As a sporting experience, most women golfers on the pro tour would rank match play only slightly above pistols at dawn. Two of them go off for 18 holes but only one lives to tell about it. You may play better than anyone on the course except one person, but if that one person is your opponent, tough luck, you're out of the tournament. Unlike medal play, which is used in virtually all pro events, men's and women's, in match play it doesn't matter if you shoot 68 or 78 as long as you win more holes than your opponent.
Which may explain the following scene: the 16 players in the Colgate Triple Crown Championship have been assembled in a semicircle down by the pond guarding the 18th green of the Mission Hills course in Palm Springs. A little television promo is about to be shot and the director would like each of the women to offer, in one word if possible, her opinion of match play. Ready? Roll 'em. Donna Caponi Young? "Gross!"
"Cut! Donna, you don't really want to say that, do you?"
"No," answered Young, "I want to say something worse, but you won't let me do it on television."
February 6, 1978
And so gross stood. There was also a "traumatic," a "frustrating," an "awful" and—Judy Rankin's contribution—a "pride-buster." To be sure, some thought match play was "dramatic," "exciting" and "invigorating," while Jane Blalock said solemnly that it was "the greatest challenge in sports."
How David Foster must have loved that when he heard it later. Foster, the man in charge at Colgate, decided one day last year that it might be interesting if the Triple Crown tournament, involving top finishers from Colgate's three major events in 1977, became a match-play event. Few of the leading pros were crazy about the idea, because it is not nearly as fair a test as medal play, but Foster's contributions to women's sports have been such that, as Kathy Whitworth pointed out, "We would have stood on our heads if he told us to."
So there they were at Mission Hills last week, most of the best women players in the world (Hollis Stacy, who won three tournaments including the U.S. Open, was not a qualifier) making nervous chatter as two by two they went out to duel to the death. And on Sunday evening, to no one's great surprise, when the 16 little Indians sitting on a fence had been reduced to one, that one was JoAnne Carner—the Great Gundy—the deadliest match-play golfer in the women's ranks. As JoAnne Gunderson, later Mrs. Carner, she won five U.S. Amateur titles in the '50s and '60s, all of them at match play. In the final at Palm Springs, Carner edged another veteran who seems to thrive on infighting, Sandra Palmer, winning one up.
Thanks to a draw that was a little short on logic, two of the most interesting matches of the tournament were played early in the week, both involving Nancy Lopez. It makes sense that the player who finishes first among 16 in the point standings should, as her reward for doing so. play the person who finishes 16th. The second place woman should oppose No. 15, and so on down the line. That's the way the seedings are arranged at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. But at Palm Springs, citing a USGA match-play rule, as if that alone made it logical, the tournament officials had the top player up against No. 9, the second player against the 10th.
Thus Judy Rankin, much to her displeasure, found herself on Thursday teeing off against young Lopez, No. 9 in the standings but much higher in true ability, because she had gained her ranking in only half a year as a pro, playing in just two of the three qualifying events. In a field containing several comparative lambs, Rankin had drawn a tigress.
It was not an outstanding exhibition of golf. Rankin, who has had little match-play experience, was up against a 21-year-old who as a recent amateur grew up on it. Rankin was nervous, looked it and, worst of all, putted like it. Lopez was devil-may-care. She had nothing to lose, she explained later, and she closed out the match on the 16th hole.
Rankin was asked, "How does it feel to be beaten by a rookie?"
"She's no rookie when it comes to match play," Rankin said.
Carner struggled in the early going with Debbie Austin, but came on strong, winning 4 and 3. "Now I know why I was so much thinner when I was an amateur," she said. As the pairs trooped in, one player smiling, one not, opinions about match play followed a predictable line. Losers hated it, winners thought maybe there was something to it. Pat Bradley played the best golf of the day, making six birdies while beating Jane Blalock. Her round would have put her three strokes ahead of Carner in a medal-play event.
And so on Friday a battle of match-play titans took place, Lopez against Carner, who is 39 and, well, a seasoned veteran, as someone offered tactfully. "Go ahead and say it," said Carner, laughing. "I'm an old lady." The match was too loosely played to be a classic, but as a Western-style shootout, it had the gallery hopping. As tense as it got, there was a friendly, informal air about it, a contest between two athletes who realize the punishment for losing is not death. At one point, Lopez, strolling down a fairway, shouted, "Hi, Mr. Carner" to JoAnne's husband.
Through 10 holes the two were even, but on 11, JoAnne's putting stroke, already shaky, failed completely. Some 50 feet from the flag, she rammed a putt that looked like an express train going through a local stop. When she missed coming back, Lopez was one up.
On the next hole, it seemed as if Carner would draw even when Nancy caught a tree branch with her approach, the ball falling yards short of the green. Lopez chipped 12 feet from the pin but drilled home the putt, and suddenly Carner's four-foot putt for a par looked more like four miles. When she missed, she was two down with six holes left.
On 13, Carner's first putt went four feet past, but this time she holed her second for a halve, and in so doing figured out a slight mechanical flaw in her putting stroke. This seemed to turn the match around. Lopez bogeyed the 14th to make it only one up. Carner dropped a 12-footer for a birdie at 15 to even the match, and on 16. Nancy bogeyed again to go one down. The pair halved the final holes and Carner advanced to the semifinals.
In Friday's other quarterfinal matches. South Africa's Sally Little won four straight holes on the back nine to break open a close match with Amy Alcott; Palmer stopped Silvia Bertolaccini of Argentina, who the day before had upset Whitworth; and Sandra Post edged Bradley one up.
The next day Post and Little were gone, too, as Carner and Palmer won with ease. What JoAnne did, essentially, was kill the par-5s, and in doing so, killed Post. Carner birdied two of three she played, Post none. One of them, the dogleg 9th, changed the entire match. Carner was only one up at the time. Post played the hole as designed, driving to the turn, then hitting short of the green. Not Carner. She blasted her drive toward the corner and a few scattered trees, a gamble, and was rewarded with a clear shot to the green. She then hit a titanic wood straight at the pin, and was aghast to see the ball fall short into a bunker. And bury itself. Only the smallest portion of it was visible. When Post chipped about nine feet from the pin, it looked as if the match might be even. But Carner, executing the shot of the tournament, swung her sand wedge full force, saw the ball pop out and roll right at the pin and...JoAnne tossed her club high in the air...lip the cup, stopping a foot away. When a dismayed Post missed her putt, Carner was two up and home free.
Palmer played her match with Little in a carefree manner, joking with friends in the gallery, as if she were in the tournament on a free pass. Which she was. Palmer was No. 17 on the Colgate list, but when Carol Mann felt she needed more time to recover from surgery, she yielded to Palmer. The 5'1½" Palmer went three up on Little during the back nine before closing out the match at 17.
"It will be fun to play JoAnne tomorrow," said Palmer after her round. "She's one player I'd come out just to watch."
After 15 holes the next day, the two veterans were as close as they had been on the 1st tee. At 16, Palmer holed a 10-footer for a birdie that looked as if it might give her the match. That seemed especially true when Carner hit her drive at 17 to the left of the green, but Carner got her approach close enough for a par. Palmer, whose drive was in-the same vicinity but nearer the pin, apparently got her approach close enough, too. but when she went to tap in her two-foot putt, the ball rolled by. The match was even.
Shaken, Sandra hit a weak approach to the par-5 18th, the ball barely clearing the pond in front of the green. She chipped past the cup by four feet and missed the putt for a bogey. Carner needed only a tap-in to win, and tap it in she did. The Great Gundy had won again.
Afterward Colgate's Foster said he was very satisfied with the match-play format. No comment from 15 of the players, but surely JoAnne Carner would be delighted if he writes the tournament into next year's schedule.