Success has snuck up on Sandra Palmer. It has arrived so unobtrusively that even now when someone asks her, "What next?" she will say, "I want to be No. 1," overlooking the fact that finally she is No. 1.
With a single tournament to go on the LPGA tour, Sandra has $75,885 in official earnings, and her place at the top of the 1975 money list is secure. JoAnne Carner, last year's leader, is in second place with $64,353 and could not overtake her, even if she were to win the Bill Branch Classic this week.
In her 12th year of professional golf, Palmer not only collected the richest purse on the tour, $32,000, at the Colgate-Dinah Shore event in Palm Springs in April, but she also finished in the top ten 18 times, or in 70% of the tournaments she entered.
In September, Seagram's gave her a check for $10,000 and "a beyootiful trophy this high" for being the best female professional in golf. She sat on a dais at the Waldorf-Astoria among her peers—Joe Morgan, Chris Evert, Mean Joe Greene and others—and chattered over the tournedos with Bernie Parent. "He spoke French and I spoke Texan," she says. "You can imagine what we did to those people."
But most significant of all, in July, 34-year-old Sandra Palmer won the U.S. Women's Open and thereby entered golf history alongside Babe Zaharias, Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright and the rest. When the Open was finally hers and she came off the long, wind-whipped Atlantic City Country Club course, the winner by four strokes over Carner, Sandra Post and amateur Nancy Lopez, one of the very first things she said was, "Now that I've won the Open I want to do it again, just to prove to myself it was no fluke."
Palmer has spent a good part of her life proving, first to herself and then to the rest of the world, that she is no fluke. She discovered golf through a school-bus window when she was 13 and she was determined to play it. But first she had to overcome a few obstacles. One of them was her height—a 5'1½" golfer has problems. It means that just about everybody else is going to be longer off the tee. It also means that hitting a fairway wood, for instance, is going to be a riskier proposition than it is for a taller player.
"The longer a club is, the harder it is to get back to the ball after you've taken the clubhead away," she says. "And the more upright you are, the less chance there is of error. Carol Mann and JoAnne Carner and Kathy Whitworth, if they are on their games, should beat me every time. They should be able to repeat the swing more consistently than I do, but because I work harder I think I'm more consistent. There are people better coordinated than I am and with more ability, but if I had to choose, I'd take somebody with confidence over somebody with natural talent."
Palmer has always had determination enough for 10 golfers, but her confidence was many years in catching up. "I can't tell you why I wanted to play pro golf," she says. "I wasn't any good. But it was a challenge. It's so much harder to hit a golf ball than a tennis ball. It is an art and you can never perfect it."
Although she had won the West Texas Amateur five times and the Texas Amateur once, it was seven years before Sandra won her first professional tournament, an unofficial event in Japan toward the end of the 1970 season. It was the next spring before she won a tour tournament, the Sealy Classic in Las Vegas.
All those years she had been working on her game without letup. Even while she was still teaching high school in Arlington, Texas near her Fort Worth home and saving money for her assault on the tour, she was driving 200 miles each weekend to Austin for lessons with teaching pro Harvey Penick. Every Friday evening for a year she spent the night with friends or with Penick's family. She would practice all day Saturday and Sunday and then head back to Fort Worth in time for school Monday morning. "Harvey taught me the uses of practice and concentration," she says. Nobody on the tour has learned those lessons better. For a month before this year's Open, for instance, she practiced hitting wedge shots out of high grass in preparation for the USG A rough. And she played at least 18 holes every day for two weeks at the site of the Dinah Shore, studying the tricky ways of Mission Hill's tortuous greens.
Out on the tour in 1964, she came under the wing of Mickey Wright, who sent her to Harry Pressler, another teaching pro, at a driving range in Palm Springs. Each winter for three subsequent years, when the tour wound down in late November or so, Sandra would drive from Fort Worth to the Southern California desert. There she would take an apartment for two months and play every day. Pressler concentrated on fundamentals. He broke her swing down and then relied on endless repetition to bring it back together again, improved.
"It was a very lonely life," says Palmer. "But making a change in a golf swing takes a long time and winter is the time for making changes. You do it over and over again and it is so long before you can see the change that you sometimes wonder why you are doing it at all."
Since then she has worked with Johnny Revolta in Palm Springs and Illinois and with Ernie Vossler in Florida. "You need different people at different stages of your development," she says. "I began playing golf with Revolta because I had had too much separation under Pressler. It was necessary in order to break down bad habits, but I was ready for something else."
Vossler is a technician, which suits her now. In addition she is comfortable with him and his golf-knowledgeable family in Palm Springs as she has been with few people in her far from average life. She seems easygoing and gregarious at first, but her banter and her girlish Texas voice effectively cover an extremely retiring nature, the quality that probably led her to her lonely occupation in the first place.
"I was from a kind of poor family," she says. "My mother has been married a number of times. I didn't know my father until I was six when my mother remarried him. When I was in college I couldn't tell people about my childhood. I was embarrassed by it. Even my family didn't know how sensitive I was about it."
Her father was a salesman who traveled all year long. After the remarriage her mother joined him, and Sandra was left in Fort Worth in the care of her grandmother. She spent the summers with her peripatetic parents and traveled with them until school opened again in the fall.
She found golf and her salvation when for two years she and her parents settled down on Lake Lucerne outside Bangor, Maine. "I went to a country school with three grades in one room," she says. "The school bus used to pass a golf course and one day I got them to let me off there. I found out I could make money by caddying on weekends, so I did. I carried two bags and eventually I was making more money than my mother, who was working in a department store."
When she was 13, Sandra walked in the front door of her parents' house one day carrying a bag of Jackie Burke Jr. golf clubs and crying. "I was crying because I was sure they were going to tell me it was a foolish waste of money," she says. That year she played in her first tournament. She cannot remember today where it was or what it was, but she does recall shooting 98, which her grandmother, back in Fort Worth, thought was wonderful because it was the highest score in the field.
Before she turned 14, her parents had separated again and she was back with her grandmother. She was a star on Castleberry High School's basketball team, but the rest of the year she devoted to golf, practicing at Rockwood, a municipal course near her home, and playing whenever she could at the Glen Garden Country Club, the course on which Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson had begun their careers as caddies.
The club gave her a membership when she was in high school, but she was living with an aunt and uncle across town by then and had no way to get back and forth. While she was playing in a West Texas State tournament in 1957 she was befriended by a middle-aged couple named Warren. Ed Warren was then assistant postmaster for Fort Worth and president of Glen Garden. He and his wife Vida lived across the street from Glen Garden's third hole. When the Warrens learned of the chaos that passed for Sandra's upbringing, they offered her a home and their care, and during her junior year she moved in with them.
"It was a difficult decision to make," Sandra says now, "but I was fed up with my home life and all the arguments. The Warrens never said an unkind word to each other."
The Warrens also saw to it that she went to college and that she stayed there at a time when she wanted to quit to play golf. "I have a knack of surrounding myself with people who believe in me and give me confidence," she says. "Good things have happened to me and I don't know why."
At North Texas State she majored in phys ed, joined a sorority, was elected homecoming queen in her junior year and had a boyfriend who eventually said, "It's either golf or me," or words to that effect. "I've always wondered, what if we'd gotten married?" she says. "Would I be a principal's wife? I can't picture myself wearing white gloves and going to teas."
For a year after graduation Palmer taught gym and biology classes at Sam Houston High School in Arlington and was miserable. "The only way they knew me from them," she says of her pupils that year, "was by the whistle around my neck." But she bided her time, saved her money, drove to Austin for lessons and marked off the days on her calendar.
At the beginning of 1964 she played her first round of professional golf in Dallas and shot a 78. Ruth Jessen, the veteran playing with her that day, shot a 64. "In college I was happy-go-lucky," says Palmer. "But once out on the tour I felt inferior and inadequate. I stayed to myself, wouldn't let people get close to me. I was kind of mean. In fact I was a bitch. I was such a perfectionist that I got irritated with myself and I took it out on other people. Recently I started putting the blame where it belongs."
She is coming to terms with herself in other ways, too. "I used to be alone a lot but I didn't want to be," she says. "Now I'm doing more things and I don't mind being alone."
Late this season she played several practice rounds with Kathy Whitworth, who was the LPGA's leading money-winner for eight years. Ordinarily Palmer practices by herself because few other players concentrate as hard as she does. But she sought out Whitworth because she wanted advice. "I needed to express my feelings. I was becoming too aware of my competition. I was checking the scoreboard for Carol [Mann] and Jo-Anne late this year. I asked Kathy how to think, and she told me not to worry about them because they might not be the right ones to worry about anyway. You have to keep your mind on your own self."
Sandra sees the last five years, the years since she began winning, as the "great part" of her life. "I key myself to when I'm in contention coming down those last few holes," she says. "It is a miserable, sick, lonely feeling. You're so scared, sometimes you can't see. But when I can pull off a shot on those holes, that's what I look forward to. And I figure I haven't won nearly enough."