It was the first major championship of the LPGA season, the Nabisco Dinah Shore invitational in Rancho Mirage, Calif., just outside Palm Springs, and though Jim and Tammy Bakker were out of town, there were plenty of other big names all over the place. Frank Sinatra sang at the pretournament gala dinner. Quarterback Jim McMahon helped his team win the pro-am. And LPGA living legends Nancy Lopez and Pat Bradley were primed to add the first-place check of $80,000 to their bulging bank accounts. But when it was all over late Sunday afternoon, the biggest name around the Mission Hills Country Club belonged to a King named Betsy.
When King urged her three-foot putt into the cup on the second playoff hole after Patty Sheehan had missed one just slightly longer, she ended a wild, all-day shootout in victory. "Shoot," said the placid King, using the strongest language in her vocabulary. "You had to make birdies to keep up with everybody else."
King did just that, including one from a bunker on the 70th hole that Bob Tway would have envied. Her final 68 was good enough to tie her at rive-under 283 with Sheehan, who had passed six players with her finishing 65. Sheehan almost won the tournament outright on the 72nd hole, but her 15-foot putt for a birdie just slid past the hole.
Sheehan seemed on the verge of victory on the first playoff hole when she drove the ball perfectly, while King left her tee shot in the thick, wet rough. Sheehan's approach shot covered the flag and rolled to a stop 15 feet past the pin. King had no shot to the green and had to punch a safety into the fairway, 100 yards from the flag. All day she had been lofting perfect pitches to the green, but this time she outdid herself, hitting her wedge hole high five feet from the cup. Sheehan missed her birdie putt, King curled her putt into the heart of the hole, and the drama continued.
On the next hole Sheehan three-putted from 15 feet, and then King holed her three-footer for the championship. "I missed and I lost," said Sheehan, unable to explain the denouement any more than she could explain the "zone" she was in when she made all those birdies to force the playoff. Instead of moping, Sheehan gestured to some bottles of champagne that her agent had obtained in anticipation of a victory and said, "Let's pop these suckers."
Indeed, the entire week seemed worth celebrating. As the first major, the Dinah Shore signaled the official end of the early season sparring between Bradley and Lopez. Majors are strictly for keeps, and both players were ready.
Lopez, who took most of 1986 off for the birth of her second child, quickly served notice in '87 that she was back on track by winning the second tournament of the year, at Sarasota. It was her 35th career victory. Moreover, she has lost nearly all of the 43 pounds she gained during pregnancy, and she arrived at Mission Hills in fighting trim. "Ray [Knight, her husband] says he feels like he's sleeping with another woman," she said on Wednesday. But Lopez was never in the hunt, shooting an indifferent 71-78-74-75-298 to tie for 33rd.
Bradley came to the desert as defending champ and fresh from her first victory of the year, at Phoenix. But luck was not with her on Sunday. She made only eight bogeys in 72 holes but came up one birdie short with 72-74-69-69-284 and finished third.
Although Bradley and Lopez command most of the attention on the LPGA tour, the best player this season has been fifth-year pro Jane Geddes, who halted Bradley's Grand Slam bid at last year's U.S. Women's Open with her first victory. This year Geddes won in consecutive weeks—and in consecutive playoffs—at the Kemper Open and the Glendale Federal Classic, and led Bradley as the top money-winner, $117,958 to $77,852. But Geddes tied for eighth at the Shore and fell to second in the money race behind King, who now has earned $143,932 this year.
Amy Alcott was playing with a stiff neck so severe that she had to take muscle relaxants. Then again, Alcott's peers have been calling her Amy Adversity since she won the 1980 Open by nine shots in 115° heat.
After three rounds Alcott was only two shots out of the lead but insisted she felt "dizzy and spaced-out." As if to prove it, she related a tale about a bag lady in Santa Monica who had poured detergent on Alcott's car while yelling that Amy had stolen her broom. When the end of the story was greeted with nervous laughter, Alcott smiled ruefully and said, "Enough of this. I'm out of my mind." She was feeling better on Sunday, so naturally she finished with a lackluster 74 to tie for 11th.
The Shore opened the way a major should, with an unknown surprising the field. Laura Davies, a physically imposing but gentle-voiced 23-year-old from Otter-shaw, England, shot 66 on a calm day during which the temperature reached 94°. Davies, the reigning British Ladies Open champion, may be the longest hitter in women's golf, routinely driving the ball more than 250 yards. Davies should have felt right at home on Friday, when a cold wind blew in gusts as high as 50 mph throughout the day. Instead, she shot 83 and was soon forgotten. Bradley said the wind was the worst she had encountered in 13 years on tour. No one broke 72, and Alcott and King tied for the lead at one-under-par 143.
Good scoring conditions returned on Saturday, and at the end of the day King and Bradley led Geddes, Alcott, Rosie Jones, Chris Johnson and Jan Stephenson by two. Bradley, for one, was confident. "If I can play as solidly as I have and stay in control of myself," she said, "I should have no problem tomorrow."
King had other ideas. In the last three years she has won eight LPGA tournaments, besides the 1985 British Ladies Open, via a solid swing that is propelled by as much all-out effort as that of any pro since Gary Player. "My teacher [Ed Oldfield] told me that I have a better chance of doing well under pressure because my mechanics are so good," she said. "I remembered that on Sunday."
Her putter must have been listening as well, because King sank birdie putts on the first three holes. Sheehan, two groups ahead, had birdied the same holes. Hitting her irons superbly, she went on to make five more birdies. She held a one-stroke lead and appeared to have a lock when King bunkered her second at 16. But King's perfectly struck 45-foot sand shot rolled into the hole for a birdie.
"I've never gotten that excited on a golf course," King confessed after a mild display of emotion. "I kind of let it go there for a second."
You know it's a real major when Betsy King gets excited.