Pat Bradley has had the reputation of a golfer who could be counted on to dissolve in the clutch, but last week, on the final day of the U.S. Women's Open in the Chicago suburb of La Grange, the long-hitting Bradley punched her way out of her choker's reputation, beating par, the record book and—somewhat sadly for sentimentalists—Kathy Whitworth, too.
From the first day, when her 69 earned her a half-share of the lead, the 36th Open was Whitworth's tournament. At 41, she was perhaps making her final serious bid to win a championship which has eluded her throughout her distinguished 23-year career. She also was going for her 82nd victory, which would have tied her with Mickey Wright for the alltime lead in that category, and trying to become the oldest female Open champion. And finally she was looking for the last $1,031 she needed to become the first woman to earn a million bucks on the golf course. And for 3½ rounds, she had a shot at doing all of that. But Bradley took the play away from Whitworth on Sunday with some back-nine heroics that included a chip-in, a 70-foot birdie putt and enough other sensational feats that she seemed perpetually to be raising her arms in triumph.
Some might count this as an Open that Whitworth lost, but, in truth, Bradley won it with an almost perfect final round of 66, a course-record score that helped her set a tournament 72-hole mark of 279, nine under par on the La Grange Country Club course, a treelined layout made docile by rains and the absence of winds. And she clinched the win with a birdie on the last hole, tapping in a two-footer that blunted a late charge by her playing companion, Beth Daniel, who finished second and smiling after a 68.
Whitworth had begun the fourth round holding—by one stroke—the lead she had nurtured on and off since the first day. But she was visibly jittery on the greens and bogeyed the 3rd and 4th holes while Bradley and Daniel, playing ahead of her, were sowing birdies. Whitworth would never again gain the lead, and her quest for victory ended at the par-3 17th when she dumped her four-iron tee shot into the water. Afterward she was philosophical. "I'm kind of getting used to it in the Open," she said. "The harder I tried, the more it didn't work. Why I can't win the Open, I don't know. I knew early it was going to be all uphill, and I was going to have trouble climbing the hill."
August 2, 1981
Her task was made all but impossible by Bradley's play. Hers was the sort of round not often seen on the final day of a major championship, and hardly ever by someone who has finished second 24 times in eight years on tour. Bradley is usually an inscrutable, almost dour sort on the course, her face largely obscured by a visor. But Sunday she kept reacting to the miracles she was performing; she seemed airborne for most of the day. "For someone who's not supposed to have emotions, I can jump pretty high," she said later.
After Saturday's play, Bradley was in fourth place, three strokes behind Whitworth, two behind Bonnie Lauer, a virtually unknown seventh-year professional out of Michigan State, and one behind Daniel. But Bradley almost eagled the 1st hole when she sailed in a seven-iron shot that did a dance around the cup. After she tapped in for the birdie, she thought to herself, "Well, this could be the start of something."
Meanwhile, Whitworth was playing in the last group with Lauer, whose excruciatingly slow pace probably didn't help Whitworth's state of mind. As she stood by like a statue while Lauer fretted over a series of misfortunes that led to a front-nine 40, Whitworth could hear wild-cheering for whatever was happening up ahead. After the 4th hole, she was out of the lead for the first time since Friday.
In the end, although Whitworth closed to within one stroke for a time on the back nine, she shot a 74 and had to be satisfied with third-place money of $9,500, which boosted her career earnings to $1,008,469. On the men's side, millionaire status is no big thing; 31 PGA players are over the $1 million mark, including one (Jack Nicklaus) over $3 million and two (Lee Trevino and Tom Watson) over $2 million. But for the women, Whitworth's achievement was a huge milestone.
Her performance at La Grange also showed that she is back on her game, after three doleful years in which a duck hook almost sent her into retirement.
Whitworth has never received quite the kind of attention she deserves because, just as women's golf was taking off on the coattails of corporate sponsors and television, her game was falling over and playing dead. And now an Open she didn't win would put her in the headlines again. "I'm glad she's finally getting a little credit," said Wright from her home in Port St. Lucie, Fla. "It's a shame she had to wait so long. Patty Berg has a saying: 'It's not how fast you get there, but how long you stay.' Well, Kathy's been there 23 years. That's a pretty long time to stay, isn't it?"
But Whitworth didn't stay around quite long enough at La Grange; by Sunday's back nine the focus of the Open was on the head-to-head battle going on just in front of her: Bradley vs. Daniel, the 24-year-old South Carolina native who won $231,000 last season. The duel was replete with near disasters. Usually a mistake in an Open is not to be redeemed, but the wetness of the greens changed that as shots from the rough hit and held. During the first five holes, Daniel never once saw the fairway, but was one under par nevertheless. All afternoon both players kept bolting out of the rough and traps and sinking long putts for par. In fact the only bogey either made came at the 16th hole when Daniel hooked a four-iron to the left of the green into a virtual salad bar of grass.
The key shots that eventually poured the winner's champagne for Bradley came at the 13th hole, where she chipped in from 15 feet, and at the 15th, where she knocked in a "no brains" putt of 70 feet. Said Daniel, "I was trying to ignore her to keep from going crazy. I kept thinking to myself: 'Well, she can't keep this up.' I still can't believe it." At the par-5 18th, Bradley boldly wedged up to within two feet and then sank the birdie putt she needed to stay out of a playoff with Daniel, who herself was looking at a cinch birdie putt of no more than six inches. "Well, I guess I can only win the big ones," said Bradley, for whom this was Tour victory No. 9.
Certainly there were more notable golfers who found this big one embarrassingly tough to play. Nancy Lopez-Melton, who had been the Tour's leading money-winner and who's a cinch to earn several million dollars during her career, didn't even finish the tournament. She was bothered by a sore right shoulder and for three days shot 75-73-74 before deciding to withdraw. The injury was diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff that will require about a month to heal. Amy Alcott, the defending champion who set the tournament scoring record last year, also had a disappointing time of it, even though she tried to blunt her anxiety with a low-key approach. In fact, during an opening 75 on Thursday, Alcott was so nonchalant that at one point on the fairway she inexplicably blurted to her caddie: "Disco music has died out. Whatever happened to the Bee Gees and Donna Summer?" Alcott eventually finished tied for 19th on the hit parade.
And Sandra Haynie, who won the Open in 1974—the last time it was held at La Grange—had other things to think about, too. Her car was stolen early in the week, which bothered her mostly because she had her two favorite sets of clubs in the trunk. Using some hastily assembled replacements, Haynie played respectably and finished in a tie for 10th, winning $2,967.
Almost from the words with which the USGA opened the tournament—"Play away, please"—Whitworth was on the leader board and a lot of people were hopeful that this could be her year. "I think it's great," said Donna Caponi, a two-time Open champ herself. "If she wins, I'll probably get drunk as a skunk." Sunday morning, true to her word, Caponi, who would finish sixth, was searching for a place to buy Whitworth a bottle of her favorite wine. No luck, which was just as well, because as things developed, the only glass raised would be to Bradley.