Women's golf used to be a faint rumor operating out of the trunk of a rusty sedan with a cracked windshield and a coat hanger for a radio antenna, limping along on the road between Waco and Tippecanoe. That was before Gucci shoes, television cue cards and toothpaste tournaments got into the act.
Now the tour is the Star Ship Enterprise. Everyone has a real big smile, a public relations consultant and lingering jet lag from a travel schedule that demands the ability to yell "fore" in eight languages.
Last week there was yet another example of the new look, the $70,000 Women's International held at Moss Creek Plantation on Hilton Head Island, S.C. In the field of 71 were all the top money-winners, many of the best amateurs in the country and a smattering of international stars. If the format looked a lot like the Masters, it was no coincidence. The sponsors wanted to call it that before Masters majordomo Clifford Roberts decreed they could not take his title in vain. The word Masters became International, which is a shame. Well, women are used to changing their names.
Actually the new name fit as well as the old, since the tournament turned into a two-country match between South Africa's Sally Little and Jan Stephenson of Australia. Moss Creek may have lost a name in the settlement, but it got custody of the excitement.
May 16, 1976
Little won the International the way you always dream about winning. She sank an 80-foot bunker shot for a birdie on the last hole to win by a stroke and send Stephenson into light shock. It was Little's first victory in six years of scratching around the tour, and it was worth $10,000 and about five minutes of hugging and squealing by a coterie of friends who had gathered at the final green.
Little was below par in each of her rounds, shooting 71-69-71-70—281, seven under on a course that was so tight the golfers felt as if a hand was ever on their shoulders. She also demolished the notion that she gets dishpan hands from sweating under the pressure, by birdieing three of the last five holes.
The International is one of seven new LPGA events this season. Hollis Stacy, nicknamed "Horace" because of a recent trip to Japan, represents Moss Creek on the tour, and she sold the development's president, Stewart Smith, on staging the event, then set about winning it. Urged on by a group of hometown fans up from Savannah, Ga., Stacy opened with a pair of 72s and was in contention until two front-nine double bogeys on Saturday signaled the death of a salesperson.
Every golfer knows that hell will be a crowded golf course with a wind in your face, a smart-aleck caddie and a clumsy putter. Moss Creek's course is named "Devil's Elbow" so players can have their hell on earth. It winds through thick forests, brushes alongside ominous marshes and has small greens and large, docile alligators that delay play when they lumber out of ponds. None of this seemed to bother Sally Little. When she birdied the second hole on Saturday, the guardians of the leader board were in a quandry. There were no red (for under-par) sixes available. Lucky it was a women's tournament. Out came a handbag and lipstick was used to transform a five into a six.
Judy Rankin wished she could apply some makeup to her game. She came to Moss Creek leading the tour in money earned, the winner of two of her last three events. But she kept hitting good shots and coming up ugly. "All I need is a brain operation or a birdie," she said after a third-round 72 that left her four back of Little and tied for third place with Debbie Massey and Murle Breer. On Sunday, Rankin was really holding her head, the victim of a headache and a fourth-round 77 that dropped her into a tie for ninth.
Massey, who led after the first round, was trying to become the first amateur to win a pro event since JoAnne Carner did it in 1969, but a 78 Sunday left her tied for 12th, and low ski instructor.
The women's tour ought to have a divining rod as its symbol and hire out as a rainmaker. Dark clouds always seem to be on the horizon. This year the LPGA even brought rain to the desert. It sprinkled in Palm Springs and poured in Phoenix. On Saturday a brisk wind came up late in the afternoon and a few drops fell, and with them Little, at least for a moment. "Now I know why it's called Devil's Elbow," she said after windswept bogeys on the 13th, 15th and 17th left her with a round of 71 and a three-round total of 211, five under par.
Stephenson, meanwhile, was creeping into second place. She birdied five holes on the last nine, shot a 70 and was back in the chase, a stroke behind Little.
On Sunday Stephenson posted another 70, then sat back to see what Little would do. What it came down to was Little on the 18th tee needing a par 4 to tie, no easy task with $10,000 at stake.
Sure enough, she hit her approach into a bunker—and now you knew Stephenson had won. Little would have to get the ball close to give herself a chance to tie, and that didn't seem likely. Into the bunker went Little, and out came the ball onto the green and into the cup.
Lost in the excitement of Sunday's final round, one woman walked virtually unnoticed along the fairways, a reminder of another day on the tour. Mickey Wright, the winner of 82 tournaments, the greatest woman golfer of all time, was in the field. Now, because of a painful foot condition, she plays in sneakers. After her first-round 72, a newsman chided her about being "a little old lady in tennis shoes." Mickey laughed. The man was partly right. While she is not little, nor at 41 old, the golfer is indeed a lady.
Wright once won 44 tournaments in a four-year span. Her titles include four U.S. Opens and four LPGA championships. She shot two rounds of 62 on the tour, and never made an enemy. Now she is all but retired from the game, living in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where she manages her investments. She was smart enough to get out of the market in April 1973, but not brave enough to get back in last year. Now when she plays in a tournament, she finds, like Kotter, that the names have all changed. Said 19-year-old amateur Nancy Lopez when told Wright had won 82 events, "I haven't even played in that many."
For all practical purposes, Mickey Wright's career ended at the U.S. Open in 1965. A painful wrist injury had ruined her game and brought her face to face with the necessity of an operation. Driving to Erie, Pa. for the tour's next tournament, she cried all the way. "I just knew that it was going to be the end of it," she says. Wright was 30 years old then, and while she would win an occasional tournament, the magic never returned.
"I felt like I had to win every week," she says. "If I finished second or third, I was a bum. I got tired of the pressure, terribly, terribly tired. I thought for a long time that winning golf tournaments was all there was to life. And I'm glad that a few physical problems got me off it, because I'm a happier person now."
Wright still hits golf balls every day, even though this was only her fourth tournament of the year. "I could win some more," she says. "But there's no comparison to the golfer I was then and the golfer I am now. That person's almost like someone I don't know. I don't have to drive to do it, and, Lord, I'm 20 years older, and that does make a difference."
Wright's chances of victory were scuttled on Friday when she made six 5s on the front nine, three-putting twice, and went on to shoot a 76, which dropped her eight shots behind Little. She hit the ball well but played her short game as if she were wearing gloves.
Ironically, Mickey Wright is less excited about big time women's golf than most people. "I wouldn't trade what I experienced, and the way golf was when I was winning, with our dinky purses of $1,000 first prize, for anything. It was more fun. I won the Colgate in 1973 and $25,000, and I didn't enjoy it the same. I love the money, but I didn't enjoy the big feel of it."
Well, different strokes for different folks. Wright shot a 72 on Saturday and a horrible 42 on the last nine Sunday and ended with a 78 that left her tied for 28th. That still was worth $425. Twenty years ago, when Sally Little was four and Mickey Wright already was becoming legend, that would have been a nice check.