To understand how long Donna Young has been playing golf, you have to know that when she joined the tour her name was Caponi and her nickname was "Watusi," for the wiggle she did when she played well. That was in 1965. Well, last Sunday Donna Young, nèe Caponi, was dancing again, only this time her moves had a disco beat.
Young won the Ladies Professional Golf Association championship, adding another major title to her two U.S. Women's Open crowns, with a final-round 70 over the Jack Nicklaus Golf Center course in Kings Island, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. For her part, defending champion Nancy Lopez played as if she needed an introduction to her putter and finished with a 76 and a tie for 10th, the first tournament in her last four she hadn't won and the only one in her last nine in which she had wound up worse than second.
On a Sunday afternoon of gusting winds, rain and devious pin placements, Young was one of only four players to break par. In doing so, she broke out of a tie for the lead and broke the heart of Jerilyn Britz on the final nine holes. Until that stretch, the tournament had belonged to the unobtrusive Britz, a virtual unknown on the tour. Britz started off with a stunning 64 over the gently rolling course (par 36-36—72) on Thursday and led or shared the lead until the final round. The question of the week had been: "When will Britz fold?" But she never did. Young, who during one streak played 50 straight holes without a bogey, simply outmatched Britz' last-round 73—a satisfying end to a stylish event.
For years the LPGA tournament was one of the most forlorn major championships in sports, a sort of Elba Invitational. As recently as three years ago it was played on a dried-up public course for a purse of $55,000. To be sure, along with a check for $8,000, the winner also carved a niche in history, because the championship dated back to 1955. But as the players would say, that and a quarter would get you a pack of tees.
June 17, 1979
Oh, how things had changed by last week. There were record crowds, a perfectly groomed course, amenities like courtesy cars, parties and free chow in the clubhouse—and $150,000 in prize money. The festivities included a black-tie dinner on Thursday night following the tournament's first round, to honor past LPGA champions. Shirley Englehorn, the 1970 winner, was so pleased she lit up a cigar on the dais.
Nancy Lopez arrived late to the banquet. She had played the opening round in the last group, which meant she had to putt on greens as beat up as a hillbilly's screen door. And if tournament officials had made the pairings to prove they don't play favorites, they underscored the point by putting Lynn Adams and Alexandra Reinhardt, two non-winners who between them have earned a total of $25,000 this season, with Lopez.
"I was getting more aggravated than anything," said Lopez after finishing the round, noting that she had hit only three greens in regulation and had three-putted three times while shooting a 73. That score doesn't sound so bad—until you reflect that it was only the fourth time in her last 24 rounds that she had been over par.
After the round, Lopez talked to the press, signed autographs and then went back to her motel and washed her hair. She drove the 30 miles to downtown Cincinnati for the dinner, arriving after everybody else had eaten. She dined on reheated chicken, downed the only glass of milk in the room and thanked everyone for inviting her.
That sort of courtesy is one of the reasons why Lopez has become such a media star. Notebooks, tape recorders and questions followed her everywhere last week. Lopez also had a one-liner or two at the ready. When the press questioned her about the score of her Wednesday pro-am partner, former President Gerald Ford, she said, "Better. He didn't hit anybody."
If Lopez was answering a lot of questions, Britz was causing a few to be asked, because hardly anyone had heard of her. She earned a shade under $40,000 last season to rank 23rd among the money earners. That was her best showing since she joined the tour in 1974, a 31-year-old former school teacher who hadn't touched a golf club until she was 17. Britz grew up in Luverne, Minn. and after discovering golf became such a fanatic that she would play all winter, teeing up on mounds of snow and putting into holes bored in the ice.
Britz' opening round of 64 was a women's course record, and her nine birdies equaled an LPGA record. Britz also had a little bit of luck. At the 17th hole her drive hit a cart path and bounced so far she had only a short pitch to the green and four-foot putt for her final birdie.
While bountiful publicity is accorded Lopez, the rest of the players tend to move from event to event in a pall of obscurity. Few outsiders were aware last week that JoAnne Carner, one of the tour's longtime stars, had been injured in a motorcycle accident in May and had missed three straight tournaments because of strained tendons in her right wrist. And after Friday's round, in which Britz had a 72 to maintain her lead, among the contenders were two players who were all but strangers to the press. Shannon Johnson, whose best finish this year was a tie for 47th, was at three under par and tied for fourth place. Rookie Muffin Spencer-Devlin, whose best was a tie for 43rd, was one under par.
Spencer-Devlin is six feet tall and gregarious. "I'm just what the tour needs," the former model and actress told reporters. "I'm good-looking and I have presence. A lot of good-looking women don't have presence."
On Saturday, Johnson shot an 82 to drop back into the pack, while Spencer-Devlin had a discouraging 76. Some of the other early leaders were having troubles of their own. Joyce Kazmierski had moved into contention with a 69 on Friday, when she one-putted 10 times using a putter that bore the inscription POLISH POWER. But before you could say John Paul II, she fell apart on Saturday, shooting a 79.
Meanwhile, Young, who had played rounds of 69 and 70, shot another 70 on Saturday and moved into a tie for the lead at 209, seven under, with a suddenly timid Britz, who had a 73.
The cheers up ahead from Lopez' gallery probably didn't help Britz. Lopez shot a 71 on Friday and then headed to the practice green to fiddle with her putting. After a few minutes, she said, "I've got it figured out," a pronouncement that was greeted with applause by her caddie, Roscoe Jones. On Saturday, Lopez made five birdies in a round of 69 that left her tied for sixth, but only four strokes behind Young and Britz. Announced an encouraged Lopez, "I feel like something is coming on."
Britz knew the feeling. Her four-stroke first-round lead was gone and now eight other players were on the scent as well and within four strokes of Young and her.
Among them were 23-year-old Amy Alcott, who tied for the lead during the day before dropping a stroke behind, and Carner, who was popping aspirin and soaking her sore wrist in hot water. Carner had a 72 Saturday to move into third with Penny Pulz, two shots behind the leaders.
On Sunday, Carner and Pulz both blew to 77s, which left them part of a four-way tie for sixth, while Alcott had a 74 and found herself in third place.
While this went on, the Watusi Kid was strolling around mumbling, "Concentration. Confidence. Composure."—injunctions her husband, Ken, had suggested to her on Saturday night. Whenever she faced a difficult shot, she said the magic words. It also helped that she was making putts from everywhere, including a 40-footer and a 25-footer. Every time the ball went in the hole, she said, the victory music got a little louder. She hit her drive on the 18th hole and, watching it, smiled and said: "Boogie on down there, ball. Boogie on down."