Prima Donna by a nose

Donna Caponi is no longer Young, but that was the least of her worries as she beat off challenges by Jerilyn Britz and Pat Meyers to win another LPGA Championship
June 21, 1981

You could call Donna Caponi the Lon Chaney of women's golf. Yes, there's yet another new Donna in a line that began back in 1965 when she was a 19-year-old professional who thought a good round was breaking 80. This latest Donna has a straighter nose, a vanishing husband and a very big bank account. But guess what. She still wins major golf tournaments.

No longer using the name of her husband, Ken Young, who is about to go the same way as the old nose, Caponi won the LPGA Championship at the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center in Kings Island, Ohio last week, surviving torrential rain, tornado alerts and an almost fatal last-round collapse. But at the end, with what seemed like the entire leader board threatening to storm past her, the fun-loving Caponi, who has done more than her share to keep disco alive, triumphed by means of a remarkable birdie on the 18th hole, sinking an 18-foot putt that brought tears to her eyes.

This was Caponi's fourth major championship, and she won it despite a shaky final round of 73 that gave her a total of 280, eight under par. She finished a stroke ahead of Pat Meyers and Jerilyn Britz. Caponi's other major wins were in the 1969 and 1970 U.S. Opens and the 1979 LPGA.

Her victory was even more satisfying because it followed the breakup of her 10-year marriage to Young, a tournament promoter. In fact, Caponi was to appear in a California courtroom a week after the LPGA for preliminary proceedings in a divorce action. "There isn't a day I don't think about it," she said. "But it's not the worst thing that's happened to me. It's just a different direction."

There have been quite a few turns in Caponi's road. The tour caddies now call her Boogie D, but when she started out she was the Watusi Kid, a green player whose golf game hardly matched her late-night exuberance. It took her until 1969 to win a tournament, and in that season she earned a little more than $30,000. On Sunday, her LPGA victory was worth $22,500, a sum that boosted her to the top of the 1981 money standings, with $109,426.

Caponi underwent plastic surgery on her nose about 18 months ago, and at roughly the same time she began dieting. She was asked if her streamlined appearance, her changing marital status and the fact that she had won more than $220,000 last year and now is well on her way to another big year might already have led to a bunch of marriage proposals. "No," she said. "But I go out a lot."

Caponi took the tournament lead on Friday when she shot a 32 on the final nine for a 68. For a brief time on Saturday, as she rattled the cup with a putting stroke taught her by touring pro Dave Stockton, her lead soared to five strokes, before the wet and treacherous conditions caught up to her and she stumbled a bit.

Meanwhile, some of the pros were letting it be known that they again thought the Jack Nicklaus course to be of less than championship caliber. In fact, Kathy Whitworth, the women's alltime leading money-winner, has such little regard for the layout that this year she skipped the championship. Whitworth's absence was especially notable because she's having her best season in some time. Her victory in last month's Coca-Cola Classic was her 81st in a 23-year career, and she now needs only $13,376 to become the LPGA's first million-dollar money-winner.

To stem some of the criticism, tournament officials tinkered with the course this year, planting 50 trees at various locations and modifying the 18th hole, a par-5 that usually ended the tournament with more of a whimper than a bang because a large lake in front of the green forced the players to lay up with their second shots. This year the hole was shortened 70 yards to entice the players to take a chance with their second shots, but the women still played it like cats trying to sneak up on a pigeon, teeing off with irons and then punching wedges short of the lake. "The only way I'll try for it is if I need an eagle the last day to win the tournament," said JoAnne Carner, one of the tour's longest hitters. Groused one official, "I guess the only way we'll get them to go for it is to make it into a par-3."

For her part, Sandra Post was walking around with a smile on her face, oblivious to the shortcomings of the layout or even the rainstorms that seemed to hit Kings Island every few hours. Post had a chance to collect a $100,000 bonus, the amount offered by the sponsors of the McDonald's Classic to any player who could win both that tournament—as Post had the previous week—and the LPGA.

Post's 67 in the opening round left her only one stroke behind Lynn Adams, but on Friday, when rain interrupted play for more than 2½ hours, Post played like an Egg McMuffin, shooting a 74. Meanwhile, Adams, a former high school mathematics teacher who was competing with the considerable handicap of a broken toe suffered several weeks ago, needed a portable calculator to keep track of a second-round 81 that included a nine—splish, splash—on the 18th.

The second round also represented a milestone of sorts for Lori Garbacz, who's well on her way to becoming the female version of Tom Weiskopf. Garbacz, who was 16th on the money list last year, withdrew from the tournament, marking the fifth time in 14 tour events that she has either withdrawn or been disqualified.

The warmest story of the tournament revolved around the play of 47-year-old Marlene Hagge, who has won the tour's Best Dressed award so many times that the trophy has been retired. Golf's perennial glamour girl birdied Friday's final hole for a 70 and a two-round total of 139, five under par, a score that put her firmly on the leader board and only two strokes behind Caponi. Hagge finished early, then stood around during the rain delay and hoped for clear skies so her score wouldn't be washed out. "Please," she kept saying, looking upward. "Please."

While at the start of the LPGA Nancy Lopez-Melton was leading in money won ($102,474) and Sally Little was pacing it in victories (three), Hagge had not had a great season in '81, with only $10,943 and two top 20 finishes to show for her play in 16 previous tournaments. When it was pointed out that Hagge had won the LPGA Championship in Detroit in 1956, she cracked, "Yeah, I win it every 25 years."

As Hagge walked down the fairways to applause, it was obvious many fans had made her the sentimental favorite. "This must be an old gallery this week," said Hagge, an LPGA charter member, with a laugh. "I always thought the women's tour would be as big as it is. I just didn't think I'd still be here playing it." The reason for her longevity, she believes, is vitamins. "Thirty a day, 15 in the morning and 15 at night."

On Saturday, Hagge's dream fell apart in the rain as she bogeyed four of the first eight holes. After a 74 on Sunday, she finished tied for 12th.

Caponi, in contrast, was threatening to make a mockery of the tournament. "No brains," she explained after birdies on five of the front nine Saturday, including the last three, for a 31 that came on the heels of her back-nine 32 the previous day. But in a major championship, momentum has a way of turning around. On the 10th hole Caponi bunkered her second shot and three-putted for a double bogey. "Up until then, it just seemed the ball couldn't wait to get to the hole to jump in," she said.

Caponi picked up another bogey at the 13th. Her putter went sour. She finished with a 70, which put her nine-under and two strokes ahead of Britz and three ahead of Meyers for the tournament. Britz and Meyers aren't exactly Ben Hogan and Sam Snead; between them they have won only three tournaments. Going into the LPGA Britz was 77th on the money list, Meyers 36th. But Caponi would hear no talk of a premature victory disco. "I still have to make some birdies tomorrow," she said. "They're coming at me."

And come they did. Caponi's putter again suffered the chills on Sunday, and when she bogeyed the sixth and seventh holes, while Meyers was getting birdies on same, the four-stroke swing put Meyers ahead by a stroke, with Britz a shot behind Caponi.

From there on in, matters only got closer, and coming to the 18th, the three of them were tied and nervously eyeing each other and the lake. Britz went for the green in two, and although her second shot hit a tree and splashed in and out of the water, the ball came to rest on dry land. She chipped up and eventually two-putted. Meyers was on in three; two putts got her down in par.

And so there was Caponi, who had hit short of the lake, 18 feet away after three shots and putting for a birdie, the championship and yet another chapter in her latest edition. Caponi has been down this way before, and she gave a little jump as the ball went in. And then wept. For her, the name's not the same, but the game sure is.

PHOTOCaponi's putts were as straight as her schnozz. PHOTOMeyers kept pressure on Caponi until the very end. PHOTOHagge glowed for a time, then flickered to 12th.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)