Mark McCormack, the Cleveland attorney who has added the word "corporation" to golf's lexicon. She has made several television commercials, signed up with an equipment company and represents a Florida golf resort. Negotiations are under way for clothing and automobile contracts. She has made one trip and plans two others to Japan, where she has tie-ins with motorcycles, wristwatches, clothing and assorted other industries.

Baugh began her Open with a 73 that left her among the leaders, but Beauty's putter turned beastly en route to a second-round 79 that dissipated her resolution. "The Machine got caught in the mower," one of the pros cackled Friday evening. No matter. Her eventual 25th-place finish looked pretty good.

Jane Blalock's antitrust suit, filed last year after the Ladies Professional Golf Association suspended her for alleged cheating, was recently decided in her favor, although the court deferred awarding a judgment pending an appeal. At Rochester the reptilian rumors surfaced again. Sharon Miller let slip at a press conference Friday that earlier this year she had considered quitting the tour because of the Blalock situation. "It doesn't make sense to me to come out here and play this game fair when she played it the way she did," said Miller. A story was circulating that on the first round Blalock had hit the ball twice on a one-inch tap-in and charged herself for only one stroke. "That's ridiculous," snapped Carole Jo Skala, who was paired with Blalock the first two days. "Why don't they leave this poor girl alone?" A USGA official who made an investigation on the spot said the rumors were totally without substance.

"This makes the Watergate hearings look boring," Blalock said with some sarcasm. "What the girls don't understand is that by getting mad all the time they're putting money in my pocket. It makes it easier to beat them." And maybe more fun. After shooting 78-76 in the first two rounds, she responded with a post-controversy 72-73 to finish tied for ninth.

Meanwhile, Kathy Whitworth, who has won 66 tournament victories in 15 years—more than the combined totals of all the Open champions since 1965—arrived in Rochester bewitched, bothered and bewildered. She has never won the Open, and last week her chances looked even poorer than usual because she was bunkered in a slump that has been eroding her game. "She's changed her swing," said JoAnne Carner. "It's not Kathy Whitworth. And it's getting worse."

Whitworth struck a couple of half-topped shots that barely logged a flight pattern in the first round and shot a 78, mostly on nerve. "I didn't expect to do well, so I'm not disappointed," she said. But by Sunday night she must have been; she ended up tied for 30th.

Indeed, the self-esteem of most of the pros should have been at low ebb on Thursday when the LPGA's top 10 averaged 77 strokes. At one time seven of the low 11 names on the scoreboard were amateurs. But Susie Berning was unimpressed. Her opening round was a 72, and afterward she injudiciously said that the course "was a joke." Next day Rochester was chuckling as she shot a crudely manufactured 77 that included four three-putt greens. That evening her husband Dale suggested she switch to an open putting stance and a lighter putter, a 30-year-old club he had purchased for $5. By the light of a flickering late-night television movie she practiced in the motel living room. As the drama on the screen unfolded, so did the answer to the defending champion's problem. After that she shot a 69 and a 72 and it was just a brisk march to a happy birthday.

PHOTONew attraction Baugh was a dimpled 25th. PHOTOOld hand Berning totes the magic putter—a $5 model her husband produced just in time.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)