No Fish Story: Golf's Top Lady

JoAnne Carner prefers her husband's company and their fishing retreat to the recognition she's due as the LPGA's alltime leading money-winner
July 04, 1982

JoAnne Carner is 43 now. She's obviously on the back nine of her career, older than Billie Jean King by four years, older than Jack Nicklaus or Lee Trevino, almost as old as Gaylord Perry, and she says she isn't even thinking of retiring.

But you've got to retire sometime, JoAnne.

"I'm not going to retire," says Carner firmly. "You retire. I'm never going to retire."

Few people seem aware that in her own quiet way Carner is now playing the best golf of her life. Last year she earned more money than all 18 rookies who qualified for the tour in 1981 and in the last three years she has won more tournaments than anyone else on the circuit. With her next tour victory, her 35th, she will automatically qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame. Yet the question is always the same: When are you going to quit? "Quit?" snorts Carner. "I'm just getting started."

Carner might be the best woman ever to put hands on a golf club, but she has too often been in the wrong place at the wrong time. During the 1960s, before her marriage, she was JoAnne Gunderson and knocking 'em dead fin the amateur circuit, winning five U.S. Amateur crowns. They called her The Great Gundy, and when she occasionally ventured out onto the pro circuit, she was just that. In six pro tournaments The Great Gundy won once and finished second twice. But women's golf was different then: Starvation City. "They were a tough bunch," Carner says. "They'd try and needle me on the practice tee. So I'd come to the course and not practice. Boy, that really got to 'em. They didn't know that I was practicing somewhere else."

When she finally joined the tour in 1970, she inexplicably lost her swing. By the time she found it again, the tour had changed. There were all these fresh new kids with nice smiles and winning personalities out there: Laura Baugh, Sally Little, Hollis Stacy, Nancy Lopez, Beth Daniel. Women's golf was hot, but Carner was old news.

Last year Carner should have made headlines. By late in the season she had won $206,648 and was atop the money standings. But the last two events were in Japan, and Carner, a bit of a homebody, decided not to go. Beth Daniel did. In the second tournament she birdied the final hole, finished second and won $19,600. That gave her the money title by $249. Carner read about it in the newspaper the next day at her home in Palm Beach, Fla. Wrong place.

Hardly anyone realizes that Carner is the leading money-winner in LPGA history, with $1,205,132. Kathy Whitworth got a ton of publicity in '81 when she became the first to surpass $1 million in earnings. But Carner, who started 11 years after Whitworth, caught and passed her late that season. Wrong time.

What people have lost sight of (or never had in focus) is earner's unapproachable record over the last 8½ of her 12 years as a pro, a span in which she has won $1 million and 25 tournaments. Whitworth, who won her 82nd and 83rd career tournaments this year and thus tied and then passed Mickey Wright for the alltime lead, won 12 titles in the same span. In the last 3½ seasons, the comparison is even more dramatic: Carner has 13 wins, Whitworth just three. While the number of titles won by Wright and Whitworth is monumental, both would admit they had minimal competition when they were racking up most of them.

Carner isn't only durable; she is also unique. She is the only player to have won all three major women's USGA competitions: the Junior, Amateur and Open titles. As an amateur she also was undefeated in five Curtis Cup singles matches, and in USGA match play tournaments she won close to 90% of the time. Last season, in recognition of her invariably sunny disposition, the USGA presented her the Bob Jones Award for sportsmanship. When Carner heard about it, she said, "I thought you had to be dead to win that."

Her mentor, friend and occasional fishing companion is 70-year-old Sam Snead. It's Snead who counsels her when her swing goes bad. "Of all I ever saw, I'd have to put JoAnne first, Mickey Wright second," says Snead. "She's got the tools. There's nothing that beats strength, and JoAnne's strong. I told her she should win half the tournaments. If she would just make her mind up, 'I can give these cats two a side,' and just go out and burn 'em, she'd win all the time."

Snead has great fondness for Carner because he knows when he joins JoAnne and her husband, Don, for dinner, for fishing or for golf, he has to go like crazy to beat her—at drinking, hooking a trout or making birdies. Last year she shot a 69 against him. That day Sam had a 64. "But I had to about birdie the back nine to do it," he says.

Snead isn't the only male golfer to sweat a little when paired with Carner. A few years ago she played an exhibition with Arnold Palmer. They both cracked long drives off the 1st tee. Out in the fairway, Palmer strode confidently past the shorter ball. Stopping at the second, he hitched up his pants and looked down. Then he looked again. And bent over to make sure. Then sheepishly he walked back to his drive. Carner had outhit him. The 1st hole was a par 5. Palmer birdied it. Carner eagled it.

Carner's swing is more like a man's than a woman's. It's beautiful in its simplicity. No lurch and sway. Coming into the ball, she uses the strength of her legs and hips. "The ground shakes when she hits it," says Sandra Palmer, the golfer who nicknamed Carner Big Momma at the 1976 U.S. Open when Carner beat her in a playoff.

To a large degree Carner's remarkable record as a player can be traced to the stability of her homelife. She has been married for 18 years to the same guy. It's a difficult and delicate role she plays—Traveling Career Woman and Breadwinner—one that has destroyed many promising marriages in the sports, entertainment and business worlds. In all that time, JoAnne and Don have been separated only 10 days. The figure would be higher except that when JoAnne heads for Japan—which Don can do without—she usually gets about as far as Los Angeles before she starts missing her man and turns around and comes back.

It's Don who signs the checks and drives the car. Down through the years, he says they've missed out on only a couple of things. "Kids and animals," he says. "You can't have 'em out on the tour. Plants last about a month."

And so Carner has worked out her own solution to the dilemma of how to have a career and a homelife, too. For a long time, she and Don had no fixed abode, plying the country's two-lane blacktops by trailer. Recently, they bought a one-bedroom co-op in Palm Beach, where they stay during the off-season. But they still travel the tour in a 31-foot trailer; about the farthest away that Don ever gets from JoAnne is when he's outside the gallery ropes.

Among her peers, Carner is respected for what she is: a terrific player, and a funlover who likes to roll the dice, down a Scotch and tell a story with a laugh at the end. "Big Momma" fits. The name originally described her girth and tee shots. Now that she's in her 40s, it also signifies her position as the tour's doyenne. If a young player has a problem, chances are Carner has the solution.

When they're off the course, Don and JoAnne like to fish at their hideaway in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. They also enjoy riding their trail bikes. In her helmet and sunglasses, Carner is a motorcycle momma. They're uncommonly comfortable together. Don is like a good pitching wedge to her. You find a good club, you hold on to it. The only things they won't talk about are her weight and his age. She was 24 when they married. Don probably was close to 50. You figure it out. As for her weight, it goes up and down. When Don starts mentioning it, JoAnne goes on a diet.

This spring, when the pictures for this article were being shot, Don was less than happy. One day he blurted out, "Every time I look at a picture of myself, I get sick 'cause I see how old I am."

"Don is a special guy," says golfer Dot Germain, a friend of the Carners'. "He's retired, so he can go everywhere with her. Most guys wouldn't even want to be around. Their egos would get in the way. But Don really enjoys it. There aren't many couples out here in which both people think it's a good deal. JoAnne has the perfect tour life. In fact, the tour has become her life." Retire? To what? Carner already is home.

Around the tour Don is regarded as a golf nut. He admits that as a young man he lost his first job, as a salesman, because he played so much golf he got lumps on his fingers and never had time for business appointments. He's much more than a cheerleader for his wife. "Don makes all the decisions," JoAnne says. She sounds happy about it. "Don complains that his paperwork fills up three briefcases, but he loves it."

He also broods about JoAnne's swing. Sometimes in the middle of the night, Don will sit up in bed, struck with, say, the conviction that JoAnne is addressing the ball with her club face slightly closed. "He's my Number One critic, in a nice way," says JoAnne. "If I do something wrong, he'll come right out and say it isn't right. It keeps me sharp."

JoAnne claims she and Don have never had a fight—hardly even any cross words. "It's not worth it," she says. "Most people argue over the dumbest things. Oh, when I first started playing, we had trouble because I always faded the ball and Don hooked it. We couldn't get our thinking together."

On most subjects Don is the only person able to sway JoAnne. When she was a kid living with her family in Kirkland, Wash., growing up without a doll, her older brother, Bill, told her she would never be a good golfer because she used a baseball grip and stepped into the ball. "He quit playing when I started outdriving him," says JoAnne. Later, as the best amateur in the country, she refused to play in the U.S. Women's Open because the USGA tried to force her to enter the tournament, making selection to the Curtis Cup team contingent upon it. Then during the early 70s, a cataclysmic period in her career, when her swing left her, Carner plugged away on the practice tee. "We knew she would keep at it even if it took 100 years to get it right," recalls Whitworth. Finally, when she became a big winner and could have cashed in at the endorsements and personal appearances windows, JoAnne stuck with Don. The outside work would have cut into their time together.

This decision cost her some publicity as well as money, but so what. JoAnne would be the first to admit that her solid construction precluded pinup shots. These days, the tour's baby dolls wear sun visors promoting a lingerie company. Carner sports a visor embroidered with the name of a refrigerator manufacturer, an apt connection when you consider that the refrigerator is her favorite home appliance. "Miss Piggy," she calls herself. Speaking of the recent rush to put glamour and sex appeal into the game, Carner says, "What they really need out here is more cellulite."

Carner has a wry, self-deprecating attitude about things in general. When the tour visits Las Vegas, the locker room conversation touches on whether she can win enough money in the tournament to get her even at the tables. And each year during the weeks leading up to Vegas, Carner organizes a blackjack game in the locker room—a little pregambling workout. But nothing seems to help. "I still lose," she says.

It's probably what keeps her coming back. Carner is so accustomed to winning that she's surprised when she doesn't. In high school she played on an undefeated tennis doubles team one year, even though she had picked up a racket for the first time in her life only two weeks before the opening match. And she took up bowling, a game at which she is pretty good, "as soon as I heard golfers weren't supposed to do it."

In 1979 Carner sprained both wrists when she fell while riding her trail bike. During her six weeks of recuperation, she put on 45 pounds. When she returned to the tour at Wheeling, W. Va., playing a course that was nothing but hills, a caddie took one look at her and gasped, "Momma, you ain't ever going to make it around this place."

Carner set her chin. "You just watch me," she said.

Each day when she finished her round, the caddies gathered near the 18th green and gave her a hand. Carner waved back.

In 1980, slimmed down to just big, Momma won $185,916 and five tournaments. Last season she won another four titles and averaged 71.75 strokes a round, the best of her career. This year she has won two tournaments and $162,588 in prize money, tops on the LPGA's money list. And her scoring average is down again, to 71.71. "Other than being a little stiff in the morning, I don't see any changes," she says.

One important thing that has never changed is that golf cannot get the best of her, which may be the main reason she has lasted so long. Golf is a mental game and wears on the finest players, but anytime it seems to be stealing an edge on her, she and Don quit and head for the mountains.

The Carners' Tennessee home is in a fishing camp in the Cherokee National Forest, about halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga. They live in a mobile home with a redwood deck that juts over the Tellico River, a white-water stream that whooshes past their bedroom. Just outside their door a little slough runs down to the river. A sign somewhat frivolously marks it as: CRIPPLE CREEK. The Carners' place is in, as Don puts it, "tobacco chewin', wood whittlin' country," and JoAnne is the pride of The Green Cove Trailer Camp. The store up the road has a bulletin board loaded with newspaper stories about her.

Around the camp the Carners are regarded as good, plain folk who can be counted upon if needed. On Saturday nights everyone gathers at one end of the row of trailers, and a bonfire is lit. On a makeshift stage a banjo player, a fiddler and a guitarist play bluegrass. Toddlers are balanced on grandmothers' knees. And everyone sits and rocks back and forth, listening to the music, clapping hands, feeling good about being alive and enjoying life at a walk.

It's a good life for Don and JoAnne. Don still remembers the day he and JoAnne first met, at the Miami Airport in 1961; they had been paired for the National Mixed Foursome tournament in Jupiter, and he was picking her up. She was a senior at Arizona State. He was by then a successful businessman from Providence. Don was so impressed that he can recall most of the shots from their first round. He fell in love with her drives. He couldn't believe a woman could hit the ball so far.

They would meet in Chicago, midway between his Providence home and hers in Seattle, for dates. After he and JoAnne were married, he sold all his businesses—electronics, real estate, billboards and jewelry—and opened an 18-hole golf course in Seekonk, Mass. Like JoAnne, Don learned the game on public courses. Even when he was successful in business, with a maid and a butler and a putting green in his backyard, it irked him that though he belonged to four golf clubs, the snooty country club in Providence wanted nothing to do with him. So his course, a par 60, was public. Don and JoAnne built it. Don planted 300 trees, and the putting surfaces were oddly shaped: like a heart, a kidney, even a figure-eight with an extra loop. JoAnne ran the snack bar and won the U.S. Amateur on her vacation.

Finally, when she was 30, Don convinced her to turn pro. He thought it would be a tragedy if the woman he thought was the best golfer ever didn't have a chance to prove it.

Down through the years he has had to face the consequences of that decision. People look at you sort of funny when you cash your wife's paycheck. "It never occurred to me that I'm living off of JoAnne," he says. "We have a common goal, working together. I've got my own money. I don't need JoAnne's money. The secret to our marriage is that we don't make it hard on ourselves. Life's too short. If a situation arises and it looks like it's going to be a problem, we don't have anything to do with it."

"If Don doesn't like it, or I don't like it, we don't do it," says JoAnne. "A perfect example is the reunion of the Curtis Cup team. I said, 'What's Don going to do, sit around the hotel room while I talk to the girls?' I wouldn't go."

When JoAnne was struck with the shanks during her early pro years, there was one thing she could count on. At night, when she had a recurring nightmare—she was walking across a drawbridge and suddenly it started to rise—she would awaken and Don would be there beside her. Now, as always, when they have their first drink of the day together, JoAnne looks at Don and raises her glass. "Cheers," she says.

It's a good life.

TWO PHOTOSLANE STEWARTCarner can string together trout as expertly as birdies. PHOTOLANE STEWARTBluegrass at the Tennessee camp is a welcome change from the perils of bent grass.
PHOTOLANE STEWARTDon and JoAnne are prudent bikers, but for a snapshot they'll unsnap their helmets. PHOTOLANE STEWARTBig Momma gives a putt big body English.

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)