Women's professional golf is boring—anything female pros can do, the male pros can do better. So goes a longstanding gripe against the LPGA tour, which has had trouble luring network television and corporate sponsors to its events in recent years. It will be a little harder to say that after last week's JAL Big Apple Classic, which featured a dramatic final-hole eagle and a course-record-setting, nine-under-par 63 in the third round by tournament winner Betsy King, not to mention a thrilling, final-round charge on the back nine by runner-up Beth Daniel. Even before the final round began, Johnny Miller said he had seen "great golf by anybody's standards." Miller, a former U.S. Open champion and current golf analyst for NBC, which televised the event from the Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y., elaborated, "There were lots of good shots and a course record, and the best players came to the top. It was pretty darn neat."
After accepting her $60,000 winner's check and a silver Tiffany trophy, King said her performance over the weekend was her best 36 holes ever. For the two days, she had a 13-under-par 131. First came the sizzling 63 she shot on Saturday in near-90° weather. During that round, which bettered the women's course record of 65, shot by Nancy Lopez in 1978, and the 64s of Cary Middlecoff, Craig Wood and Lloyd Mangrum, King had nine birdies and no bogeys. By the time she reached the 16th hole on Saturday, she said later, "I started realizing that things were happening." But facing her at that point was the fastest green on the course. Her tee shot on the par-3, 157-yard hole landed 15 feet above the cup. She tapped the ball, and it broke about six inches on its way downhill into the hole.
King ran into the only real trouble she would have all day at the par-4, 384-yard 17th, one of the most challenging on the course, which was laid out in 1904 by club member Lawrence E. Van Etten and later redesigned by noted golf architects Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast. From the tee, the fairway swings to the left around a little hill planted with a group of five young evergreens. Driving over the hill—trees and all—is possible and looks from the tee like a shortcut to the green. But beyond the hill, standing between the golfer and the pin, is a lush 175-year-old oak. King played it safe on Saturday, ignoring the shortcut and hitting her tee shot to the right side, inches from the rough. Her next shot found the bunker to the left of the green, but her sand shot ended eight feet from the cup, and she sank the putt to save par. King closed out the memorable round with a dramatic 20-foot birdie on the par-5 18th, recovering from what she called a "pretty sorry" second shot. Afterward, Miller said, "By men's golf standards it was a fabulous round; by women's standards it might have been the round of the decade."
Over four days on the 6,209-yard, par-72 course, King, the LPG A's Player of the Year in 1989 and winner of two major events this year, shot 75-67-63-68-273,15 under par. She began Sunday's round three shots ahead of Daniel, who has four wins this year, including one major. King never surrendered the lead, shooting a 68 to beat her former Furman University teammate by three strokes. But there were fireworks along the way. King birdied Nos. 1, 2 and 11, but she bogeyed the 13th to drop back to 13 under. Daniel followed up a string of 20-foot birdies on the 10th, 11th and 12th holes with another 20-footer on the par-4 14th to go 12 under.
The talk among spectators turned to playoff possibilities as Daniel sized up her second putt on the par-5 15th, an eight-foot chance for a birdie to tie King at 13 under. The talk ended, along with Daniel's chance to win, when the putt failed to fall. "That was the turning point of the tournament," said Daniel, who tossed her putter in the air after the shot. "If that putt had dropped, it would have been in my favor because of my momentum. I was putting a lot of pressure on Betsy."
On the 18th fairway, King, as if to add an exclamation point to her victory and the weekend's events, reared back with a metal wood called a Raylor and smashed her second shot on the par-5, 475-yard hole to within eight feet of the cup, to the delight of the gallery—most of whom couldn't tell whether the shot had been hit by King or Daniel when it came flying over the brow of the steep hill in front of the green. "It definitely was one of my better shots in quite a while," King later said of the 240-yard blast, which resulted in her first eagle this year. Usually, King hits the Raylor, which she describes as roughly akin to "a 4½-wood," 210 yards. The extra distance, she surmised, came from a combination of "being pumped up, having the wind and going over the hill."
King had provided much of the excitement on Saturday, but not all of it. Daniel set herself up for Sunday's showdown with a none-too-shabby 68, passing Rosie Jones and Tammie Green to move into second place. Jones, who completed Sunday's final threesome, was four shots behind King as the final round began, while Green was six strokes off the lead. Both players took exception to King's assessment on Saturday that "it's between me and Beth tomorrow." But as it turned out, King was correct. Neither Jones nor Green mounted a serious challenge. Jones wound up in third place, six shots back, while Green finished fourth.
King and Daniel, particularly pleased to have performed so well on what they considered the hardest course they had played all season, said the scoring should earn the women pros added respect. "I think we showed that we play exciting golf," King said. Added Daniel: "The more people see us play golf, the more they realize that we have good games."
Stephen DeGroat, a tournament volunteer who divided his time between the leader board in the media tent and the 18th hole on Sunday, said of King's 72nd-hole eagle, "When you see a 240-yard shot like that, it's exciting. I don't care who hits it or where they hit it from," he said. "That was as good as it gets."
But another Wykagyl member, awed by King's record-shattering third round, couldn't help wondering out loud, "If she shoots a 63, what does Greg Norman shoot here?"
Some reputations are hard to shake.