JoAnne Carner's progress through a match-play tournament is devastating and inexorable. If she can't beat you one way, she has two or three other ways that will do just as well. She is long off the tee and masterful from a bunker. She is a pretty good putter and a very good thinker. But her greatest advantage is that she loves match play, which puts her at least one-up against most opponents before they ever leave the first tee. Last week Carner reached the finals of the Colgate Triple Crown, the only match-play event on the LPGA calendar, by marching through Debbie Massey 5 and 4, Sandra Post 3 and 2 and Silvia Bertolaccini 5 and 4 at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Pat Bradley can hit a golf ball every bit as far as Carner can. She is just as strong, just as athletic and just as competitive. At 27, she is one of the four or five best players in the LPGA. In 1978 Bradley won three tour championships to Carner's two, plus the Mixed Team title with Lon Hinkle, and she finished second to Nancy Lopez on the money list while Carner dropped down to fourth, her lowest position in five years.
Nevertheless, when Bradley and Carner played Sunday for the $23,000 winner's check, Carner was the heavy favorite because nobody beats JoAnne Carner at match play. During her long amateur career, when she was winning a national championship every other year or so—always at match play—her winning percentage in USGA events was an incredible .893.
When Carner plays a head-to-head match she invariably has the initial advantage of greater experience at this particular type of golf than her opponent, and she adds to that advantage by making it clear she relishes it. Most of the other women share Amy Alcott's feelings about match play. "Personally, I like to get it over with," Alcott says.
By Sunday the desert snow had melted and Rancho Mirage was again experiencing the kind of midwinter weather that appeals to ex-presidents—dry and sunny with a breeze from the northwest. It was a perfect day for golf. Carner had apparently cured earlier putting problems by switching from a Bull's Eye to a Ping, while Bradley, charged up by her 4-and-2 dismantling of Donna Caponi Young in the semifinals, was breathing fire. "I'm going to come out storming," she promised.
They both came out storming, right into greenside bunkers at the 1st hole. They halved the hole with bogeys. No harm done, one might have assumed. As it turned out, however, the hole was crucial for Bradley. While Carner two-putted from 35 feet for her bogey, Bradley did so from only six feet, her first putt running right over the hole.
Somewhat disheartened, Bradley birdied the par-5 second. Trouble was, Carner made an eagle 3—the only eagle of the tournament—after hitting a five-wood second shot to within six feet of the pin. Bradley became even more disheartened when Carner won the third hole with a par 4 to take a two-up lead.
"When you get behind the master," Bradley said, "you know you have to birdie, and that can wear you down after a while."
"What happened at the start may have made her think she had to grind a little harder," Carner said.
For Bradley, the situation quickly went from bad to worse. She grimaced as two putts just missed the cup, and after eight holes the indomitable Carner had a secure four-up lead. At the 9th, a par-5, Carner played a shot that Bradley and those in the gallery will be recounting for years, earner's ball came to rest a few feet off the back of the green and only two inches from the base of a palm tree with a fat trunk.
JoAnne seemed to have no shot at all, not even a lefthanded stab. She mulled the matter for a minute or two, then turned her back to the hole and played a carom shot off the trunk of the palm. "I had to hit the shot fat to get the ball up." she said. "Otherwise it would have come straight back and hit the club face a second time. I asked the head pro to watch to see if it came back, and to call the penalty if it did."
Miraculously, the shot worked, as the ball struck the trunk in the desired spot and ricocheted toward the pin. But Carner missed her putt, settled for a bogey and lost the hole to Bradley's par 5.
For Carner, it was only a momentary lapse. She continued to apply pressure on the back nine, and closed out the match 4 and 3 when Bradley conceded her two-foot putt for a par on the 15th.
When a reporter asked Bradley what had gone wrong, she opened her blue eyes wide and said, "I didn't hit it well, sir. I really gassed it bad."
Nothing in golf is more fun to watch than a good match. A tournament such as the Triple Crown produces dogfights and cliff-hangers in a profusion that makes the average stroke-play tournament seem like an exhibition. But match play is the unloved stepchild of professional golf because of the kind of thing that happened in the first round at Mission Hills. With the fond hopes of the promoters, the sponsors, the media and most of the spectators riding on her, Nancy Lopez, the greatest attraction women's golf has produced since Babe Zaharias, dropped her first match to Bertolaccini on the second extra hole and was, for purposes of publicity and promotion, lost for the week.
In a normal tournament Lopez' three-under-par 69 would have put her only a stroke or two behind the leaders, and seasoned observers would have been remarking sagely that she was in good position to win. But this was match play, and Nancy dropped into the consolation flight.
The Bertolaccini-Lopez match was possibly the best of the tournament. Bertolaccini, now starting her fifth year on the tour, has improved gradually since arriving from Argentina in 1975. She knew she would have to play near-perfect golf in order to have a chance against Lopez—and she did just that. On the first nine holes Lopez had four birdies. Bertolaccini three. Neither was ever more than one-up at any point in the match. They made the turn even, and the match was still square at the par-3 17th. Then Bertolaccini three-putted from 30 feet to lose the hole to Nancy's par. Silvia's bright hopes dimmed abruptly; Lopez needed only to halve the par-5 18th to win.
But Bertolaccini squared the match at the 18th by hitting a wedge shot over a small lake to within six inches of the pin. Lopez conceded the birdie putt, giving Silvia a 68 for the round, and they moved on to extra holes. They halved the 19th in pars, but then Silvia won with a birdie putt from 12 feet at the 20th.
"It was a fun match," said Lopez. "I was proud to be part of it."
As the entire Western world and Japan must know by now, Nancy Lopez of Roswell, N. Mex. became, as of Jan. 6, Nancy Lopez Melton of Hershey, Pa. She would be Nancy Lopez Melton on the tour if she had her way. Instead, the companies to which she is under contract insist that she remain Nancy Lopez to the consuming public.
Bertolaccini had arrived at Mission Hills fresh from a month of hard work on her game in Florida. Nancy arrived after a honeymoon on Kauai in Hawaii, where it rained steadily, followed by two weeks of hitting balls off rubber mats at an indoor-outdoor driving range in Hershey, where she and her husband Tim live for the time being. "You hit balls out into the snow and there are little heaters over your head," Nancy said, somewhat hopelessly.
Lopez suffers from a strange malady that causes her upper arms to stiffen painfully when she is inactive. Originally, only her right arm was afflicted, and the condition was diagnosed as strained muscles. Now the stiffness is in her left arm, too, and though Nancy is looking for a new explanation, she claims that so far it has not affected her play.
She had planned to fly to Los Angeles on Wednesday to see a specialist but, like everyone else, she became snowbound, of all things, in the desert. With the airport closed, the roads impassable, the pro-am canceled and the golf course unplayable, the 16 qualifiers paced and fretted in their hotel in Palm Springs.
Donna Caponi Young worked out in the hotel's health club. JoAnne and Don Carner played crazy eights. Bradley, a New England skier who has given up the sport at the urging of her father ("My dad always says, 'Remember what happened to Jim Lonborg. He went skiing and hurt his knee and he was never the same again' "), gazed at the towering, snow-covered San Jacinto Mountains longingly. And somebody else built a snowman in front of the hotel and put a golf capon his head.
"We were all like caged lions." said Carner.
By Thursday rain had washed the snow away, and the Mission Hills course was in surprisingly good condition. Some of the contestants were not. Carner hadn't played in a tour event since September. Bradley had a jammed thumb that has been bothering her off and on for three years. And Dot Germain hadn't played match play for nine or 10 years, she guessed. Germain has been on the tour for five years, three of them full-time. Though she has improved steadily and had her best year in 1978, earning $33,590, Germain has yet to win a tour championship.
Nevertheless, Germain, four other non-winners and Mary Mills, who has not won a tour event in five years, all qualified for the Triple Crown field, but Hollis Stacy, winner of the U.S. Open the past two years and fifth on the 1978 money list, did not. Qualification is based only on points earned in Colgate's three other events—the Dinah Shore in March, the European Open in England in August and the Far East Open in Kuala Lumpur in November—and Stacy finished 17th and fifth in the first two, then chose to pass up the trip to the Far East.
Perhaps the Colgate system contains a subtle commercial logic not visible to the naked eye, but it is artistically lacking. Any tournament that produces a match as good as Lopez vs. Bertolaccini, or a match player as good as Carner, deserves a long and prosperous life, but a tournament that excludes a player like Hollis Stacy seems deliberately to be getting in the way of its own success.