Once a year the women golf professionals move into a better neighborhood. The event doesn't have a name like the Masters but they ought to call it something like the Ms-ters, for it is by far the most gigantic thing the ladies get themselves involved in even though the tournament is for the betterment of dental cream, laundry detergents and dishwashing liquid.
When they gathered last week at Mission Hills Country Club in Palm Springs for the fifth annual Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle-Ajax-Palmolive Rapid Shave-Cashmere Bouquet-Handi Wipes-Baggies-Ultra Brite-bonded razors-moisturizing cleanser golf tournament, the ladies were on television, battling a good, tough golf course. They had scoreboards, celebrities, thousands of spectators and, not the least sentimental thing of all, money. Lots of money. Big money. Man-type money. Like the $32,000 that Judy Rankin took away after inning the biggest title of the golfing year.
Two things about that were appropriate. Judy Rankin and the manner in which she won. Frequently, a ladies' pro tournament is won by somebody staggering home with a 74 or worse while the rest of the field slips on the kitchen tile. Rankin did it the old Arnold Palmer way, a guy hero's way. She shot a blazing, final-round 68, sculpted in a bitter, snarling wind—a round that will be remembered by pigs and libs alike.
For all that money, and in the midst of all that attention, and in all that wind, the women were fully expected to be blown into the parched hills that surround the 6,347-yard course. Rankin, being only 5'3½" and weighing but 110 pounds, and being a mother, and usually a runner-up although a steady money maker—such as the money is for the women—had an opportunity to disappear on Sunday with the dozens who, in fact, did. She was three strokes behind the co-leaders, Kathy Whitworth and Sandra Haynie, household words in women's golf. She was even trailing Pam Higgins by one, and barely leading Jan Stephenson by one, Higgins and Stephenson being a couple of blonde adorables around whom much of the tournament talk had concentrated.
But Rankin is among the best wind players out there, and when her putter finally stopped betraying her, Sunday very quickly became a contest between Rankin and herself. Through the first five holes of the last round she was three under par and suddenly in the lead. The wind had already begun to take Whitworth to a 77 and Haynie to a shocking 80, which says a bit more about the astonishing four-under 68 that Rankin stuck into those gales. "I wasn't nervous on the course," she said later. "But now I'm nervous thinking about what I've done."
Typical of her play was a two-iron shot on the 3rd hole, a 395-yard par-4. Ladies hit two-irons on 395-yard par-4s, of course. Rankin hit this one about six feet from the pin, and that putt dropped like most of the others. If there was any suspense remaining after Judy sank a 25-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole, it was likely to be whether Jan Stephenson or Pam Higgins would get the most proposals of marriage.
To Rankin, it was naturally the biggest day of her career. To win the biggie, to do it with people watching, and to do it with birdies, that was incredible, but no more incredible than the fact that there was a supermarket spectacle for a Judy Rankin to win.
Colgate is the greatest thing that's happened to women's golf since Band-Aids. Which was the greatest thing since Babe Zaharias. The ladies' pro tour has always led a relatively quiet and secluded existence, dropping in on places like Plymouth, Ind., Naples, Fla. and Trenton, N.J. for not so much prize money that you could go crazy buying hostess gowns and cheese dip. Until Colgate came up with Dinah Shore and the Winners Circle and all of those one-minute commercials on television where the lady pros get to act like real people in the kitchen, the biggest thing in their lives was the U.S. Women's Open, but nobody knew about that, either.
Maybe they did when Babe won it for a while and when Mickey Wright did, but then everybody started winning it and they were holding the Open on such courses as Muskogee Country Club in a town noted for truck stops, and in Fleetwood and Erie, and this year they are going to play it in Springfield, Pa., in the month of July, in case anybody wants to stock up on trivia questions.
But the big one for the ladies has become the Colgate. Here the women find out what it's like to go first class. There is a large efficient press tent with people actually working in there amid the whir of machines. Elsewhere in women's golf, press facilities usually consist of mobile homes and buses, and at those tournaments the LPGA hires somebody to walk around with a stick and poke the only two journalists in attendance so they will sit up and appear interested when the winner comes in.
The women always held out hope. They are puzzled at how easily tennis did it. As Rankin says, "In tennis they were overnight darlings and we've been scrapping around out here for years and years." What the golf pros had been waiting for was Colgate, and specifically David Foster, the chairman of the board of Colgate-Palmolive, who came to their rescue. And if women's golf ever achieves what it is hoping for—larger purses and more appreciation and attention from the public—David Foster will have to put on a skirt and be enshrined in the LPGA Hall of Fame.
One afternoon last week Foster spoke of his role. He did not wake up on any particular morning five years ago and say to himself, "What can I do to help out the poor lady golfers?" Rather, he wondered what Colgate could do in sports to get an edge on its major competitors, a couple of nongolfers named Procter & Gamble. To put it crassly, it was Fab against Tide all the way, a better "end-aisle" position in the supermarkets.
Outwardly, the tournament certainly looks like philanthropy, with Colgate spending close to $2 million on the Dinah Shore, but, as is the case in just about everything, commerce was lurking. It's a "good buy," as they say, for by owning the tournament TV package, Colgate gets a full minute's commercial for something like $26,000; if Colgate had to buy that same minute on a comparable show it would cost something like $48,000. With sales increasing for most of Colgate's favorite products, who's to say the Dinah Shore hasn't been at least partially responsible?
The tournament has had a number of spinoffs; three more events in ladies golf, to begin with. There is now a Colgate European Women's LPGA and a Colgate Far East Women's LPGA and a Colgate Triple Crown, the last event on the schedule, a sort of Colgate World Series of Golf for the nine professionals who have excelled in the other Colgate tournaments. As if taking over the women's golf tour wasn't enough, Colgate has also come up with competitions for women in team tennis, hot-dog skiing and track and field.
"We thought first of getting into men's golf because it attracts more attention," Foster said, "but there wasn't a very good place for us on the men's tour. Being just another big-money tournament wasn't attractive, but becoming the biggest for the girls was something else. Women, of course, buy 60% of the products in the country."
Colgate has been setting records in TV promos for the Dinah Shore, and the evidence is that it pays off. Last year's tournament got the sixth highest rating among golf telecasts, beating out the U.S. and British Opens.
What Dinah gets from the tournament is immense publicity for her TV show, some fun for a week and, as she said in Palm Springs, "a chance to do my annual crash course in golf." The actress is mostly a tennis addict, but she has to play in her pro-am, gliding comfortably along in a Rolls-Royce-styled golf cart complete with a color TV and refrigerator, and she has to put on a display of enthusiasm about the game.
"I hate to admit it," she said, "but I really don't know these girls very well. Isn't that awful?" This gives Dinah a tie with America.
One of the problems with women's golf is that nobody really believes a lady pro can do anything on the course as well as a man pro. There is that great myth that the women pros putt better, possibly chip better, maybe keep the ball in play better and basically give up nothing but brute strength, and therefore distance. But most of that is wrong. At the risk of being mowed down by a gang of feminists, Bob Rosburg, the touring pro and TV commentator who often has played golf with women pros, said during the Colgate, "They're lousy putters. They aren't even good chippers. I think women are too emotional to be any good around the greens in the clutch."
Rosburg didn't mean they can't play golf. "I think some of the good ones are straighter off the tee than the men," he added, "and I think they hit better fairway woods. They've had to."
Shocking. But there were lady pros who agreed with him.
Rankin, the new president of the LPGA Players Council and a charmer who holds some kind of record for not failing to get a paycheck in an LPGA event since 1964, said the women might be on the same level with the men on hitting four-woods, but that was about it.
"We can't improvise shots like the men," she said. "Even if some of us have the imagination, we may not have the strength or the knowledge.
"A girl golfer usually grows up with nobody to play with but her dad. She doesn't have a group of guys to learn from. We have to hook the ball to get distance. Most of us, anyhow. We're generally poor sand players. I agree we don't putt very well, although I don't know why. But I think we play an interesting game. If you watch us hitting long irons and fairway woods and placing the ball off the tee, you'll see some real talent and maybe a consistency you don't find among the men."
Another thing you can find among the lady pros that you surely can't find among the men is Jan Stephenson. She is the little Australian dumpling who was tied for the lead after 36 holes and who went around looking more like a starlet than a professional athlete. Stephenson is probably not going to rewrite any LPGA records, but she has won a tournament and she will win more, and meanwhile she was a very feminine person in Palm Springs. She even had a ladylike golf swing, but mainly she had her looks and manner.
Stephenson shared the lead on Friday with the other cutie, Pam Higgins, and it was as if David Foster had scripted the whole thing, to give the week even more glamour than it already had. Jan and Pam were asked if they thought they could fight off the oncoming Kathy Whitworths and Sandra Haynies, who usually win women's tournaments.
"I'm 25 to 1," Pam said.
"I can't possibly win," Jan said and then explained, "In the pro-am when I was playing the 18th hole, I pretended it was Sunday and I was leading the tournament, and just the thought of it made me so nervous I came apart. I bogeyed." She had two goals—to be interviewed in a real press tent (when she won in Naples, she met reporters in a bus) and to be on TV. She managed both.
What happened to the set decoration on Saturday was what generally happens to a lot of lady pros. Palm Springs got windy. It had been predicted by Rankin's husband that if the wind came up, the majority of the field would fly apart. As Walter (Yippie) Rankin of the Midland, Texas Yippies put it, "When the wind blows, most of these girls go south. But not that little girl of mine."
On Saturday Stephenson went to a southerly 78 and Higgins went to a southerly 76. And true to her husband's word, Rankin became a serious contender. She shot a modest-sounding 71, just one under par, but it swept her past 20 other players, who went swirling in the wind Yippie prayed for. Judy was three strokes off the lead, but she felt she was playing well enough to win if some putts would drop. The first day she had four-putted one green and three-putted another, and the second day she had made 18 straight pars. A couple of putts fell on Saturday, but she thought Mission Hills owed her a few more.
The evening before the final round Judy Rankin was doing, what most people did when they weren't at the course. She was hanging around the Spa Hotel hospitality room that David Foster had ordered done over to resemble a British pub to keep everyone's spirits alive and pouring.
"I can win it," Rankin said. "All I've got to do is go out there and not stand over putts saying, 'Now don't do this like an emotional woman.' "
What she did on Sunday was putt like Jack Nicklaus and nail a few shots into that wind the way a lot of guys would like to be able to do, and that is how you win yourself a Colgate Ms-ters.
THE LEADING MONEY WINNERS, 1975
Billie Jean King