Beth, you were ready,
Look what you've done.
You're on top, ain't it fun.
Ah, now Beth, you're Number One.
—SHE'S A WINNER (BETH'S SONG)
Fun? Well, not really. True, Beth Daniel is the major figure in her game now, having unseated that smiling face, Nancy Lopez-Melton, the media heartthrob who almost single-handedly propelled the LPGA from newspaper agate to headline type. But Daniel has discovered that with stardom have come all these people looking at her, studying her, eating away at her time and privacy, challenging her to get back into the kitchen if she can't stand the heat. Her inclination is to put on a fake nose and dark sunglasses. Daniel doesn't want to be adored, only appreciated for what she is: the best woman golfer around. If she can get her putter fully straightened out and her temper cooled down, and if everyone will stay behind the gallery ropes so she can hit practice balls from dawn to dusk, she could become the finest female golfer of all time.
Naturally shy and reclusive—she and her similarly inclined roommates at Furman called themselves The Possums—Daniel is a reluctant superstar, just as the young Jack Nicklaus was some 20 years ago when he arrived, fat, rumpled and socially awkward, to challenge the charisma of Arnold Palmer. Daniel happens to be tall and thin—gawky, if you will—and she, too, is uneasy among people and happiest on a lonesome, uncrowded road, preferably one that leads to a private golf course. When she joined the tour two years ago and got her first look at the mob chasing after Lopez, as she then was, Daniel was aghast. "I'll never be another Nancy," she said at the time.
And she isn't. Last season, while winning four tournaments and a record $231,000 in prize money, becoming LPGA Player of the Year, setting standards for consistency and displaying a nearly flawless swing, Daniel almost got herself suspended for throwing clubs and digging up greens. She chewed out a photographer who aimed his camera at her at the wrong moment and sighed loudly and pointedly at any journalist who dared ask what she considered an inane question. "I'm a golfer, not a movie star," she says. "I come across on first impression like a jerk, stuck-up, really a cold fish."
February 2, 1981
But holy mackerel, this woman can play! Alltime great Mickey Wright took a look at Daniel and announced, "In three years people will be saying, 'Nancy who?'" And Daniel's caddie, a 53-year-old former jet fighter jockey named Dee Darden, says he would tote her bag for free because "She hits shots that just make you tingle." Over the last half of the 1980 season, after she'd figured out to some extent how to get the ball into the hole from six feet, Daniel played the best run of golf anyone ever saw on the women's tour. Discounting a tournament in Atlanta, from which she withdrew because of a muscle spasm in her back, she dominated the tour—utterly and completely. At one point she won three straight tournaments, among them the World Series of Women's Golf. Only once did she finish worse than fifth, in the U.S. Women's Open, in which she was 10th. Week after week, from Birmingham to Japan, a span of 19 tournaments, she either won or had a chance to win.
Women's golf used to be a sideshow. As recently as 10 years ago, the tour consisted of a small band of impoverished players plying the back nines of America. Country clubs limited women's play to ladies' days and occasions when the demand from men for course time was low. But with the rise of feminism, Title IX and a new professionalism in the LPGA management, this has all changed. Daniel grew up on a course, the Country Club of Charleston, S.C., where she could get out and play as often as the boys did. She entered amateur tournaments all over the world. She even competed on the men's team at Furman. And by the time she was ready to join the tour, she didn't have to act like a lady. If she missed a shot she said something stronger than "darn." And she'd stick a club in the ground or bounce one off her caddie and roar like Tugboat Annie. In other words, if she could play like a man she could act like one, too.
Lopez joined the tour in 1977 and almost immediately was dubbed Wonder Woman. Hers is still the standard against which Daniel's performance is measured. When Johnny Miller mounted a challenge to Nicklaus a few years ago, it was noted that while he won a lot of Phoenixes and Tucsons, he couldn't win with Nicklaus in the field; in fact, he couldn't finish ahead of Nicklaus, even when neither of them won. In the last half of last season, when she finally stopped fighting herself, Daniel beat Lopez-Melton in nine of the 14 tournaments in which both were entered. And that success provided a measure of inner peace. "Inside I'm much more relaxed now," says Daniel. "It's not like a matter of life or death. I get upset still, but that's just the competitiveness in me."
Daniel has discovered one way to ensure tranquillity: when the walls start closing in on her, she disappears, taking a week or two off. She also tenaciously guards her freedom by not taking on a multitude of commitments for personal appearances and endorsements—easy money to most top players. As a result, she stands to lose perhaps $200,000 a year, according to her manager, Vinny Giles. When she leaves the course she is drawn toward solitary pursuits—reading books, watching television, or listening to Willie Nelson laments on her elaborate stereo system. "I'm a very private person," she says. "I don't thrive on popularity. Everyone wants to be popular, and everyone wants to be wanted, but Lopez is in the limelight so much that she gave up something precious: her time. I treasure mine too much for that."
It has been said that Daniel plays like a man. Actually, she plays like a machine. When the gears are meshing properly, as they were last August and September, no one can touch her. Even when Daniel plays poorly she will nonetheless be somewhere on the leader board. And even scarier for her rivals, at 24, some three months older than Lopez-Melton, Daniel is still emerging from the insulated Southern environment that protected her during her childhood. She's only starting to discover just how good she can be.
The Swing. Golfers talk about Daniel's swing as the best among women players since Wright starred in the mid-'60s. It's long, slow and rhythmical, its cadence reminiscent of Sam Snead's. Because Daniel is 5'10", she generates enormous power. She's easily the longest driver on the tour. Nicklaus' competitors used to say of him, "He plays a different game." In women's golf, Daniel plays a different course, one a lot shorter than that confronting other players. At a tournament in Dallas last September, one rival told her, "Beth, I wanted to shoot my ball out of a cannon today so I could keep up with you."
It's because of this swing that most people believe Daniel will dominate the tour for seasons to come. Four years ago, Judy Rankin, who was then the LPGA's leading money-winner, watched a teenaged Daniel shoot a back-nine 34 and told her husband, "Someday that girl is going to beat all of us. She's the closest thing to Mickey Wright I've seen." Says two-time Open champion JoAnne Garner, "She's got all the shots. There aren't many players who have the ability to shoot 65 every time they tee it up. She's one of them."
To be compared with Wright in only your second year on the tour is exhilarating stuff. Wright won 82 tournaments during her long LPGA career, grinding out the miles by automobile because she had a fear of flying. Perhaps because she feels a kinship—one legend observing the birth of another—Wright has closely watched Daniel's progress. "Obviously, she has the desire, and that's the most exciting thing you can see in a young player," says Wright. "Her record in 1980 is just a start for her, I'm sure."
Women golfers and tennis players have progressed from being discriminated against to something near equality, but for a few of the best, that apparently hasn't meant satisfaction. Chris Evert Lloyd and Lopez-Melton, having attained the top in their respective professions, seemed almost as if they couldn't wait to trade the glory for an apron and a husband. Evert Lloyd wavers between retiring and playing. And Lopez-Melton reduced her schedule following her marriage in 1979 and has said that in the near future she will leave the tour to have children.
Says Wright of the new breed, "They start earlier and burn out earlier. Plus, once you get the money sack full, the motivation fades. But Beth strikes me as one that will maintain her drive for a long time. She struck me that way three or four years ago. She really seems to want to be the best." Says Daniel, "I haven't achieved anything yet. If I were to quit golf today, I would go down in history as nothing."
The bottom line on Daniel is that while she's well on her way to mastering golf, she remains indentured to it. Life is golf. The game's history is her scorecard. And if it comes down to it, she will give up love, friends, time, money, anything it takes to mark that scorecard so that no one ever will forget who she was.
In 1979, her rookie year, full of expectation and burdened by promise, Daniel wore out the practice tee. She complained that the LPGA put too much pressure on her by proclaiming her "the next Lopez." She told a boyfriend that her life didn't have enough room for two loves. And she broke the heart of a man who gave up his job for her.
This fractured romance illustrates just how important being the best is to Daniel. She met the fellow at a tournament in the East. They went out, and she giggled like a schoolgirl. He attended a couple of tournaments in the New York area and even flew to Dallas to be with her. Then, on the course, she found herself scanning the gallery for him instead of looking at her shot. She told the guy to get lost. "It probably wouldn't have worked out anyway," Daniel says now—she'd had the same problem before. "If I were to meet someone, it would be really hard for me to have a relationship because right now I give so much to golf that I couldn't give 100% to a relationship."
Tommy Bell, a former sportswriter for The Columbia State in South Carolina, quit his job, caddied for Daniel in her erratic rookie year and wrote a book about the tumultuous odyssey. So far it's unpublished, but Bell calls it Mommas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Caddies. The book is a log of the tour, but it's also the personal narrative of how a 29-year-old man becomes immersed in Daniel's quest for greatness; how he changes from an objective journalist, nicknamed Clark Kent by the other players, to a caddie who grows misty-eyed when Daniel hits a good shot. The year starts with Daniel lobbing a putter at Bell after missing a short putt. The two are laughing friends, not lovers; buddies who make up nicknames for things. Her putter becomes Sam Wilson, and Tommy's old Volvo is called Arnold, after Arnold Palmer. In the end, on her birthday, after he has given her a present, she fires him, an acrimonious parting from which Bell still hasn't recovered.
He now lives in Hilton Head Island, S.C., where he's an insurance executive. After his year on the tour, he and his wife divorced and he sold his house and moved into a trailer. For a time he was jobless and nearly destitute. When the women's tour visited Hilton Head last spring, Daniel told him, "Tommy, I really care about you."
"If you cared about me," said Bell, "I'd still be caddying for you."
Wrong. If she cared less about golf, he'd still be caddying for her.
Now Daniel sees the episode as a good idea that didn't work. She believes that she and Bell were too emotional, an unstable pairing, always near the flash point. Though Daniel won a tournament and $97,000 in her rookie year, she wound up looking at her caddie as if he had a buzzard on his shoulder, and she acknowledges that they parted "on real bad terms."
"There has to be a professional relationship between caddie and player," she says. "We thought we could be friends and work together, too. But it got to the point that it was hurting me more than helping. He was too emotionally involved in my golf game and in my life, even down to trying to pick my friends. I was so stifled that I couldn't be myself."
Now Daniel's caddie is the unemotional Darden, who, after a career of seeing emergency lights go on in Air Force cockpits, doesn't get upset about anything that takes place on a golf course. Darden carries the bag and leaves the driving to Daniel. "Dee just takes everything in stride," Daniel says. "I get mad and he doesn't react, and as a result I don't get mad as much. And if I yell at him, he just talks on like nothing happened. I get embarrassed and apologize."
Golf is a frustrating game; Ben Hogan called it a game of misses. And on those days when Daniel's misses pile up, when her clubs—her "babies," as she calls them—sass her, she slams them around, occasionally displacing a piece of golf course in the process. Or she berates Darden. Or lasers anyone who happens to come into her field of vision with a mean-faced glare. As a teen-ager, she almost conked a country-club mother with a helicoptered club. On another occasion, in a basketball game, she heaved the ball at a referee. Early last season, before she began winning consistently, she implored reporters not to write that she had flipped her nine-iron into the air after a bad shot. She'd already been fined twice for similar transgressions. "Now I'll be suspended," she said. Then she managed to persuade LPGA officials that she hadn't tossed the club in anger.
Daniel's occasional eruptions, described as "competitive fire" by those close to her, have for the most part disappeared. Winning has helped. Then there was the LPGA, whose gendarmes would somehow materialize whenever Daniel's temper started to sizzle. "They were after me," she says. "Every time I had a bad hole they would show up in a golf cart and start writing in their notebooks." It should be recorded that at the Women's Open—a tournament not administered by the LPGA—Daniel got hot under the collar more than once and had her worst showing of the last half of 1980.
Of course, when you are young and can hit the ball like Daniel, and when you have won two U.S. Amateurs, finished second in a pro tournament while still in college and beaten more than three-fourths of the field in a men's college tournament, when you come on tour and are interviewed almost daily as to why you aren't running away with all the titles and money, you tend to get a little snappish.
Daniel grew up in Charleston, the daughter of Lucia and Bob Daniel. Her father is a Coca-Cola distributor, a former cheerleader for The Citadel and a golf nut who has such a wild backswing that he has snapped a club in two by bouncing it off his shoulder. As a prosperous businessman, Bob could afford to. give his daughter the best coaching and pay her way to state and national amateur tournaments. He cheered her on. Each week from the time she was 16, Beth would join her father and his friends for a small-stakes game of golf. She competed on equal terms, playing from the men's tees. "She always could hit the ball as far as any man out there," Bob says. "And practice.... I've seen her work so much that her hands would bleed. If there was anybody overdedicated to a sport, it was she." On the infrequent occasions when Beth lost, she'd say, "The sun don't shine on the same dog's behind all the time." In her parents' home there is a trophy, a gift from one of the participants in the weekly game, on which the same line is inscribed, except that the "don't" has been changed to "does."
The sun does shine on Daniel almost constantly now, but it seemed to take its time coming over the horizon. Al Esposito, the kindly pro at the Country Club of Charleston, a $7.50-per-half-hour instructor, first tutored Daniel when she was eight. In those days she was small for her age, so Esposito had her hold the club with all 10 fingers, a departure from the standard overlapping grip. Well-meaning people over the years have urged her to change it, but from the beginning Daniel has let advice from anyone but her teacher roll right off her back.
"If I told her to stand on her head and grip the club with her feet, well, by golly, she'd do it," says Esposito, who's now 60 and recently retired. "When I first saw her, she was so little that you would've thought she was least likely to succeed. But she was determined. She'd pull her bag over her shoulder, and off she'd go. She just played and practiced and practiced every opportunity she got. I remember an early pee-wee tournament. She beat several of the boys and one of them said to me, 'Beth can sure play golf, but I'm going to beat her tomorrow.' Beth was standing there and she said, 'We'll see.' But you should've seen the expression in her eyes. They got so cold. It reminded me of Ben Hogan. And the next day she beat the boy again."
From then on, Esposito says, he was convinced that only one thing could come between Daniel and greatness, and that was boys. "But, by golly, she didn't let me down," he says. "Boys didn't mean a thing to her. Golf was her love."
In 1972, when Daniel was 15, Esposito left the country club to take a job at Charleston's municipal course, and his star pupil came under the tutelage of Derek Hardy, a transplanted Briton with a knack for teaching junior girls. Hardy refined Daniel's swing with a drill she still uses today. It involves hitting eight-iron shots with a half swing. Daniel resolutely performed the exercise for six months. The next summer she started winning state junior tournaments.
To the surprise of everyone—including her parents, who had made room reservations for only the first couple of days of the tournament—at 18 Daniel sailed through the 1975 U.S. Amateur, beating, among others, a phenom named Lopez.
A few years earlier, after Daniel had performed poorly in a junior tournament, a headline in a Charleston newspaper had referred to her as a "local duffer." But after her triumph in the Amateur, she returned to confetti and noisemakers. A crowd of about 300 welcomed her at the airport, beginning a love affair with her hometown that continues today. Except for the Navy base, Daniel is the biggest thing around. "This town considers Beth as its daughter," says Mac Holladay, head of the local Chamber of Commerce. "She's our patron saint." After she won her second amateur title in 1977, she was honored on billboards around the city, and the Chamber threw a victory party attended by some 500 people. It was there that She's a Winner, a paean to her accomplishments, was first sung. That same year a large portrait of Daniel was hung inside the entrance to the clubhouse of the Country Club of Charleston. The local media began following her every move. When she turned pro in 1979 the Charleston newspapers staffed her first tournament. "They put the monkey on her back early," says Esposito. "Every shot she hit had to be perfect."
However, Beth's perception of the value of success and adulation probably was fashioned by her disastrous performance at the 1976 U.S. Amateur. Putting too much pressure on herself to prove that her victory the year before wasn't a fluke, she was eliminated in the first round. That night she got off the plane in Charleston to be greeted only by her family and Esposito.
"Have you learned anything?" Esposito asked, nodding at the empty airport.
"I certainly have," she said.
The lesson was about the fickle nature of fans: if they could ignore her when she was down, she certainly wouldn't need them when she was on top. And so she discourages the public—and the press—from getting too close. It's no wonder that she is happiest on the player's side of the gallery ropes, where no one can touch her. When she feels the need to disappear, she leaves neither a forwarding address nor a telephone number. Sometimes her family draws her home, but rather than practice at the country club while in Charleston, she drives the 30 miles to Seabrook Island, a resort she represents, where she can hit in solitude. That's the way she wants it. She still has a tape recording of the song composed for her 1977 victory party, and one can imagine her riding down the road—in her Mercedes Benz now—alone but not really lonesome, because her babies are in the trunk. She's at the top of her sport but not yet near the historic pinnacle she intends to reach. There are still years of scorecards to be marked. She listens to the song on the car's tape deck. She's on top, ain't it fun? / Ah, now Beth, you're Number One.