Judy Rankin has been playing golf in front of crowds since she was seven years old, but she has never quite gotten used to it. She is 32 now, and she has reached the top of the heap in the women's game, yet when she sinks a putt and the crowd around the green breaks into appreciative applause, her gesture of acknowledgment is usually a jerky little nod accompanied by a wan, slightly embarrassed smile.
Rankin is not a crowd pleaser. One does not have to watch her play golf long to realize how absurd it would be if she were to punch the air with her fist or throw her arms toward the sky. Even a simple wave would be wrong.
"I appreciate people's good wishes and try to say thank you," she says quietly. "But I have to concentrate. That's the way I perform best. JoAnne Carner is loose and freewheeling. She performs at her best that way. If people speak to me I always answer, but that's a one-on-one situation. It's just not natural for me to wave to a crowd."
Last year Judy Rankin won six tournaments and more than half again as much money as any female golfer ever had. Her total earnings were $150,734. The previous record, set by Carner in 1974, was $87,094. Part of the huge difference can be explained by the 100% increase in LPGA purses in the last couple of years. But the rest was simply Rankin hitting her stride, reaching her potential after 14 years on the tour. She won tournaments last year every way imaginable—coming from behind in Palm Springs, leading all the way in Phoenix, scrambling in Cleveland and, in Miami, after taking a triple bogey. It was the first hole of the first tournament of the year, and her ball was buried so deep in a bunker that when she tried to blast out, the ball went straight up in the air, came down and hit her club, costing her another stroke.
This year began more auspiciously. In the first of the three Florida tournaments in February, she tied with Pam Higgins in Miami at the end of regulation play and then lost in a sudden-death playoff. The next week in St. Petersburg she won with a 54-hole score that was eight under par. And at the Bent Tree Classic in Sarasota she won again, shooting a 63 in the process.
With the tour only a month old, she had already earned $27,900, won her 21st and 22nd tournaments, passed the half-million-dollar mark in career earnings—a milestone that only Kathy Whitworth had reached before her—and shot the lowest round of her life.
"I said last year I felt I was playing as well as someone could or would play on this tour," she told a reporter after Sarasota. "I just didn't think anyone could finish first that often, because there are a lot of possible winners out here. But now, I don't know. Maybe I was wrong."
Golf, however, is a cyclical game, and three straight wins are almost as rare as 63s. Rankin's momentum slowed during the three-week break between Florida and California. And when she came back at the Kathryn Crosby-Honda Civic Classic—a 72-hole battle with the elements near San Diego—she finished 14th, and things gradually returned to normal. It should be noted, however, that normal for Rankin is very good. She has not missed the cut in a tour event since 1965. That is 280 tournaments.
Rankin has not yet won the LPGA Championship, but in 1976 she was second to Betty Burfeindt by only one stroke. She will try again next week when the tournament settles into its new home, the Bay Tree Golf Plantation in North Myrtle Beach, N.C., and now that her game has matured it seems only a matter of time until she succeeds.
The U.S. Open is a different story. She has been playing in it since she was 14 and has never won. She was low amateur at 15 and in 1972 she tied for second, but she has also missed the cut three times. Last year, in the midst of the best golf of her life, she tied for 17th.
The Open courses chosen by the USGA are almost always a startling change from the sort of course the LPGA usually plays. Although Rankin is stronger than she looks, she is still only 5'3" and 108 pounds, and she has always had trouble holding the firm Open greens. Until recently she was also a poor putter, and the Open greens are among the fastest and trickiest the women see.
Carner, who has won two Opens and five Amateurs on courses of the USGA's choosing, said not long ago, "As long as I've known Judy she could hit 16 of 18 greens every round. But she could never putt. She'd turn a round of 68 into a 72. But now Judy has all the shots, and that's very rare."
The Women's Open will be played this July at Hazeltine, in Chaska, Minn., the course that Dave Hill made infamous in 1970 when he said it should be given back to the cows from whence it had come. The greens at Hazeltine will, no doubt, be as firm as ever, but now that Rankin is a putter, the odds on her winning the Open have improved slightly.
Judy is known best for playing admirable, if not breathtaking, golf. She is straight off the tee, reasonably long for her size, extraordinarily consistent and, most important, emotionally stable. She is a good wind player and she can out-concentrate just about anybody. She rarely has two bad rounds in a row.
The Bent Tree Classic, which she won with rounds of 63-77-69—209, demonstrated her powers of recovery, her levelheadedness and several other facets of her character as well. The 63 was the second-lowest score for 18 holes ever recorded on the LPGA tour (Mickey Wright had a 62 at the Hogan Park Golf Club in Midland, Texas in 1964). The round consisted of nine pars, nine birdies and 24 putts. Rankin hit 14 greens in regulation, and of the four she missed, she putted in from the fringe on one and got up and down in two on the others. Only three of her birdie putts were longer than 10 feet. No one, male or female, had ever shot better than 66 on the same course.
Said Rankin: "Sometimes you get confident that every shot is going to be close to the hole and every putt at least has a chance of going in. It was one of those times."
Said Laura Baugh: "I know that course. I've shot 68 there, and I know if everything goes right, 66 is possible. But not 63. I can't believe she shot 63."
Said Yippy Rankin, Judy's husband, who on the day of the 63 was in a motel bed with the flu: "I've been walking around for nine years waiting to see that round and now I've missed it."
The next day Yippy was back on the course and Judy shot a 77. "I made him sick all over again," she said, grinning. "I was such a dummy today. I made a lot of bad decisions. I used the wrong club at least four times and started second-guessing myself. No doubt about it, I created a monster with that 63."
In the final round, after bogeying the 4th, 5th and 6th holes, she was two shots behind the leaders. "I had it in my mind that if I shot a 63 and then didn't win, I'd be a turkey," she said. So what she did was make five birdies in a stretch of nine holes in a high wind and finish with a 69 to win.
Though she never really said it, she was obviously even prouder of the 69 than she was of the 63. After all, what can anyone say about a 63? But a 69 that follows a 77 is something worth talking about. "I was scared. I felt several people could beat me if I didn't play well the last day. A lot of times I win tournaments and I'm never worried about it. Here I was really worried."
"I'm nervous no matter how Judy plays," says Yippy, whose real name is Walter Snyder Rankin. Yippy is 6'2", weighs 220 pounds and looks like a college football player, which he was at Texas Tech in the early '60s. He was raised in Midland, where he and Judy now live, and he has a friendly regional drawl. It has been noted that Yippy looks something like a yellow-haired George Blanda. He does, if you also mix in a bit of basset hound. He walks every hole of every round Judy plays and suffers a great deal on her behalf. All the emotion that she carefully hides is fully and openly displayed on his countenance. Unfortunately, his sufferings are sometimes misunderstood. At a tournament earlier this year Yippy watched as Judy examined her lie in a bunker in front of a green. She studied the ball, which was about 18 inches below the lip, for a long time. Eventually, Yippy realized she was going to try a chip shot instead of blasting out, and he began to mutter nervously to no one in particular.
"This is a shot she doesn't hit often.... You can't tell what might happen.... I don't like it...."
Sure enough, the chip, though it made the putting surface, ended up far to the left of the pin, and Judy two-putted from there for a bogey.
Yippy stomped from the green on his way to the next tee, shaking his head and muttering angrily, "I have no idea why she did that.... Dumb!" A middle-aged lady who had been standing next to him glared at his back. "What kind of brute," her look said, "would talk that way to his cute, nice wife when she obviously is doing the best she can."
"He's good for my spirits, somehow," says Judy. "I don't get down or tired of it all. We finish one tournament, and what I'd like to do more than anything else is go home, and that's when Yippy says, 'Well, time to get to work.' He helps keep my fight up. He walks with me in all kinds of weather and conditions. I guess we're very close. He's as involved as I am, in his own way. He's very competitive in everything. I sometimes tell him he has to cool it a little, that his is a football personality and this is golf."
When they are not on the tour, the Rankins go home to a three-bedroom ranch-style house that they have lived in since shortly after they were married. In Midland, Yippy tends to his insurance business. Walter Snyder Rankin Jr., nine, better known in Colgate detergent commercials as Tuey, goes to a small private school, and Judy cleans closets.
"I love to mess with my house," she says. "It undoubtedly has something to do with not having to be there 12 months out of the year. I probably clean out my closets more than anybody alive. But we often make pit stops at home—we throw some things in and take some others out."
Until Tuey reached the second grade he was on the tour with his parents a good deal of the time. These days, however, they try to confine his major absences from school to one in the fall and one in the spring. Other than these, he rarely misses more than a day or two at a time. Sometimes a housekeeper looks after him; sometimes he stays with his grandmother, who lives on a ranch 60 miles away. Last fall, when Judy went on a Far Eastern tour that lasted a month, Yippy stayed home with Tuey.
"I felt pulled eight ways," says Judy about that trip. "The LPGA wanted me to go because I was leading money-winner, and Colgate [sponsor of the Far East Open] wanted me, too. I have personal ties with Colgate [on the tour she represents Mission Hills, the company's golf club in Palm Springs, and she is an adviser to the Ram golf equipment company, a Colgate subsidiary]. They support my interests in every way they can, so I have to support them, too. But I won't stay away that long again."
Tuey is redheaded and freckled and looks the way his mother did when she was a child. When he is on the tour he roams the golf course with his father or tears around with contemporaries like Robin Berning, Michael Skala and Kay Cornelius. He keeps up with his school-work at night in motel rooms.
"There's no doubt we've spoiled him," says Judy. "When he gets to wishing he were home with his friends, we tend to buy him something. But lately I've been trying to make him aware that the things he gets to do are things that most people don't. I think he's beginning to understand. He's missed out on things, nothing serious, but he'd like to be home on Saturdays, running up and down the block, as any kid would."
When Judy Torluemke of St. Louis was Tuey's age, she had already won two National Pee Wee golf championships. But her first triumph was in a hole-in-one contest sponsored by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat when she was seven. She was less than four feet tall, weighed 42 pounds and used a driver to reach the 102-yard hole, while most of the field of 602 used short irons. She won the women's division with three shots that averaged 14'5" from the pin, the farthest away being 15'2". Years later, when she was asked whether she was surprised to have done so well, she said, "Not really. Daddy told me I could win, and I believed everything he said."
Paul Torluemke, now in his late 50s and living in Texas, was in the printing business then. A weekend 80s shooter, he started his daughter playing golf when she was six at an indoor driving range in the old Kingway Hotel.
"When I was six my mother became ill with a brain tumor," Judy says. "They said she would live two years, and she lived five. She was an invalid during all those years, paralyzed on her left side. My father and I became close during that time. The illness was expensive, and my father gave up golf, but he wanted me to learn so we could be together. We learned through a trial-and-error method. What worked, we kept; what didn't work, we threw out. To this day he knows so well how I hit a golf ball that he can help me pretty quick."
For six months of winter nights the tiny girl hit golf balls while her father watched. Bob Green, the pro who owned the driving range, has said, "Her father, you could say, was kind of a pusher, and this enabled her to keep her interest up. He was a real fine man, and because of his tenacity, he helped her stick to her work. They had a fine relationship. They were crazy about each other and they still are."
One result of the trial-and-error method of learning is the Rankin grip. Her left hand is turned so far over to the right on the club that the back of the hand faces forward instead of in the direction of the target. It is a grip guaranteed to produce a severe hook. That it does not is a tribute to several compensating factors in her swing and a lifetime of hard work.
"Judy has the most unorthodox grip in golf," says Mickey Wright, "and she has stuck with it. I admire that. She was destined to be something special. It was only a matter of time."
At 14 Rankin won the Missouri State Amateur and the year after that she finished low amateur in the U.S. Open, but what she wanted most in the world was to be chosen for the Curtis Cup team. However, the USGA selectors passed over her.
"Being low amateur at the Open should have gotten me on the team," she says. "At least as an alternate. My father and I beat ourselves silly trying to get that amateur spot. When I didn't get on the team my feelings were hurt and I sort of lost a feeling for whatever I'd thought golf might offer me."
The next summer, to make up for it, her father managed to raise enough money to take her to the British Ladies' Amateur at Carnoustie in Scotland. She played badly, lost her first match and the two came home the next day.
"It was probably the biggest emotional disaster of my career," she said. "I decided I'd quit golf, and my father didn't try to change my mind. For a few weeks I didn't play at all. Then SPORTS ILLUSTRATED called and asked me if I'd be playing in the U.S. Open [at Baltusrol] because they wanted to put me on the cover."
So she played. And SI did put her on the cover (Aug. 21, 1961). And the next year, when she was 17, a club manufacturer offered to sponsor her on the tour and she turned pro. She endured a crisis of confidence in her game at first, probably brought on by people wincing when they looked at her grip. But by 19 she was self-supporting with a little bit left over, and faith began to return.
"The taste of success finally bred confidence," she says. "I didn't have the confidence people thought I should have. It was a personality trait, I guess. But every year I'd move up a notch, until finally I got to thinking I could be in the top 10 every week. Winning was the next hump, but that was a long time coming. Six years. The final hump was being leading money-winner."
The demands on Rankin's time are multiplying rapidly, and her plan for phasing herself off the tour and into a home life keeps being postponed as the money in women's golf grows and success piles on success. Most of the older players on the LPGA tour, those who were around when the present was bleak and the future unknown, feel a responsibility for the welfare of the enterprise. Rankin, who has been LPGA president for a year, feels it intensely. Last year she played 13 straight tournaments through the summer and fall before sitting out one event.
"The men's tour is so deep in players they can take time off," she says. "But we grind it out. Sponsors demand the presence of the top 20, so we all push, for the LPGA and for ourselves. The men sometimes take three weeks off. You never see that on this tour, unless somebody is sick."
Paul Torluemke used to worry sometimes that his daughter might get swept up in golf and miss out on what he considered life's other blessings, marriage and a family. He needn't have worried. She has managed, miraculously, to have it all—professional success, financial security, Yippy, Tuey, a black Labrador named Sam and a house to go home to with closets that need cleaning.
"The amazing thing," she says, "is that this has happened by chance, and I'm happy with it."