The annual retaliatory strike against uppity women was conducted successfully last week as the United States Golf Association held the U.S. Women's Open under conditions that made everyone play like Betty Crocker.
Each year the women participate in the Open as a sort of required midseason lesson in humility, but this time the instruction and penance were especially severe. The tournament was held near Philadelphia at the Rolling Green Golf Club on a course that had baked greens, spongy fairways and hills so steep they would have suited downhill racers.
Like periodic cries for tax reform, criticism of the Open course is to be expected. But this time even the players leading the tournament were protesting. The voices of dissent included the eventual winner, JoAnne Carner, though she was not nearly as annoyed as others because she plays a power game.
Carner's victory was as much a test of nerves as skill. She fired a sloshy round of 73 Sunday on a course inundated by rain to tie Sandra Palmer and then took the 18-hole playoff on Monday with a 76 to Palmer's 78. It was hard labor to win just $9,000—the weary golfers moving like jalopies over the final mile.
July 18, 1976
The crux of the problem was the greens. They were shrunken surfaces set atop high knolls and were so difficult to hit that at their approaches they could have used carnival barkers encouraging three tries for a dollar. In addition, they were baked hard, shaved close and moribund. "Look at this," Carner said with wide eyes Saturday evening as she surveyed the 18th green. "There's no grass." Playing on clay, the women double-faulted. Four-putt greens were common throughout the week, and there was even an occasional five-putt.
In the past few years the women have attacked the Open as one of the remaining citadels to be toppled in their crusade for recognition. The prize money totals only $60,000 (the USGA offers a $260,000 purse in the national men's championship). Furthermore, the courses on which the tournament is played are so difficult the women score abominably. "I want to win just because this tournament irritates me so much," Jane Blalock said before the event. "Sometimes I think they set up the course this way just to make us look bad."
Carner and Palmer were 8 over par at the end of 72 holes (in only two other tournaments this season has the winner played over-par golf). Even the figure 8 over was deceiving. Fifth-place finishers Amy Alcott and Sharon Miller shot 15 over. After the third round only Carner, Palmer and Blalock could look at the scoreboard and not grit their teeth.
Under fire all week were two of the par-3 holes (the 10th and 14th), where many players used drivers; the par-5 9th, which most found unreachable with three successive wood shots; the 13th, where on Saturday the golfers had to hit a wood approach to a pin set on the front edge of an elevated green; and the 16th, which had a putting surface that best could be described as alleged.
Only an occasional voice cautioned against the tide of complaints. "They want to determine the champion and you have to have it between these six inches," said Alcott, pointing to her head.
For a day and a half the Open belonged to Connie Chillemi, an 18-year-old who went out with the rising sun Thursday morning and shot a 69. The score disappointed her and amazed everyone else. "Should have been a 67," said the unabashed youngster from Orlando, Fla.
Before the tournament, Sandra Palmer had predicted that par (71) would be the undefeated champion at Rolling Green. "I'll be surprised if anyone shoots a round under par," the 1975 Open winner said. Then she followed Chillemi to the tee and went around the course in 70. "I'm really surprised," said Palmer. "It's such a marathon out there. But I made every putt within reason."
Judy Rankin was not so lucky. She came to the Open needing only $615 to become the first woman golfer in history to win $100,000 in one season. She practiced long and hard, even getting up at 6 a.m. Wednesday to hit some balls on the range at the Philadelphia Country Club, where she was staying. But when rain swept across Rolling Green late Thursday afternoon, suspending play for a couple of hours, Rankin took to the sidelines under a giant umbrella and a cloud of dismay. "I've just bogeyed six straight holes," she said. The course had her so spooked that she would not walk across the high bridge on the par-3 14th because of a fear of falling. Instead, she took a circuitous land route. When play resumed, Rankin finished with a 79.
Most of the field were having problems similar to Rankin's. The trouble was in the layout—virtually all the holes were uphill. Even though this was listed as the shortest Open course on record—6,066 yards—the wet grounds and peaks at the Rolling Green Mountain and Ski Lodge made it one of the longest.
"I love it," said Carner, the tour's longest driver, after her opening 71. "It's so much fun here. I just crank up. It's the first time in years that I've seen an Open course like this." The other players said the last time the event was played on such a demanding course was in Erie, Pa. in 1971 when Carner lapped the field and won by seven shots. "The big hitters are fools if they don't win this tournament," snapped Rankin. "They have us right where they've wanted us for so long."
The Open was Rankin's 10th straight week of competition and the strain was showing. She followed her opening round with a 75 and made the 36-hole cutoff by two strokes, but she had little else to cheer her. "With a perfect drive," she said, "I still have to hit a wood at the hole from most fairways. I think I hit six iron shots all day. I told JoAnn Washam, whom I was playing with today, 'I'm a pretty good iron player if I ever get to hit one.' The greens are so crusty they crinkle when you walk on them. From above the hole, you get a nervous breakdown." Or five putts.
As the brash Connie Chillemi was discovering, brave new words were no help whatsoever after the opening round. On Friday a bad drive on the 12th hole led to a triple bogey, followed by a bogey at the 13th and a double bogey at the 14th. Chillemi hit the green at 16, then started playing croquet. "How many putts did I take there?" she asked her caddie, walking off the green. "Five," he answered. It was the end of a phenom. Chillemi finished with 43 putts and a 38-46—84. "That's a sacrilege in our family," she said. "We're good putters." She finished with 78-79 in the last two rounds and wound up tied for 30th.
As predicted, Carner moved into the lead at the halfway point following a second 71. She was two ahead of Palmer; Pat Bradley, another bazooka hitter, was in third place at 145. Palmer is one of the most tenacious players on the circuit. She is only 5'1½" tall, but she is a battler and around the greens she was working miracles. "She gets the most out of what she has," said Blalock, who was tied for fourth with Alcott at this point. "Her shots aren't pretty, but they're certainly effective."
On Saturday, Rolling Green wiped out all but a pocket of token resistance. Typical were the travails experienced by Bradley. In one nine-hole stretch she had seven bogeys and two double bogeys. The fallen star, Rankin, meanwhile, had another 79 that meant she needed a fine round on Sunday if she wanted to top 100 grand. She managed, shooting a final 74 to earn $1,279 and a tie for 17th.
Ironically, the treacherous par 3s, not the long holes, were to cow Carner on Saturday. She triple bogeyed the 3rd hole when her six-iron tee shot sailed over the green, and double bogeyed the 10th when she missed the green, then three-putted. "It shook me up," she admitted after her round of 77. Palmer took the lead by two shots over Carner after 54 holes, and Blalock moved into third with a two-over-par 73, the third best score of the day. "I feel like I'm hanging on," she said. "The greens are unreal."
Palmer appeared to be losing her grip Sunday when she bogeyed four of the first five holes on a course so wet that the TVA could have been tournament co-sponsor. But she birdied the 15th, two-putted from way across the moonscape on 16, birdied the 17th and wobbled into the playoff with a five-foot par putt on 18.
Carner won five U.S. Amateurs at match play, and her long-ball hitting would be intimidating in the one-on-one battle on Monday. She opened with a birdie and by the 14th tee had a four-stroke lead and her acceptance speech written.
Dogged to the end, Palmer picked up five strokes in the next three holes to take the lead as Carner hit into trees and sand. Then JoAnne birdied the 17th with an eight-foot putt, Palmer bogeyed the final two holes and it was over. Carner won by two strokes and walked away relieved. After banging her head against the U.S. Women's Open for five days, it felt good to quit a winner.