Beneath the golden desert sun, in the sporadic popping of flashbulbs and the discriminating view of national television last week, down among the personalized licence plates, chauffeur-driven golf carts and million dollar ghettos of Palm Springs, the Ladies Professional Golf Association took off its braces, lost its acne and threw away its bobby socks. Women's golf, like Patty Duke, finally grew up. Now we won't have to lie awake nights worrying about it anymore.
The occasion was the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle, a golf tournament that is to the women what the talkies were to the movies. Call it a breakthrough if you must, but there they were, playing for fame and a whole lot of fortune, their knees locked in mounting terror as they edged closer and closer to the heaping pot of gold at the end of the 72-hole rainbow.
It was Jo Ann Prentice who finally survived the experience of competing for more cash than any of the women thought existed only a few years ago, survived it by beating out Jane Blalock and Sandra Haynie in a dramatic sudden-death playoff that lasted four holes at the Mission Hills Country Club. The victory brought her the $32,000 first-place prize, a new car, a paid trip to England and a television commercial contract. All told Jo Ann Prentice earned more than Dinah Shore or just about anyone in the world last week. She was Queen for a Day.
That day began with Haynie in the lead by a stroke over Prentice and Blalock, and the three stayed close as they moved through the back nine. Prentice caught Haynie with a birdie at the 13th and went into the lead by herself when Haynie hit her tee shot in the water on 14 and bogeyed. Blalock appeared out of it when she three-putted the 16th to fall three shots behind, but moments later Prentice did some three-putting of her own on 17 while, in the next group, Blalock hit her tee shot a foot from the pin for an easy birdie.
April 28, 1974
The 18th at Mission Hills is a par 5 and Prentice could do no better than par it. Now she could only watch and hope. Haynie stuck her approach 15 feet away, Blalock eight. When Sandra missed and Jane made it, the three women were tied and had to be carted back to the 14th hole to begin anew.
All three parred 14, but on 15 Haynie was short in two, and when she missed a six-footer for a par, she was out. The survivors both parred 16 but on 17 Prentice hit the shot that won the tournament, a 4-iron tee shot three feet from the cup. Blalock's tee shot landed only 12 feet away, but her birdie putt was never close while Jo Ann's hit dead center. Jo Ann Prentice is 41 and has been on the tour since 1957, but in none of those years did she come close to making the $32,000 she picked up on this single afternoon.
For years the women's tour wandered around somewhere out there in Waco or Muskogee, the girls pitching and putting for caddy fees and halfhearted applause, actors without an audience, grilling hamburgers out in back of the motel and trying to figure the best route from Mississippi to Maine, six in a car for a 36-hour drive. They played courses that always had a rusty sign on the first tee, GOLFERS MUST WEAR SHIRTS.
"It wasn't too bad playing the courses with the rubber mats for tees because they usually had nice greens," says Patty Berg. "The greenskeepers never had to spend time mowing the tees." In 1948 Patty was one of the founders of the LPGA and for years the girls' odyssey qualified them as little more than the equivalent of golf's mailmen. Through all kinds of weather they made their appointed rounds, but no one noticed. More recently, Donna Young or Susie Berning would win the U.S. Women's Open and Kathy Whitworth would win the rest of the tournaments, and at the end of the year everyone still qualified for food stamps. In 1970 Whitworth was the leading money-winner with a mere $30,000, and the tour's best player, Mickey Wright, was so bored that she decided to quit and take a correspondence course in finance.
Carol Mann, now president of the LPGA, told the press this year that she was so destitute early in her career that she talked to several other girls about some unathletic ways to supplement their incomes. "I was broke and desperate and too proud to go home a failure," she said.
And then along came David Foster, president of the Colgate-Palmolive Company. Foster is a precise, proper man who started with Colgate 27 years ago as a $60-a-week trainee and now earns $225,000 a year as its chief executive. But he also is a golf fan and in 1971 he decided to stage the first $100,000 women's tournament. He knew he was crawling out on a corporate limb, and when they heard about it, 10 guys who thought they were in line to succeed him undoubtedly went home chuckling about "Foster's Folly." They told their wives to get ready to be addressed as the wife of Colgate's new president, because Foster had just signed the order that eventually would scrape his name off the office door.
But it has not worked out that way. The tournament's television ratings last year were in the top ten for all golf events, men's or women's. And Winners Circle fits in nicely with a $6-million promotional campaign that has everyone from Dinah to Arnold Palmer huckstering for it. Colgate even stuck a tournament ad on the back cover of the LPGA's media guide.
But best of all for the golfers, the Winners Circle tournament has been a catalyst for the rest of the tour. This year the women will play for purses of $1.8 million in Japan, Mexico, England, Australia and Canada as well as the U.S. There are four $100,000 events. Last year Kathy Whitworth won a record $85,000 and, of even more significance, the 30th girl on the money list earned $21,000. The tour has become a genuine source of income instead of a nice place to get a tan.
"Women's golf has grown because the public is learning to accept women as people instead of sex objects," said Carol Mann on Saturday as a large gallery streamed over Mission Hills. "It used to be that people were more concerned with our faces and bodies than with our golf. Now they are concentrating on what we do best. It's nice." At least four players—Kathy Whitworth, Judy Rankin, Sandra Palmer and Laura Baugh—approached or exceeded total incomes of $100,000 last year and several more could this season. It is getting so everyone needs a tax accountant.
There is even a group called, unofficially, the Colgate Girls. They are to women's golf what the Ziegfeld Girls were to a chorus line. They appear in company TV commercials and are paid above scale for it. You get to be a Colgate Girl by having a nice smile and diction, or by finishing in the top ten at Palm Springs.
More than anything else, last week's Winners Circle was a tournament of the women, by the women and for the women, a perfect balm for dishpan psyches. Besides the golfers and Dinah Shore, five other women were vital in staging the event—Tina Santi, deputy director of Colgate's corporate relations; Ellie Riger and Barbara Fultz, who worked with ABC television; and pro golfers and TV commentators Marilynn Smith and Cathy Duggan. They pointed out with justifiable pride that it was the first time a major sports event had been conducted in large part by women. Duggan, who attended school in France and Switzerland, mildly astounded the television audience on Saturday when she began talking in French. It certainly did not sound like Byron Nelson.
From the beginning the Colgate tournament had tried to achieve a distinguished image. The first year Dinah Shore thought it would be spiffy if she rounded up a group of good-looking Hollywood types to caddy for the girls. That idea was quietly vetoed. David Foster scheduled the tournament for the week after the Masters to ingrain the date in the public's mind. He established definite entry qualifications for the field and set about hosting a lavish party that would have impressed Jay Gatsby.
Each year the company invites a select group of its suppliers and customers to two days of pro-ams before the regular tournament, and Colgate does everything for them but teach them how to brush their teeth. There are a stunning series of evening gatherings where a batallion of chefs compete in such exotic categories as ice sculpture. One night the centerpieces had goldfish swimming in them.
The Winners Circle pro-am has a rule that no one with more than a 16-handicap can play in it. Usually the pros have to endure six-hour rounds with amateurs who only took up the game a few minutes before. But not here. It is said that in 1972 even David Rockefeller was denied a spot because he was a 17.
This year there was the regular sprinkling of celebrities. Dinah hit a Jack Nicklaus shot out of the water and made a par on one hole; Lawrence Welk went "anna one, anna two" before every swing and Peter Falk set a record for freezing over a shot. After several minutes he stepped away to announce that he had the wrong club in his hands and therefore did not want to swing, but that his grip was so perfect that he did not want to change clubs. Finally Columbo concluded, "I need a shrink to play this game."
Palm Springs is filled with guys in white shoes and white belts who want to tell you a story about Frank Sinatra, but it has a certain resort charm that the Colgate group finds appealing. Yet for most of the week the town's considerable night life took a beating. The women golfers stayed in their rooms, chipped practice balls into the draperies and dreamed about paying off mortgages.
The Mission Hills course has been the site of all three Colgate events and it fit the women like a pretty spring dress. They didn't have to play wood shots out of wiry rough, as they do at the Women's Open, since the length was only 6,300 yards, but the players had to manage the ball because the course was heavily trapped and the greens were undulating. Its most spectacular hole was the 18th, the par-five of 570 yards which has water all the way down its left side. That forced the player to hit her third shot over the water to an island green that was half an acre in size, with a putting surface that had more rolls than a circus fat lady. There were spectator stands overlooking the green and each day people who normally would have been at a demolition derby sat there and poked each other in the ribs with their elbows as the balls splashed. The players nicknamed the hole Ghouls Corner. On Thursday, when gale winds swept the area and gave everybody a freshly sandblasted look, there were only two birdies and 14 pars on the hole.
The relentless wind made it a horrible day for golf. Shelley Hamlin went to the practice tee before her round and stalked off with the comment, "I give up." She then staggered around in 92 shots. Donna Young, tied for the lead at two under, made the turn back to the clubhouse and into the wind, and bogeyed the final five holes. "It was ridiculous," she said. "You'd putt the ball and it would go up to the hole and the wind would blow it back two inches." Mann shot an 82, and Kathy Whitworth had an 80.
Prentice somehow made a birdie on 18 for a 71, to trail first-round leader Betsy Cullen by a stroke, and said it was the finest golf she ever had played in 17 years on the tour. Haynie was a stroke behind her, Blalock two.
The winds died on Friday and 21 players, including the persistent Shelley Hamlin who had a 69, shot par or better. Judy Rankin also posted a 69, birdieing the 18th by cutting a five-wood third shot around a palm tree and over the water, and she moved into a tie for the lead with Prentice. Haynie and Blalock were two strokes behind. Much of the day belonged to Laura Baugh, however, the tour's bonafide starlet and a delight for entrenched chauvinists. Wearing daisy earrings, the petite, honey blonde chipped in for an eagle on the ninth hole, her second in two days, then chipped in again on the 10th for a birdie that sent the hearts of Colgate executives fluttering as they anticipated Baugh standing curvaceously in front of sputtering flashbulbs on the victory stand Sunday. Laura had trouble the rest of the way and managed a 72, bogeying the last hole. "It always puts me in a bad mood when I bogey the last hole," she sulked.
On Saturday the leaders played as if they saw thousand dollar bills underneath their golf balls. Prentice complained about misclubbing several times en route to a 74 while Rankin hit 16 greens and walked away disillusioned with a fat 78. She three-putted four times and did not have a birdie, causing husband and critic Yippy Rankin to comment caustically, "She'll never win a big golf tournament because she can't putt."
Haynie edged into the lead with a 69 that was marred only by a bogey on the par-three 17th, where she bunkered a tee shot. She used one of those drivers that give off a ticking sound, a club with a black graphite shaft; she said it added 20 yards to her drives.
Trailing by a stroke were Kathy Cornelius, the winner of the rich Sealy event last year, Blalock and Prentice. Cornelius came to Palm Springs fresh from a trip to Florida for an emergency lesson with teaching pro Bob Toski after she missed the money in two tournaments earlier in the season. The trip cost $1,000, but when she birdied the final two holes Saturday for a 69 she said it was worth the money. Then she slipped to a discouraging 81 the next day. Blalock shot a 70 in the third round, and went out to practice her driving. She had snapped a string of 16 consecutive winless months with a victory in Mexico in March and said she was playing with more confidence than she had in a long time.
That left only Sunday and the nervous last few steps. Afterward David Foster threw a victory party that celebrated not only Jo Ann Prentice but the rest of the LPGA players as well. One thing was certain. Women's golf would never be the same.