It started out as the tournament nobody wanted to play in, and for a time it seemed like one nobody wanted to win. Out in a Chicago suburb last week, in the U.S. Women's Open, the sound of applause was drowned by the gnashing of teeth. Golf shots clinked instead of clicked. And then at the very end, Sandra Haynie made a couple of putts that stretched from the LaGrange Country Club halfway to the Loop.
While the rest of the leaders were falling apart, Haynie rolled in a 70-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, then a dramatic 15-footer on 18 for a 72-hole score of 295 and a seven-over-par, one-stroke victory over Carol Mann, who was always a threat, and Beth Stone, who came out of the ruck with a final-round 71.
Those putts were Sunday punches that rescued what threatened to become a debacle as the leaders—Haynie included—staggered through the last nine holes wondering if it might have been the tournament's retribution for the fact that this was the week the sisters put the United States Golf Association up against the wall in what almost was the last U.S. Women's Open.
Having seen the price of prime ribs driven down by concerted action, the women wanted to drive up prize money the same way. They threatened a boycott when the USGA announced an Open purse of only $40,000. "I know there's a difference between men's and women's golf, but is it $185,000?" asked Jane Blalock, gazing across the gap between the men's and women's Opens. "That silver cup is kind of hard to eat."
The women's truculence stemmed from a long-standing belief that the USGA considered their tournament a mere appendage to the men's. The boycott concept surfaced last spring when 56 players signed a petition saying that they intended to go knitting during Open week. They wanted the purse raised, a different method of entry selection, a change in the prize-money distribution, polish added to the television broadcast, the golf course defanged and an improvement in the USGA's "general attitude." The women were miffed over the tournament officials' stoical mien. "You don't smile enough," they complained to the august group. "You don't smile enough," came the even reply. So last week everyone was walking around with toothy grins.
It was only two weeks before the entry deadline that the Ladies Professional Golf Association membership finally decided to play, and then only after the USGA agreed to chuckle more, change the purse allotment, add two women golfers to the TV team, thin the rough, soften the greens and widen the fairways so that the scores would appear relevant instead of outrageous. "The public thinks that when the men shoot high scores, it's because the course is tough," said Mann, the LPGA president. "But when we score badly, it's because we're lousy golfers." The USGA also said it would consider raising the purse and altering the entry format in 1975.
Years ago the burning issue of women's golf was whether their pet dogs should be allowed in the country club parking lots. Now the prosperous ladies are into six-figure purses, tax shelters, gallery ropes, television ratings, business consulting, player performance points, pretournament qualifying, endorsements, commercials, player card review, tour caddies, corporation pro-ams and sponsor associations, just like Arnie, Jack and Gary. They did not want a crummy-looking Open. If they had to, they would take it to a lipstick company for sponsorship.
But it still was, after all, the Open and once they arrived the players treated it with reverence. Carol Semple, the U.S. and British amateur champion, brought along a tape recording extolling the powers of positive thinking and played it before teeing off. Mann stood endlessly in front of her motel-room mirror practice-swinging a golf club and asking, "Who's the smoothest swing of all?" She also dumped four sugars in her ice tea for energy and said she was putting herself into a trance. Judy Rankin summoned her father-tutor for some emergency schooling, and just about everyone started getting a high pulse rate.
The course was the immediate problem. According to the women, if the USGA tape measure were used at track events, people would still be trying to break the five-minute mile. The course was listed at 6,266 yards, but the players said that was as accurate as Jack Benny's age. "Everyone will have to keep the covers loose on their fairway woods," said Susie Berning, the Open winner the past two years. And someone with a macabre sense of humor dangled a hangman's noose from one of the television towers.
Attention centered on Joanne Carner. When her driver goes "bop" instead of "boo," people suspect she is playing with a ball made out of plutonium. Carner was radioactive during an eight-week stretch recently when she won three times, was second on three other occasions and finished fifth and eighth. She had a similar but shorter streak during the 1971 U.S. Open that she won by eight shots.
So naturally Carner went out Thursday and shot a 77 in the first round, pasting together a sloppy 41 on the last nine when she did things like chip into sand traps and three-putt from piddling distances. The round was more a symptom than a trend, however. She was tired from playing in her 10th straight tournament and instead of practice needed sleep. "I'm golf buggy," she said.
A lot of other players were bugged, frazzled by the steamy Chicago weather, the excruciating pace of play (accentuated by the players having to be bussed to a scruffy practice area set up in a field behind a nearby hospital), the difficulty of the course and the event. "If you figure in the time involved, it's like playing for the minimum wage," snapped Blalock.
The opening round belonged to Kathy Ahern, a big hitter plagued by inconsistency. She scattered a bagful of mistakes, but never two in a row, and finished with a 68 for a three-stroke lead. "I made a list of 10 players who could win this tournament," said Mann. "Her name wasn't on it."
In the second round the name of Debbie Massey surfaced. An amateur who is a ski instructor during the winter, Massey shot a 71 on opening day that everyone sort of ho-hummed over. An amateur ski instructor or boutique owner or cattle rancher always shoots a 71 in the first round of the Open, then shoots a 71 on her next nine. But Massey followed up with a 73 Friday that put her into a tie with Mann and Ahern for the 36-hole lead.
"Do you think you can play as good as the pros?" leading money-winner Jo Ann Prentice asked her.
"Yes," answered Debbie.
On Saturday Mann broke ahead by four strokes after playing par golf for 10 holes and seemed on her way to her second Open win. But Mann sometimes is a twitchy leader, and she turned timorous instead of aggressive and played the last eight holes in five over par to stumble in with a 77 for a 221 total.
It was a day when a lot of people were stumbling. No less than 19 players, a third of the remaining field, shot 80 or worse, Ahern and Massey among them.
Meanwhile, Ruth Jessen was chipping in, two-putting cross-country and not making mistakes, and she moved into the lead at 219, three over par. Jessen has been bothered by enough debilitating injuries and illnesses during her career to provide grist for a weekly TV series, but she is among the tour's best chippers and putters and was one of the few players able to solve the crop rotation along the edges of the LaGrange CC greens.
Jessen was doing anything only because her club members had raised $1,000 to pay her expenses to the tournament after she had decided to skip it. And when she arrived in Chicago, Jane Blalock helped correct some faults in her game. "I'm still not confident of it, though," said Jessen Saturday night.
Trailing her by one stroke were earner, who had been sleeping 10 hours a night and shooting a 72 and a 71 during daylight; Sandra Spuzich, who shot a 72 Saturday to tongue-tie the gallery ("It's Spewz-itch, not Sputnik") and Haynie. The word was that Haynie was playing superb golf but up to that point, anyway, was not having any luck with her putter.
And then came Mann, disappointed but not defused. George Blanda, taking a respite from the pro football picket line, walked by and said: "You can shoot a 68 tomorrow."
"That's right, George," answered Mann. "You've seen me do it."
But never on Sunday. The best she could manage was a 75. The crowd for the final round was large enough but mostly silent out of respect for the succession of mini-tragedies that were reeled off in front of them during the afternoon. Carner collected a 77 and finished two strokes back, a tiring Jessen ended with an 81 and Spuzich sputniked all the way to 82. It was as if the U.S. Women's Open was boycotting the players—all but Sandra Haynie, who shot a 75 for a mighty $6,073 and that silver cup.