Parked under a dry, bony oak at a campground in northern California's mother lode country a few weeks ago was a 31-foot-long Airstream trailer. In the early morning light the silver capsule gleamed ominously against the background of the black-green oak, looking more like an interplanetary visitation than the mobile home of a latter-day gold miner, which it was.
Inside the trailer, her home for the past five years, JoAnne Gunderson Carner was drinking coffee and waking up for the first round of the Sacramento Union Ladies Classic, her 26th tournament of the season and one of the last steps toward the goal she set for herself in midsummer—to earn $100,000 in one year. By early this month, she was obliged to win three of the four official money events left on the calendar, a virtual impossibility—but the goal had become a goad, keeping her going to the end of an exhilarating but exhausting schedule. Carner was in the process of accomplishing on the LPGA tour what Johnny Miller has done this year on the men's, toppling giants. With her sixth win a week earlier in Portland she had raised her 1974 winnings to $84,019, thereby surpassing Kathy Whitworth's record for a single season. Whitworth has dominated the women's money earnings in recent years much the way Jack Nicklaus has the men's, leading the list eight of the last nine seasons to Nicklaus's six out of 10, but this year she is some $35,000 behind Carner.
The wonder is that JoAnne Carner did not challenge Whitworth sooner. Carner is now 35 and she came to the tour in 1969 as the Great Gundy, a big, easygoing woman whose amateur record included six national championships—five women's and one junior—and who for several years rankled the pros by maintaining, aloud, that the tour was not for her because 1) it wasn't fun and 2) the pros were not all they were cracked up to be and 3) she and nine other amateurs could beat any 10 pros any old day, etcetera. And just to emphasize her point, she and her husband Don would drive their trailer to Florida from their home in Massachusetts each winter, stop just long enough for her to play and finish well up in a pro tournament or two (once, in 1969, she even won one) and then, leaving the prize money behind for the pros to divide among themselves, they would go fishing.
So, when the Great Gundy did turn pro, late in 1969, it was a matter of putting up fast or shutting up for good. She won one tournament in 1970 and was named Rookie of the Year, but her winnings, $15,000 or so, did not approach her expenses. The next year she won two tournaments, one of them the Women's Open, but she still earned barely enough to keep the trailer in shag rugs. Then followed two miserable, winless seasons during which her powerful, natural swing went to pieces and with it her confidence. A year ago, at the height of the summer, she finished out of the money in eight straight tournaments.
"As an amateur I could hit the ball, but I didn't really know how," she says. "In 20 years of golf I had never had a slump, so I didn't know what to do with it when it came. I didn't know how to break down my swing and find out how to hit every shot. And at the same time I was thinking too much. I couldn't stop analyzing while I was playing. You try so hard and you put so much pressure on yourself. They tack on 'professional' after your name and you're supposed to know everything."
Something kept her going, maybe pride, or embarrassment, or what she calls "my pig-headed Norwegianness." A major factor was certainly Don Carner, who besides being coach, confidant, business manager and constant companion is also booster, publicist, dresser, fishing partner and often cook. He is an intense, wiry man with thinning blond hair combed over a brown scalp who claims he makes the best chicken and dumplings anyone ever ate. One of the other important things he does is make sure there are still some good times to balance JoAnne's hours on the practice tee; like a fishing trip now and then, such as the one he was planning for this week's break between Sacramento and San Diego, the next stop on the schedule.
Even with a trailer to go back to, JoAnne spends a fair amount of time on the practice tee. "A good pro has to work," she says, "but you learn to face up to it and even to look forward to practicing."
"JoAnne has a swing like Babe did," says Marilynn Smith. In 1949, along with Babe Zaharias, Marilynn Smith was a founding member of the LPGA and at 45 she still plays the tour with considerable success. "JoAnne has the power that Babe had and the same sort of three-quarter swing. She also has Babe's communication with the galleries." When they are straight, and sometimes even when they are not, Carner's drives travel 250 yards, which is nearly always 30 yards ahead of her playing partners.
JoAnne, for all her power, was going nowhere last winter until she went to Gardner Dickinson in Lost Tree Village, Fla. for help. In two sessions—three hours one day, one hour another—Dickinson laid out his theories for the earners. He could mimic JoAnne's swing and so was able both to explain and demonstrate what was wrong. "Then he showed me what he wanted me to do," says JoAnne, "and how to make the corrections. I guess I'd always been a bad pupil. I think I hadn't ever really listened till I began listening to Gardner."
Dickinson was the beginning. Next came Texas Rangers' Manager Billy Martin, of all people. Through mutual friends, Martin and Carner wound up at the same dinner table one night toward the end of spring training. Conversation worked itself around to golf, and Martin, an enthusiastic shanker who knows a lot about getting the most out of the athletic psyche, went to work on JoAnne.
"He asked me if I was scared," says JoAnne. "I said that although I hated even the word, that I would admit that I didn't trust my swing and I guessed that was a form of being scared."
They talked until 2 a.m. about aggressive thinking and enjoying the game and how to practice. Martin pointed out that because she was practicing in the mornings before her rounds, JoAnne was bringing her analyzing frame of mind onto the course with her.
"He told me that you just can't shut it off as soon as you begin to play," she recalls. "He said I should just warm up, hit 15 or 20 balls to loosen my muscles before I play and do my analyzing afterward. He said that then I should go to work with specifics in mind, like bad fairway woods or poor eight-irons. Now Don and I talk over the round, decide what I should work on and then I might hit as few as two buckets or as many as nine, like I did in Las Vegas. And it was 105° there."
In the meantime, JoAnne put herself on a diet. She is five feet seven and looks taller. She has always had a big frame, but over the last few years she had put on so much weight that her girlish appearance had turned almost matronly. By eliminating breakfast and lunch and Cokes on the course for more than seven months she has taken off 35 pounds. Her big, direct blue eyes have emerged as the face around them has receded. She still will not say what she weighs, but she will say that it is less than Don for a change and that it is about time.
Carner's winning streak began in May with the Bluegrass Invitational in Louisville and continued through two of the next three tournaments—the Hoosier Classic in Indiana and the Desert Inn Classic. In July she went back to Dickinson for one more day-long lesson and won again in mid-August in St. Paul. Then came Dallas and Portland both in September.
At Sacramento she finished tied for fourth, picking up only $1,700, and her dream of becoming golf's first $100,000 woman just about vanished. If she fails to make it, it is more a reflection on LPGA purses than her year-long performance. Her six wins, transposed to the men's tour, would surely have brought her more than $200,000.
Now JoAnne is back on the practice tee and Don is watching her. Her drives have been veering right all day and he spots the fault in her position at address.
"You keep that right side down," he says. "When you get that right hip down there you look so damn good."
Soon the shots she has been pulling start to straighten out and she is obviously beginning to enjoy herself.
She moves quickly through all her clubs. Everything is working right.
"O.K., JoAnne, let's go home," says Don, seeing she is beginning to tire.
"Naw," says JoAnne, continuing to swing, hitting one red-ringed range ball after another. "It feels good."