You could go broke betting the favorites in the U.S. Women's Open Championship. Last week another long shot came flying out of the darkness to win the title. You remember Kathy Baker, don't you? She is the second most famous player in the history of the University of Tulsa, a former beauty queen who once hated golf and used to be mistaken for fellow LPGA player Jan Stephenson. Not anymore. Baker is 24, a sharp dresser, squeaky clean and such a solid citizen that on Sunday, as she walked down a hill to the 18th tee of the Upper Course at the Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., a three-stroke lead in her hip pocket, she bent over and picked up a piece of cellophane that someone had tossed on the ground. Baker is a one-woman litter patrol.
She is also quite a player. Coming into the final round of the Open, the smooth-swinging Baker held a tenuous one-stroke lead over a more illustrious Tulsa alumna, Nancy Lopez, and Judy Clark, a non-winner in eight years on the tour. Most people had figured Lopez, on a hot streak with three wins, two seconds and a third in her last six tournaments, would burn up the course, her opposition and the form sheet that said she has trouble with the Open.
Instead, while Lopez flinched with her putting, reeling to a final-round 77, Baker scored a 70, two under par on a course that showed its thorns after giving up a record 37 subpar rounds the first three days. There were only four on Sunday. One was Baker's. That gave her 70-72-68-70—280, eight under par for 72 holes, tying the second lowest aggregate in Open history.
Once she took the lead outright with a birdie on the 18th hole on Saturday, Baker never fell behind. In the final round Lopez shot 40 on the front side, three-putting the first two holes, and from then on Baker's only challenger was Clark. Baker made three birdies in the final eight holes, including the clincher on the 16th. There she hit a seven-iron to within 3½ feet, while Clark three-putted. It also helped on Sunday that Baker twice saved par from bunkers and made only three bogeys, three-putting the second hole, missing the green at the 10th and driving into a fairway bunker on the 14th.
The victory was worth $41,975 to Baker and brought her winnings to nearly $90,000 for the year. Clark was runner-up, three strokes back. After a 10-year hiatus from golf, Clark resumed playing in 1972. Ten years ago she was a 13 handicapper. The $21,700 check, her second-best payday ever, should help defray the cost of her planned wedding at the end of this year to Gardner Dickinson, a former PGA Tour player from the '50s and '60s. Dickinson is Clark's coach and chief cheerleader, and she almost put him under the table on Saturday when she shot a record-tying 65, seven under par. She and Dickinson have an informal deal that when one makes a birdie, the other drinks a beer. "He's probably on the floor by now," Clark laughed after the nine-birdie round.
Following Baker and Clark on the leader board was Vicki Alvarez, another non-household name. Alvarez is only 61 inches tall, but she is durable, the Iron Mikette of the circuit; no one else has played more tournaments in the last three years. Alvarez was seven strokes back, while Lopez, married to New York Mets third baseman Ray Knight, went for the collar. She had no birdies and five bogeys in her 77, her worst final round of the season by three strokes; she tied for fourth.
It was not surprising that the Open would come down to a fight between two non-winners—Baker is in her second full pro season, and Clark is 35 years old and best known for the fact that she used to wear a straw hat on the course. Baker is the 10th player to make the Open her first victory. In addition, only five times, and not since 1975, has the season's leading money-winner also won the Open.
All of that served to stretch the odds on Alice Miller, who has been tearing up the circuit this season with four victories, and a tour-leading $324,514 in earnings. On Thursday, Miller had played only two holes when the Open jinx got the better of her. She four-putted No. 3 and finished with 75.
But the disappointment was even greater for Lopez, the favorite going into the Open, which she had come close to winning as an amateur in 1975 and again as a pro two years later. She shared the first-day lead with Baker and Janet Anderson after their 70s. Lopez has a reputation of being a strong front-runner, but she had never before led an Open. On Friday her driver gave her a bit of trouble, but she had five birdies against three bogeys, scored another 70 to creep a stroke ahead of Janet Coles and Alvarez, who was playing her 20th tournament of the year.
Lopez held on to the lead through most of the third round, even though she was not able to get her putter working on greens softened by overnight rains. Then, while Clark was roaring out of the pack with her 65, Baker caught fire, and on the back nine, she reeled off five birdies. She was the gallery favorite, though it was as much for her good looks and fashionable attire as for her game. On Saturday, she wore oversize pink earrings, a pink top and pale-blue slacks that looked as if they had shrunk. "I don't like golf clothes," Baker explained.
Though her victory came as something of a surprise, Baker's impressive record in amateur competition could have been an accurate predictor. She won the 1982 NCAA title and twice was the low amateur in the Open. She won her tour card on her first try and was comedalist in the qualifying.
At the trophy presentation on Sunday, her father. Bill, a bearded swimming pool equipment manufacturer from Clover, S.C., was in the gallery wearing the Hat, a disgusting piece of brown, ripped, sweat-stained headgear that his daughter hates. Years ago the elder Baker forced his daughter to play golf. "I saw she had a natural swing," he said. "Now I'm going to take this hat and put it with her trophy. She'll have to buy me a new one."
Now she can certainly afford it.