Summer in the Northeast was at its steamiest in suburban southwestern Connecticut last week, and for the first three days the Women's Open championship proceeded in an unusually orderly fashion, as if everyone felt it was too hot to make a fight of it. Then on Sunday, with rain in the air and a breeze blowing in from Long Island Sound, the weather turned cool and the golf got hot at Fairfield's sedate old Brooklawn Country Club. Debbie Massey, who had started the day with a three-stroke lead as a result of three days of smart, solid golf, suddenly lost her composure and found herself tied for third. Sally Little began making birdies as though she was about to repeat the 65 she had in the last round of the 1978 Open, and at the turn she was tied for the lead. The tiny veteran, Sandra Palmer, who started in a tie for third, four strokes back, held steady and soon was in second. And Jerilyn Britz, the amiable 36-year-old former schoolteacher from Minnesota who had led or shared the lead for the first two days before skying to a 75 on Saturday—as 36-year-old non-winners of anything are supposed to do—began the day three strokes down, stumbled once, recovered, and marched into the lead alongside Little. By the 11th hole she led alone.
After that point, the gallery got what galleries hope for in the final holes of a tournament, a gripping match between the last twosome on the course, in this case Britz and Massey. Little's putter cooled off on the back nine, and Palmer shot an admirable one-under-par 70 for 286 and an eventual tie for second, but Britz and Massey fought it out until the last putt dropped. Massey, four strokes behind after the 11th hole, provided most of the fireworks, with four birdies in six holes, three of them in a row on 15, 16 and 17. But Britz, whose poise is awesome, failed to crack once through the last six holes, even though she was playing in the most prestigious title in women's golf, as well as going for her first victory as a pro. Britz' cool is so extraordinary that even after she had cold-shanked her third shot on the par-5 8th hole and, as a result, was faced with a 30-foot putt to save par, she was able to blot out the memory of the shank and sink the putt with authority. "I have faith in the Lord, and I give Him all those worries and frustrations," she said after it was all over.
The Lord certainly giveth and taketh with exquisite timing. Even on the last tee, after the now tigerish Massey had birdied her third-straight hole to pull into a tie, Britz was able to whisper to her caddie, "We have nothing to worry about."
She was right. Massey popped her drive into a long narrow divot on the left edge of the 18th fairway, 170 yards from the green. She tore into her second shot with a four-iron that she said left another divot the size of a "burrowing elephant," but still landed several yards short of the green. Her pitch to the putting surface rolled eight feet past the hole, her putt for par missed by a yard, and the short one for a bogey missed, too. Britz' winning putt for par was easy after that.
July 22, 1979
"If I could have won the Podunk Open, I'd have been very pleased," said Jerilyn. "To have it happen in the U.S. Open is an extra bonus." Britz is not the oldest player ever to win an Open—Fay Crocker was 40 when she won in 1955—but she is the oldest LPGA player ever to win a first tournament. Furthermore, her even-par 70-70-75-69—284 equals the best score in relation to par in the history of the Open, JoAnne Carner's even-par 288 in 1971.
Folk wisdom says that the Open is supposed to be won by players who have had long and successful amateur careers, players like Hollis Stacy and Carner and Massey, who are accustomed to playing on courses set up by the USGA with their healthy rough, narrow fairways and fast greens. That wisdom overlooks Open winners such as Sandra Palmer and Susie Berning and Britz, who more or less learned as they toured. Still, there was every reason to think this time that Massey, winner of the Canadian amateur three times, the Eastern amateur twice, the Western once, veteran of two Curtis Cup teams and low amateur in the 1974 U.S. Open, would hold up, while Britz, a gifted athlete who did not begin playing golf until she was 17, and who has been on the tour for six years without a victory, would fold under the pressure.
Britz, who travels the tour in a van that she describes as a rolling sporting goods store—it is chock full of golf clubs, basketballs, scuba gear and the like—is a 1965 graduate of Mankato State in Minnesota and was a phys-ed teacher, first at a high school in Minneapolis, then at the University of New Mexico, where she earned her masters, and finally at New Mexico State. She joined the golf tour because she had always wanted to be a professional athlete and there wasn't a lot to choose from. "I didn't care much for tennis, and I didn't think I'd be a very good boxer or football player," she said. She thought a minute and added, "Maybe I would have been a good boxer."
She is soft-spoken and fervently religious, and as tough a competitor as anyone in the Open field this year, a year in which Carner was missing because of a wrist injury. An Open without JoAnne ought to have an asterisk beside it in the record book. Massey suddenly began talking about Carner toward the end of the press conference that followed her painful double bogey on the last hole. Perhaps she thought of Carner because she felt she had not played the way Carner would have.
"I miss JoAnne; I really miss her," she said. "I love her spirit. She does miracles in the Open and she enjoys every second. She lets it fly and she's never scared. She has the heart of a lion."
The finest tribute to the new champion was paid in absentia by Carner herself. "There are no fluky winners in the Open," she had said earlier in the year. "An Open course requires too many skills just to survive every round. It is the ultimate test of golf."
Except for the absence of Carner and the oppressive weather, there were few complaints from players about the Brooklawn Open. The gallery, of course, had hoped for more fireworks from Nancy Lopez, its clear favorite, or Stacy, who was gunning for her third Open in a row, but all in all, the course, designed by the celebrated A. W. Tillinghast in 1930, turned out to be an excellent test of nerve, skill and golfing I.Q. Its moderate length, 6,010 yards, rewarded shotmaking and putting rather than long hitting, which pleased far more players than it discomfited, and the rough was of a height and thickness that they termed "fair."
The key to the course was the greens, which were moderately fast, mostly small and undulating, often elevated and guarded by deep, steep bunkers. Hitting them with the approach shot was critical because if one didn't, getting up and down was well-nigh impossible. A shot from a bunker or a chip from the rough invariably hit a downslope, and once under way the ball rolled until gravity deemed it was all right to stop.
Just hitting the greens was not enough, either. The ball had to land and stay below the hole for a player to have any hope of a birdie or reasonable expectation of a par. A downhill putt from even the shortest distance courted disaster. Lopez was particularly uncomfortable with the greens. She likes to putt boldly, but at Brooklawn the only place she could do that was from directly below the hole and against the grain. Otherwise she had to "baby" her putts, and that, she said, was not her style. "What this tournament is going to come down to," she said after the last practice round, "is who can stand over the eight-footer, downhill, and make it."
Beginning on Thursday, when she finished three strokes behind the leaders, Lopez fell a little further off the lead every day until on Sunday, when she was seven shots behind Massey, her situation was hopeless. Her first two rounds—73-73—were not bad, but as she said on Friday, "The adrenaline just isn't going yet. I've gotten birdies but I haven't gotten pumped up, and that is very important." On Saturday, playing with Stacy, she shot another 73, and that was the end of her fifth try for an Open title. Her best finish so far has been a tie for second in 1975, when she was 18 and still an amateur.
For her part, Stacy had won the last two Opens as well as three straight junior championships, in 1969, '70 and '71. USGA courses like Brooklawn are as familiar as her own backyard, and the Open's sometimes intimidating blue-blazered atmosphere is just another family reunion. Her mother is a USGA committeewoman. Only three players have won more USGA titles than Stacy.
When her first-round 71 left her only one shot off the lead of Massey and Britz, she was bouncy and confident. After a 75 on Friday she was guardedly optimistic, pointing out that she had also shot 71-75 the first two rounds last year. "I figure I have one struggle round in this tournament," she said. The difference was that her 146 last year was only one stroke behind the leader. This time she was six strokes back, and her struggle would not be limited to one round. On Saturday she hit out-of-bounds on 18 and finished with a 74, winding up eight strokes behind Massey.
The crowd at Brooklawn set a Wommen's Open attendance record on the first day and kept getting bigger. On Sunday, even with rain threatening and Lopez out of the running, there were 13,000 paying customers. It was clear, in retrospect, that the 1979 Open would be seen as a watershed. Harry M. Stevens, that giant of the ball parks and racetracks, handled the catering, the first time the company had taken on a golf tournament; ABC had its golf crew there; advance sales of season tickets were double those of any previous year; and a green-and-white-uniformed army of 3,500 volunteers from clubs all over Connecticut scurried to do the manifold things that make a tournament big time.
The rambling Brooklawn clubhouse, perched on the knoll of one of the highest hills in Fairfield County, sparkled with fresh white paint. Its porches, shaded by striped awnings and spotted with large pots of petunias and geraniums, were alive with the well-turned-out crowds that set a major championship apart from the workaday tour. Even the USGA brass, most of whom used to view the women's championship more as a pain than a privilege, showed up en masse over the weekend to lend the authority of their striped ties to the occasion. And after Sunday's spectacular show, who could say that the occasion had not proved more than fitting?