Betsy King needs explaining. Probe those cool blue eyes, and it's like looking into a swimming pool—you see bottom. Which is to say, not much. No fire shows.
"I've never been to a sports psychologist," says King calmly. She stretches her tanned legs in the desert sun but keeps her face in the shadow of the patio umbrella. She pops a grape into her mouth and smiles, looking out at the palm-dotted fairways of Scottsdale's Orange Tree Resort. Explaining herself is an exercise she accepts with grace, but no obvious delight.
"I went to a hypnotist once for my putting, which I would never do again," she says. "The hypnotist had worked a lot with bowlers. She put me under and had me visualizing success, saying things like, 'Picture yourself shooting a high score.' When she brought me out of the trance, I said, 'You know, shooting a high score in golf is bad.' And she said, 'Oh dear, I have to put you under again.' "
King permits herself a tiny laugh. "That didn't last too long," she says. "That, too, I did before I was a Christian. I don't think I'd ever do that as a Christian."
February 12, 1990
Ah! So it wasn't mental calisthenics but spiritual enlightenment that transformed King. Seven years without an LPGA tour win, then she finds Jesus and, hallelujah, she's on her way to becoming the best woman golfer in the world: 20 victories since 1984, including six in '89, when she won the U.S. Women's Open and earned a record $654,132 in prize money; two Rolex Player of the Year awards; a Vare Trophy....
The 34-year-old King shakes her head. Religion may be her first priority, but tour titles are not her reward for good works and diligent Bible study. "Looking back," she continues, "I think the improvement in my golf was just a question of mechanics."
Mechanics. The word lands with a thud. "I think the mental part of golf is overplayed," she says. "Visualizing success is fine, but I can beat any 18 handicapper in the world, I don't care what the person's attitude is. He can picture hitting it 250 yards all he wants, but if he doesn't have the swing to do it, he can't do it."
That's it? With tournament players these days attributing their success to everything from acupuncture, Scientology and square grooves to Syber Vision, vegetarianism and the teachings of golf mystic Shivas Irons, the hottest player in women's golf says she plays great because of her swing? King nods. "The mechanical part is more important than the mental part," she says.
O.K., let's talk mechanics. Photographs of King taken in 1978, her second year on the tour, show her with a very upright swing and a closed position at the top; her club face is hooded. To compensate for that position, which invited a pull hook, King swung from the inside on the downswing to square the club face at impact. She pretty much perfected the maneuver at Furman University, where she and another future LPGA star, Beth Daniel, led the Paladins to the NCAA championship in 1976. King was also the low amateur that year at the U.S. Open.
But her swing limited her when she joined the tour. Despite flashes of promise—second-place finishes at the '78 Borden Classic and the '79 Wheeling Classic—King averaged 74.26 strokes a round during her first four years as a pro, barely good enough to make a living. By 1980 she was ready to make a change.
Make that compelled to make a change. Paired with Donna White at the Ping Team Championship in Portland, Ore., King hit some practice-range shots so low that onlookers thought she was getting ready to play an Irish finks course. When White spotted Chicago teaching pro Ed Oldfield at the range, she shouted, "Oldfield, get over here! My partner can't get it off the ground!"
Oldfield, the swing architect who rebuilt the games of Jan Stephenson and top amateur Anne Sander, walked over and watched the embarrassed King hit a few more worm-burners. He saw about 20 things in her swing he would change, starting with her tendency to close the club face on the takeaway. "She had serious problems," says Oldfield. "Her divots were going way right, and the ball was going way left. I watched her play, and on one par-5 she couldn't carry a fairway wood 100 yards over water. She had to lay up with a wedge."
Orange Tree is Oldfield's winter office, so King arranged to spend the off-season in Phoenix instead of at her parents' home in Limekiln, Pa. The day of her first lesson, she was so nervous that she went out early in the morning with her father, Weir, to hit in private. "We found a deserted playground," says Weir, a semiretired physician who stayed with Betsy in Phoenix to give her support. "She was hitting balls, and I was chasing them—and a cop came and chased us. I think that was the low point in her career. But that afternoon Ed told me that she was going to be one of the five best players in the world."
From the start, Oldfield was patient with King but not patronizing. The first thing he did was alter her takeaway, conditioning her to swing the club back so that the face was square at the point of impact. He offered no "Band-Aids"—quick fixes—and he warned her that her game would get worse before it got better. "It was pretty drastic," says King. "Ed pretty much breaks down your whole swing."
Another three years passed before King won her first LPGA tournament, the Women's Kemper Open in 1984, but her scoring average improved year by year, from 73.96 in 1981 to 71.77 in '84. After her Kemper victory, she went on to win two more tournaments that year and finished the season with the money title and her first Player of the Year award.
Her practice sessions with Oldfield are still devoted to swing mechanics. "I'm not a believer in positive mental imagery," says Oldfield. "There's no magic to golf. The best players are the ones who are best coordinated and work hardest." Oldfield even rejects the conventional wisdom that players should leave thoughts about mechanics on the practice range. "If you're playing the last hole of the U.S. Open with a two-shot lead," he says, "you still think whatever your last lesson was—left arm straight, good extension, whatever."
King's ability to do just that—to reduce stress by thinking about mechanics—has earned her an unfair reputation as an "ice lady." When she took a four-stroke lead into the third round of last year's U.S. Open at Indianwood in Lake Orion, Mich., and then finished bogey, double bogey, bogey to fall into a first-place tie with Patty Sheehan, King answered questions in the press tent with a serenity bordering on indifference. "If drama is a balloon," one writer muttered at his keyboard, "Betsy King is the slow leak."
In truth, King was shaken by her collapse and couldn't wait to get Oldfield on the phone. "What did I tell her?" he says, chuckling at the memory. "I just said, 'You're so much better than the other girls under pressure. If you're tied going into the last round, you're actually ahead.' " Reassured, King birdied four of the first seven holes the next day and cruised to a four-shot victory.
King's fellow LPGA players have their own theories as to why she has gone from mediocre to outstanding. Those who remember her as a pathetic putter say she owes her recent success to a newfound knack for holing 30-footers. Maybe so, but she certainly doesn't look confident on the greens. Before each putt, she squats behind the ball and carefully sets the blade square to her line—a routine popular with 10-year-olds playing miniature golf.
Others believe King has simply gained confidence since breaking her seven-year victory drought in 1984. Says England's Laura Davies, winner of the '87 Open, "When I'm paired with her now, Betsy seems to be playing for the hell of it. Although"—and Davies laughs—"she probably wouldn't put it that way."
Davies's comment reflects the respect King's fellow pros have for her religious beliefs. She is a regular at the tour's weekly Christian fellowship meetings, in which small groups of players in jeans and sweaters gather for Bible study and prayer. At home in Scottsdale, she often spends the evening playing hymns on her organ, accompanied by one of her two roommates on flute.
"She's as good a Christian as she is a golfer," says Bill Lewis, a retired U.S. Navy captain who conducts a golf ministry for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "I've never met a superstar athlete with so much humility."
King's faith has often been tested on the tour. In the fall of 1987, for instance, with the money title and Player of the Year within her grasp, she took a break from the tour to fulfill a commitment to Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization that uses volunteers to build houses for the poor. King and a handful of other LPGA players spent that week helping carpenters build a house in the Tennessee mountains, and she has since made Habitat a fixture on her schedule.
"You're basically somebody's servant for a week," says King, describing the program. "Whatever they want you to do, you do—tile a floor, drive to the hardware store, work on the roof, you name it."
The work is tiring, the accommodations spartan, the food plain, and last year it snowed. But King finds the program rewarding, even fun. "We make up games," she says. "Like who can hammer the most nails, or who can hammer a nail in the fewest strokes."
Chris Stevens, director of Alternative Ministries, a Christian fellowship on the tour, contends that the fans don't know the real Betsy King. "When she won the Open," says Stevens, "that was as much emotion as she ever shows, and it wasn't a lot. But when she's working at Habitat, or when you get her to play Trivial Pursuit or Outburst, she's exuberant. A lot of people don't get to see that."
King knows that she comes off as bland, and she also thinks she knows where to place the blame: television. "On television," she says, "to come across as normal you almost have to be extreme. Look at the newscasters. They smile all the time, and it looks normal, but if you smiled all the time in real life, you'd look silly. I put on my game face because that's what I need to do to win."
Her other minor gripe about the media—overall she thinks she has been treated fairly—is that reporters sometimes shy away from her Christianity. "If they just write up the golf, that's fine," says King. "But if they tell about someone else's belief in reincarnation, they need to tell about my faith as a Christian."
The truth is, away from golf, King is far more, let's say, committed to her beliefs than most other players. At Furman, she was active in what she calls "the women's-lib thing," lobbying the university president to increase funding for women's athletics and carrying the banner of Title IX. Then she moved in another direction. "Since I've become a Christian, I've probably stepped back from that [feminism]," she says. "I'm strongly antiabortion, and a lot of people can't understand that. They say you should have 'choice.' Well, if you don't believe it's a life, I can see how you'd say that. But if you do believe it's a life, you shouldn't have a choice."
So strong are her right-to-life convictions that she can picture herself taking part in protests at abortion clinics. Says King, "Sometimes I look at Operation Rescue [an antiabortion organization] and say, 'Hey, I'd like to do that.' If I was ever in a town where they were doing that, I think I would do it, because I believe abortion is murder. I'd have no qualms with prosecuting the person for murder or the doctor or whoever. I would take it to the end."
Bland? "That's not bland," says Stevens. "That's what courage and depth are all about."
When asked a question about whom she admires most among her fellow pros, King frowns, groping for an answer. "When I look for heroes, I look at people within the faith who have really committed their lives," says King. The example she gives is Elisabeth Elliot, a missionary who worked with the Auca Indians in Ecuador during the 1950s. While Elliot was there, her husband was killed by the Aucas, but she stayed behind and continued her work. Later she chronicled her experiences in a book, The Savage My Kinsman.
O.K., professional golf is a pretty shallow pursuit compared with missionary work. Maybe that's why King sometimes looks as if she wants to crawl out of the spotlight, or why she feels slightly guilty about having been thrown off her frugal ways last year when she purchased a Mercedes. "I bought the cheapest one," she says with a blush.
She admits that she looks for signs and portents, not just in the Bible but from tee to green as well. Says King, "Before the first tournament of 1989, I remember praying, 'Lord, I want to be where You want me to be, whether it's out here or somewhere else.' On the first hole of the year, a par-3, I hit an eight-or nine-iron to 40 feet and made the putt for birdie. I shot a 64 and went on to win the tournament."
Uncertainty crosses her face. "Not that playing well is an indication that you're in the right place," she says. "But I felt I was seeing what He desired for me and not just what I wanted. There's a sense of peace and relief about that."