Not very long ago the LPGA tour was 30 people in a straggly caravan crossing the continent in search of fortune. Most of the fortune went to Mickey Wright in those days, then later to Kathy Whitworth and Sandra Haynie. The rest scraped out a living, but not much more, their efforts sustained by a belief that the life, however difficult, held greater psychic rewards than washing dishes or teaching high school phys ed.
Last week at the Mission Hills Country Club, 6,300 yards of implausible greensward on the desert floor near Palm Springs, Calif., Whitworth, who is now 37, took the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle tournament by a stroke, shooting a one-over-par 289. It was the 78th victory of her 19-year career and by far the richest. The $36,000 first prize rocketed her from 20th place on the money list after the year's first four tournaments into first, the spot she had all to herself for eight seasons out of nine between 1965 and 1973. This was more money than she had won in each of her first nine years on the tour.
From the beginning the lanky, gentle Texan was a good bet to win in Palm Springs. Because of the fierce desert winds and the pressure of all that money, experience has always counted more than any other factor at the Dinah Shore. Sunday was the only day last week that could be called benign. The first two were out-and-out horrors that caused shots to reverse direction in midair and balls to wobble off their tees. Tumbleweeds rolled in from the sandy wastes that surround the course and bounded impudently across manicured fairways.
Saturday was merely changeable. Betty Burfeindt, who had held the lead at the halfway point, now shared it with Judy Rankin and newcomer Pat Bradley at one over par. Rankin, the 108-pound defending champion, had turned in a miraculous 68 but the effort clearly had sapped her strength. She said after the third round that she was "physically beat up. For two days here I've felt like the wind was tossing me against a wall."
On the final day, Whitworth, JoAnne Carner and Carol Mann—the trio of big guns who stood just one stroke out of the lead—were expected to challenge. Rankin and Bradley fell back almost immediately, Rankin shooting a 39 and Bradley a 41 on the front side. But Carner and Mann were also in trouble, each racking up a double bogey. Whitworth took the lead. She was scrambling, but more successfully (Carner would finish with a 72 that included an eagle, three birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey). The only golfer playing consistently well was Sally Little, who was on her way to a 70, her third subpar round. An opening 76 would have won her the tournament, but on that blustering Thursday she had shot a 78. She tied for second with Carner.
One thing that was clear when the desert scramble was over is that women's golf, unlike women's tennis, is deep in talent. While Chris Evert wins her 106th straight match on clay and everybody wonders what is going to happen to tennis if somebody doesn't show up to challenge her pretty soon, the LPGA fields almost every week no fewer than five stars of the first rank—Rankin, Carner, Donna Caponi Young, Sandra Palmer and Jane Blalock—all extraordinary players now at the height of their powers, capable of winning anytime the course is sufficiently challenging or the purse is significantly large.
Furthermore, the LPGA has a second echelon of experienced players who have been around long enough to know how to win and who have been doing it for years—Whitworth, Mann, Burfeindt, Susie Berning (winner of three National Opens), Sandra Post, Sue Roberts, Jo Ann Prentice and Japan's 31-year-old superstar Chako Higuchi. These pros have won 147 tournaments among them.
Finally there is the group of good young ones that has joined the tour in the past few years. They were drawn to professional golf from colleges and high schools by the tour's new promise of money, fame and travel, sometimes to exotic places. Pat Bradley, one of the brightest prospects, said as she moved into contention last week, "I just turned 26 and I have been to Japan seven times, England three times, Australia three times, and the Philippines and Hong Kong, too. When would I have those opportunities if I weren't on the tour?" They look good, they dress well, they wear thin gold hoops in their pierced ears, they incorporate themselves, they buy town houses with their winnings and they fully intend to take over at the first available opportunity.
"A lot of them are college graduates who are athletes," says David Foster, chairman of the board of Colgate-Palmolive and the director of his company's sizable investment in women's golf. "Seven or eight years ago they would have looked around and said to themselves, 'What is the point of a career in golf?' "
Now there are fortunes to be made, but to make them one must win. That is the rule. Laura Zonetta Baugh, 21, is the exception. She earned more money last year than anybody on the tour—Judy Rankin included—but only $29,000 of it from tournament play. She is a straight driver with a good short game and she wants to win something awful, but in 3½ years her best efforts have produced only five seconds. "I've come close, but I'm not disappointed," she says. "It has taken nearly every good golfer three or four years to adapt to the pressure of the tour. I think I'm right on schedule."
Meanwhile, it has been her pretty dimpled face and tidy 5'5", 110-pound body that have made her a success. She is well known on a couple of continents and on all the islands of Japan—in fact, so well known she has to register in hotels under false names. The Japanese print huge calendars with her picture atop every month of the year. Her galleries are always bigger than anybody else's except Gerald Ford's. When she wins, it will be because she is still the same competitor who in 1971, at 16, lost a match on the 19th hole of the USGA's Girls' Junior Championship, cried for 20 minutes and then went out to the practice tee and hit golf balls until her hands were cracked and bleeding. The next week she won the Women's Amateur.
Amy Alcott was Rose Red to Baugh's Snow White in Southern California amateur golf. Between them they won everything—city, state, national, junior and women's. Amy joined the tour in 1975, expecting to win, and she did, almost immediately. She is the alltime champion positive thinker. "I feel good," she said after her second-round 73 at Palm Springs, her cheeks still rosy from the wind and her bright green eyes shining with pleasure. "I know I'm getting stronger—longer and more consistent. I've only got up to go from here." A week earlier she had told a San Diego columnist, "I'm out here alone with my mind and my muscles facing a test. I'm the offense and the defense and the coach. I'm also the student and the teacher. I give myself a grade. I'm tough on myself."
In the same 1971 Girls' Junior in which Laura Baugh lost her quarterfinal match, Alcott, 16, and Hollis Stacy, 17, met in the final. Hollis, the blithe spirit of the Savannah Stacys, all 11 of them, won in 19 holes, for her third straight national junior title. Hollis tried Rollins College in Florida for a year but dropped out. "I had no direction there," she says. "I was just raising hell. I did everything except work on my golf game." Now she is 23 and in her third year on the tour. Her improvement is just now becoming dramatic. At the Kathryn Crosby tournament two weeks ago she shot a 69 on one of the worst golfing days ever seen south of Pebble Beach. The temperature was in the 40s, the wind gusted to 25 mph, it rained steadily and for one horrible half hour it even hailed. Stacy had a bad cold and was bundled up in four sweaters. She said she felt like a Baggie, but she persevered, referring to the experience as one of her "patience days," and she finished second to Sandra Palmer, earning $14,650.
"Relief is beginning now," Stacy said while drinking a Coors in the locker room at Mission Hills after a windblown 79. "That's been my biggest obstacle, regaining self-confidence. I was a bigwig in the juniors." What does losing do to the head of one so long accustomed to winning? "It keeps it very level. One day you're hot stuff and then you have a day like today that's like quicksand. The more you struggle the deeper in you get."
"Hollis has great potential and she's just beginning to realize that," says Bonnie Lauer, who is 26 and in her second full year on the tour. Lauer, too, is ready for a run at the top. She won the national collegiate championship while a senior majoring in health education at Michigan State, and she made it to the semifinals of the Amateur that summer, but she was accustomed to golf Michigan style, which means hanging up one's clubs in September and taking them out again in April. She was not at all sure she wanted to play the game the year round. However, when she was unable to find a teaching job after graduation, she began to think about it. It took her two years to make up her mind.
Once out on the tour, Lauer played too much. In her first 18 months she won $22,000 and was chosen 1976 Rookie of the Year, but in Denver last August, exhausted from trying to play every tournament, she came down with flu and a high fever, passed out in her motel room and was hospitalized for several days. "The hospital made me realize that there were other things in life," she says. "I thought, 'Just let me be out there walking around healthy, even if I shoot 78 or 79.' "
Unlike Baugh, Alcott, Stacy and Lauer, Pat Bradley had a forgettable amateur career. "Locally I was a star," she says, "but I was a zero nationally. I never made the cut in the Amateur or the Open." Bradley is about 5'8", with strong legs, a long hitter in the mold of JoAnne Carner. She grew up with a houseful of brothers in Nashua, N.H. and was a skier because her brothers were, but she was a golfer because her father "believed that it was a ladies' and gentlemen's game and he wanted his daughter to play." She has beautiful blue eyes, a nice, unassuming manner and the only Down East accent on the tour.
Until her senior year in high school, Bradley was a B racer in the Eastern Amateur Ski Association with "farfetched" Olympic dreams. But when it came time to choose a college, she chose golf and Florida International University in Miami. College competition turned her into a very good player. She won the Colgate Far East Open her second season on the tour and the Girl Talk Classic last year. She also tripled her previous year's tournament earnings.
Jan Stephenson was Jan Thomas, a graduate of Sydney's Hales Secretarial College, when she came to the U.S. in 1974, having won everything at home, including the Australian Championship. "I married a man for money," she told Golf Digest magazine last summer. "It's a terrible thing to have to admit, but it's true. Please understand that I was not only young, I was naive and dreaming about a golf career. He promised to help me, so I accepted. But instead of helping me he ended up getting almost all of my money. It was, of course, exactly what I deserved."
The electrifying candor of Jan Stephenson, her utter ease with the press, her wonderful looks and her two victories last year have made her, at 25, a star wherever she goes. She has a house at La Quinta, the pleasantest golf club in the Palm Springs area, a companion who is a stockbroker and enough money to play the crap tables in Las Vegas when the fancy strikes her, but what she cares about is winning. "There is nothing better than that feeling of winning. I want to feel it again." You know she will.
Sally Little, from Capetown, South Africa, and Silvia Bertolaccini from Santa Fe, Argentina, have bought a town house in north Dallas. They do not use it often, but, says Silvia, "It is a place we can call home. Having a house makes you feel a little as though you belong in the United States." Both golfers came to the LPGA tour, Little at 19 and Bertolaccini at 25, because they had run out of competition at home. "I never practiced in Argentina," says Silvia. "It was enough just to show up to play. When I came here, it was different."
Sally is a tall blonde who dresses with great taste and who has provided welcome relief from pink and blue by reintroducing browns and tans to women's golf. More important, she knocked in a 75-foot bunker shot on the 72nd hole of the first Women's International at Moss Creek last year to win by a shot. "The first few years I didn't play well," she says. "I didn't know whether I wanted to be here. I wasn't at ease with myself. And I was very young mentally, too young to handle being alone for long periods of time." Now she thinks coming here was the best choice she could have made, and she plans to become a citizen in four years.
Silvia is starting her third year. The first was the most difficult as she struggled to learn the English language and American golf courses. "I knew I was going to another world," she says, "but my parents love golf and they want me to play. They said go ahead. You cannot lose the chance. They gave me confidence." Last year was better; she finished second at the Lady Tara in Atlanta, finished in the top 10 seven times and earned $31,344. She is a good driver and wind player, but she thinks her short game needs work. Everybody else says she is a very good player who could win soon.
Then there is Beverly Klass, whose father pushed her onto the tour for three tournaments at the age of 10, then sued the LPGA when it refused to accept her as a member, but who is back now, grown up, sort of, at 20, and shooting occasional 66s. And Debbie Massey, an excellent amateur who is beginning the usual period of adjustment, but who will surely be heard from by season's end. Ai-Yu Tu is the 22-year-old Taiwanese who led last January's qualifying school and who was on the leader boards for the first three days of the Dinah Shore.
All of which is to say Kathy Whitworth is going to be looking back over her shoulder from now on and so is everybody else, and that is about the best thing that can be said about the health of a sport.