The promoters of women's golf are always looking to infuse the images of the sport's new stars with a little pizzazz, but fitting Sherri Turner with a dazzling persona might be like trying to play El Capitan with a one-iron. Turner is a self-described couch potato devoted to Barnaby Jones reruns and the strains of Barry Manilow. She brightly admits that her favorite color is gray. "I'm just a very boring person," she says.
Hmmm. Strong concept, as they say in the p.r. biz. Does Tommy Newsom have a backup?
One thing that is scintillating about the 31-year-old Turner is her wide, flowing golf swing, which evokes the technical perfection of Mickey Wright while producing power rivaling that of the long-driving Laura Davies. "I've never had to think much about my swing," says the narrow-shouldered, 5'5", 130-pound Turner in her quiet South Carolina drawl. "I guess it's a gift."
And this year, after four seasons filled with near misses on the LPGA tour, Turner has learned how to make full use of that gift. Following an early-season streak of close finishes, she won the LPGA Championship in May with a final-round 67, on the tough Grizzly Course in Kings Island, Ohio, that gave her a one-shot victory over Amy Alcott. Then, after pausing for her first sip of champagne, Turner bubbled to victory again the next week at the Corning (N.Y.) Classic. Her 11 top-10 finishes in 18 events this year include two playoff losses, and, with $260,976, she's second on the 1988 money list to Nancy Lopez.
July 10, 1988
"Sherri is going to be around," says Lopez. "It's obvious that she found out winning isn't as difficult as it used to seem." Adds another of her tour rivals, Jan Stephenson, "Sherri exudes confidence now, and she never did before."
Although the bespectacled Turner has yet to be accused of exuding charisma, her victories have had a certain metallic gleam. Turner used to be plagued by a tendency to get down on herself, but that was before her roommate, Melissa Whitmire, devised a psychological pick-me-up before the LPGA Championship.
"Melissa said, "Hey, remember how good the shiny stars you got in elementary school made you feel?' " says Turner. "I went, "Yeah, right.' "
Despite her initial skepticism, Turner began marking her progress during the second round at Kings Island by affixing colored stick-on stars to her copy of the pin sheet, which has diagrams indicating the pin position on each green. A red star on a hole signified a birdie, a silver star meant a par saved, gold was for exceptional shots, and green was for negative thinking.
"It sounds so silly, but it worked," says Turner. "Every time I pulled out the sheet, I'd see all the stars and think, 'Gee, I've hit a lot of good shots. Why worry about hitting a bad one?' By Sunday, I was having so much fun with the stars that I didn't think about winning the tournament until the last two holes." Whereupon Turner came up with a pair of gold-star approach shots to finish with two birdies.
So far, Turner's most impressive pin sheet is a glittery masterpiece of 10 gold stars and 10 red ones, a memento of the 63 she shot in the second round of the Corning. And if Turner's star system continues to produce such results, no one on the LPGA will mind. Her peers are among her biggest fans. When her winning six-foot birdie putt rattled the cup at Kings Island, players in the locker room broke into cheers.
"It's impossible not to like Sherri," says veteran Jo Ann Washam. "You can't even trick her into saying something bad about somebody. She'll turn it around and make it something good."
Turner's sweet nature used to get in the way of her ability to compete. "I think a lot of the hatred in today's society stems from competition," says Turner, who is a devout Southern Baptist. "I wasn't taught to be hard and mean. I was taught to care about other people. When someone I'm paired with is playing badly, I feel for them. My problem was that I used to let that sympathy cost me my concentration, but I'm getting better about that. So I guess I'm getting tougher."
Another hurdle Turner has had to overcome is diabetes, which she developed when she was 15. To control her blood-sugar level, she takes two insulin shots a day and must eat an assortment of fruit, candy and crackers while playing. "That gets hard when it's 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity, but I have no choice," she says. Still, there are days when Turner is unavoidably sluggish and susceptible to the dreaded green stars of negativism.
Turner lives by a strict regimen of diet and rest to keep her diabetes under control, and in the off-season she does volunteer work for the American Diabetes Association in Houston. "I want to let other diabetics know that if you really try, you can do anything you want to do," says Turner. "Besides, working with the public has helped me get over some shyness. Once I feel comfortable, I love to sit down with someone and find out what they're really made of."
Turner's shyness didn't stop her from outdriving grown men even before she was in her teens. Her father, Paul, was the pro and greenskeeper at Donaldson Air Force Base golf club in Greenville, S.C., when Sherri started playing at age five. Soon she and her younger brother Kyle were playing as many as 54 holes a day. "Neither one of them was big enough to tote a bag for very long," says their father. "They'd be dragging those bags along the ground, but they'd still want to play until dark."
Paul saw the talent in his daughter but never pushed. He gave Sherri only one piece of advice: "If you're going to hit it, hit it hard."
"Dad let me have fun with the game," says Sherri. "Deep down I knew that nobody wanted me to have a career in golf more than he did, but he let me fall in love with the game on my own."
It was in trying to keep up with the boys that Sherri developed the classic, free-flowing swing. When her timing is right, Turner zips out 260-yard drives that most LPGA players can only envy. "I'm a big fan of Sherri Turner's swing," says Alcott. "Except for my own, it's my favorite one on tour."
When Turner was searching for a way to improve three years ago, she went to teaching pro Gail Davis in Garland, Texas. After watching Turner hit a few balls, Davis was at a loss. "What do you want me to do?" Davis asked. "I'm not touching that swing." Aside from making a minor alteration in Turner's grip, Davis focused her attention on her pupil's mental approach and underdeveloped short game. "There's not much that can go wrong with Sherri's swing," says Davis. "It's simple and powerful, which are the greatest things you can say about a golf swing."
Turner intentionally avoids getting analytical about the mechanics of her swing. "The only thing I think about is keeping my rhythm and making sure I'm aimed straight," she says. To that end she has her caddie, Chris Lebiedz, tell her when she's lined up correctly before she attempts fairway wood and iron shots. Lebiedz's other duties include drawing little rabbit faces on the golf balls Turner plays with. "They're lucky," says Turner.
For much of her youth, Turner battled another golfing prodigy, Beth Daniel, who lived in Charleston, S.C., 200 miles from Greenville. Turner beat Daniel in the Carolinas Junior Championship, but because of her family's modest means, she wasn't able to travel to as many national tournaments as Daniel was. "I used to be a little jealous of Beth," says Turner. The rivalry continued while both played for Furman's 1976 national championship team, but their relationship has mellowed into friendship in recent years.
Although Turner made All-America her senior year, at Furman she never escaped the shadow of Daniel, who won the 1975 and '77 U.S. Women's Amateur, or another teammate, Betsy King, who's now also an LPGA star. When Turner set out on the mini-tour, she was a long but often wild driver with a knack for three-putting. She won three tournaments but failed to qualify for the LPGA four times before finally making it in '83.
Turner funded her rookie season with the money she had saved from her mini-tour winnings. In her first LPGA event, the Elizabeth Arden Classic in Miami, she earned $15,750 with a second-place finish, but her game had rough edges and she won only $39,894 more the rest of the year. The next two years brought little improvement and increasing financial pressure and frustration.
"That was my lowest time," she says. "I couldn't understand why I couldn't win, and I really started to wonder if I ever would."
Turner then figured out she was putting too much pressure on herself. With a more relaxed attitude and an ever-improving putting stroke, she won $118,708 in 1987 to finish 20th on the money list. "I started to feel like I belonged," she says.
Her new security has allowed Turner to take a few tentative stabs at self-indulgence. In January she splurged on a new Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale. "It's loaded—power windows, everything," says Turner proudly. "It sounds strange, but I've had to learn how to spend money. It wasn't too long ago I was barely surviving on the mini-tour." She looked around the lobby of the Vancouver hotel where she was staying last week while playing the du Maurier Classic, in which she finished third and won $33,750, and shook her head. "I never used to stay in a place this nice—it's $50 a night. Sometimes I look at the money I'm spending and it's plain scary."
It shouldn't be for long. Turner has nearly doubled her career winnings since February. "Before, I was playing for money and top-10 finishes," she says. "I was putting limits on myself. Now, every week, I'm thinking about winning, and the money comes in as a by-product of that. It's so much more fun."
Turner has no agent and has had only one endorsement contract in her five years on the tour, a deal with a skin-care products company that she recently allowed to lapse so she could try for something better. She knows she could cash in on her success if she were more colorful, but she isn't likely to change her personality, any more than she's going to stop humming along to Mandy.
"If getting endorsements means changing, I guess I'll have to live without them," she says. "I know I don't have the most marketable personality, but I basically like the person I am."
And that person is now a star. A nice gray one.