QUESTION: What do National Velvet, Stalag 17, High Noon and the richest tournament in the history of women's golf have in common?
ANSWER: Three thousand acres of brush-covered hills and dusty canyons in the western reaches of California's San Fernando Valley known as the Warner Ranch, that's what.
For three decades the Warner Ranch was rented to movie companies which transformed its arid landscape into whatever the script at hand called for, be it England, Nazi Germany or the Old West. In the 1950s, when the movie moguls moved out, the bulldozers rolled in and the old Warner Ranch became Calabasas Park, a real-estate development with a Robert Trent Jones golf course that last week was the site of The Carlton, a new tournament on the LPGA tour worth $205,000. And that, sports fans, is more money than female athletes have ever competed for.
Donna Caponi Young, whose home is in the San Fernando Valley and whose husband Ken runs the pro shop at Calabasas, put her knowledge of the mysteries of the big, fast greens to work and walked away with the tournament and the $35,000 first prize, more money than she has won in nine of her 12 years on the tour. On Friday, after two rounds of 69, she was six under par and held a four-stroke lead. Although she shot a 72 on Saturday, she nonetheless increased her lead to five as challengers failed to materialize and on Sunday another 72 gave her victory by five strokes. Judy Rankin and Jane Blalock tied for second.
October 3, 1976
There was one moment on Saturday when it looked as if someone might challenge Young. Sandra Palmer began her round six strokes back but by the 18th she had reduced the margin to three. There, facing a 170-yard second shot into the wind to carry the water, Palmer chose to lay up with a seven-iron. She then pulled her third shot into thick grass a few inches off the green, hit a poor chip less than halfway to the pin and wound up with a bogey 6. Young, playing just behind, went for the green for the third day in a row, and for the third day in a row was rewarded with a birdie.
The two-stroke swing on the last hole on Saturday turned Sunday's final round into a virtual walkover. Although Young insisted, "It's tough to have a big lead—you don't know whether to charge or protect it," Palmer and several dozen other players would gladly have been faced with her dilemma.
Young's first victory was the U.S. Open in 1969, her fifth year on the tour. She won the Open again the next year to become the only player besides Mickey Wright and Susie Berning to have won two in a row. In those days she was a 180-pound brunette. Now she is a 138-pound blonde and having a lot more fun. Three weeks ago she launched into a program of positive visual thinking called Power Golf. Her victory the very next week in the Portland Golf Classic may have been a coincidence, but no one is likely to convince her of that now. Her two straight winning weeks have earned her more than $41,000, which is only slightly less than she won all last year, and that was her best year ever.
"Every time I hit a bad shot I do this," she says, and she touches her right thumb and first two fingers together. "Then I visualize the good shot I should have hit so that when it's time to hit the next shot I have replaced the bad shot with a positive attitude. It's as if I had just hit a good shot." Her level of concentration throughout The Carlton was extraordinary, considering she was playing in front of hundreds of friends and family, all of whom wanted at least to say hello.
"I'm all right," she said when someone remarked that she seemed dazed after the third round. "I'm concentrating and haven't come out of it yet."
Far more significant than the prize money at The Carlton (which, after all, was only $20,000 more than the LPGA's rich uncle, David R. Foster of Colgate-Palmolive, had put up for the Dinah Shore tournament a few years ago) was the fact that another corporate giant had entered the LPGA picture. It was a harbinger of good times for the tour and good times are long overdue in women's golf.
The tour's yearly prize money exceeded the $1 million mark in 1972, yet by 1975, when 37-year-old Ray Volpe was hired to oversee a wholesale renovation of the 26-year-old organization, LPGA prize money was still nowhere near $2 million. Its treasury, thanks to some messy and unsuccessful litigation with Jane Blalock, was in the red. The golfers, who had endured hard work and unfulfilled promises for years, had to watch women's tennis take off under what, from their angle, looked like spontaneous combustion, while they, in spite of the efforts of such people as Carol Mann, seemed to be at a standstill.
That they had even reached $1 million was largely the result of Colgate's lavish investment in golf, and in spite of their gratitude to Foster, the players were convinced that he had frightened away other corporate sponsors, perhaps permanently. Once he retired, they feared, Colgate might withdraw, leaving them back at Go.
Enter Volpe, a veteran of seven years with the Doyle, Dane, Bernbach advertising agency and four years as vice-president of marketing for the National Hockey League. Volpe speaks the language of money, marketing and Madison Avenue, and he has made believers of all but the most skeptical veterans. "The name of the game is merchandising," says Carol Mann. "He walks on water as far as I'm concerned," says Donna Young.
Volpe, with the aid of a young staff he enticed away from the NHL and the Virginia Slims tour, raised the prize money from $1.4 million in 1975 to $2.8 million, and as a result all of the leading players are earning more. Judy Rankin became the first woman golfer to top $100,000—her second last week, worth $19,300, gave her $138,734 for the year-while Palmer has won $86,194 and Joanne Carner $86,908. Volpe anticipates more than $3.2 million in prize money in 1977. He acquired new tournaments this year in three of the country's biggest population centers—New York, Los Angeles and Cleveland—and next year will add San Francisco, Rochester and Detroit to the tour. In 1976 the tour included eight events worth $100,000. Next year there will be at least 10. NBC will televise the Ladies Masters in April and the LPGA Championship in June; the networks will now be televising five tour events. Out of nerve and thin air, Volpe created the Mixed Team Championship (the Palmers, Arnold and Sandra, are one pairing) which will take place in December at Doral in Miami, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and the—hold on—Hotel and Restaurant Employees' and Bartenders' International Union. He has persuaded PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, to televise it and two or three other 1977 events as well.
Further, Volpe has created an in-house marketing and advertising agency called People & Properties, Inc., run by Tony Andrea, 31, also out of DDB by the NHL, and Edd Griles, 30, which offers inexperienced tournament sponsors "full servicing," for a fee. The Carlton, a tournament so classy it provided the players with buckets of new Titleist balls on the practice range, was a sample of P&P's work. "We figure that if we give our sponsors 100% to 150% of what they expect, we will build a strong organization," says Andrea.
"The golf industry is dumb! Dumb!," Volpe mutters. "They have intimidated women and children right out of the game. Where will golfers come from if children don't play? It's a perfect family game. Where else can a father spend four hours with a son? It's healthy for clubs, healthy for families. That's one reason I pushed the mixed team event—men and women playing together."
Perhaps, when you think about it, prophets and visionaries are just advertising men with long beards. The gleam in the eye is the same. "I represent the organization," says Volpe. "Players come and go. The organization remains. I represent Babe Zaharias and the future. The players are now."
At Calabasas it seemed as if the future had arrived.