Beth Daniel is baffled. The quarters and the detergent are in the machine, but her clothes are sloshing around in sudsless water at a self-service laundry in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Two days before the first round of the Northgate LPGA Classic, in August, Daniel, the tour's most talented player, has a bad case of the wash-day blues. She poured the detergent in too late, and it didn't make it to her clothes in time for the soak cycle. Before throwing in the towel, Daniel opens the detergent compartment and tries blowing the thick, turquoise-colored liquid down the chute into the water. Finally she gives up, frowns at the machine and laughs at herself. "I guess I didn't do this right," she says.
Coin-operated washers are about the only things Daniel hasn't conquered lately. During the past 14 months, the 5'11" blonde with the fluid swing and iron will has taken command of her game and her emotions, winning 11 tournaments—including her first major, the 1990 LPGA championship—and finishing 23 times in the Top 10. With seven victories and $811,578 in winnings this year, she has won more tournaments in a single year than any female pro since Nancy Lopez, who racked up nine in 1978 and eight in '79. (Mickey Wright holds the alltime record, with 13 victories in 1963.) Last year Daniel won the Vare Trophy for low-scoring average, and this year she is fighting Patty Sheehan to the wire for that prize as well as for first place on the money list and Player of the Year.
Such achievement bespeaks a player at the top of her game and her sport. In the case of the 34-year-old Daniel, they also are testimony that her 12-year pro career has come full circle. She did turns as promising rookie, pouting prima donna, Player of the Year, stressed-out basket case and comeback kid before assuming her current role as hot player. "In the last couple of years, Beth has done what people expected of her earlier," says Judy Rankin, ABC golf analyst and winner of 26 titles from 1962 to '86.
That is, she plays the game at a higher level, and not just because she is one of the tallest women out there. After staving off a Daniel charge to win the Big Apple Classic, in August, Betsy King, winner of nine events over the past two seasons, including three majors, said, "Beth is a little bit above everybody else from tee to green. She is the best player in terms of having the ability to carry it and hit it high. When she's playing well, she probably plays better than everyone."
Daniel is more grudging. "I've played awfully good golf for the past two years," she says. "But I don't feel like I'm the best one out here. Maybe I'm the best player this week or this year, but when you talk about golfers being the best, you have to look at their whole careers."
If Daniel's career were a golf ball, it wouldn't be one of her high, consistently straight three-iron shots. It would be a duffer's hook that ricochets off a tree and through the rough before bouncing onto the green.
From the moment she turned pro, in 1979, she was hailed as the LPGA's next superstar, the next Lopez. The pundits expected remarkable feats, so awed were they by her smooth, rhythmic swing.
"Her ball doesn't spin like others," says Dee Darden, Daniel's caddie from 1980 to '84. "She hits it high off the club, and it drops on the green—bump, bump—and stops. It's such a pretty, pure shot. She doesn't hit many ugly ones."
Daniel's swing continues to be a featured attraction at LPGA events. From behind the ropes at Brooklyn Park's Edinburgh USA Golf Club, site of the Northgate tournament, a middle-aged fan and his younger friend studied Daniel at the driving range. ""Watch this girl," said the older man. "Betsy King, she scores, but Beth has the swing."
Early in her career, Daniel didn't disappoint. She won a tournament her first year on tour and was 1979 Rookie of the Year. In '80, on her way to the Player of the Year title, she won four events. But she didn't enjoy playing, and her swing notwithstanding, she wasn't a joy to watch. She threw clubs, screamed at her caddies and glared at reporters who asked what she considered dumb questions. Such behavior didn't win her any fans in the locker room, either. "We all wondered, Who is this girl coming out here being such a brat?" recalls fellow pro Vicki Fergon, now one of Daniel's best friends.
"I had the attitude that I'm Beth Daniel and I belong out here, and I'm going to prove it," says Daniel. "Golf was a matter of life and death then."
She had 13 career wins before back spasms sidelined her for five weeks in 1983. Doctors prescribed a twice-a-day regimen of sit-ups and stretching exercises, which she still follows religiously. Her back improved, but after she won a tournament in '85, four years and four months would pass before her next victory. Her psyche was her undoing during that period. She started missing cuts and gradually lost confidence. Then she got the yips—golf lingo for choking on the greens. She dreaded walking onto the putting surface. "I felt like I was going to have to quit," Daniel says. "I just didn't believe in myself anymore. It was the lowest point I've ever been at."
She called on short-game coach Dave Pelz in Austin, Texas, and spent three days with him and a metronome, trying to slow down her putting routine. The late Davis Love II, golf teacher and father of PGA touring pro Davis Love III, helped Daniel rebuild her deteriorating confidence and swing. But back on the tour she continued to rush and missed four cuts in a row. Her older brother, Tony, who's also her confidant and sometime caddie, took time off from his banking job in Charleston, S.C., to carry her bag the week before the 1987 U.S. Women's Open. He advised her to look at the hole rather than the ball during putting practice. She used the technique at the Open, and though she finished tied for 33rd, her stroke felt good again. She still uses the method on putts of five feet or less.
Daniel has always been one of golf's hardest workers. At Furman, a Baptist university in Greenville, S.C., P.E. doesn't stand for Party Excessively. But that's what P.E. major Daniel did. She took golf seriously, though. Along with King and Sherri Turner, who would win the '88 LPGA championship, she led the women's team to the 1976 NCAA championship. As a senior, in '78, she played on the women's team but also played two matches with the men's team.
Daniel still practices intensely. Love once told her, "Beth, you beat too many balls; you're just grinding yourself into the ground," and she backed off for a while. But after that 33rd-place finish at the '87 Open, she went into overdrive again. Still carrying the burden of those early expectations, Daniel added hours of practice on the golf course to her routine. The practice didn't make her perfect; it made her tired.
"I got stressed out because I couldn't figure out why I was playing poorly," she says.
She finished second at the Kemper Open on March 1, 1988, but two weeks later, blood tests revealed that she had mononucleosis. Out of action for 13 weeks, she returned to the tour in time to play 14 more events. She wound up 17th on the money list, with nine Top 10 finishes. She was runner-up four times during the first half of the 1989 season and wondered if she would ever win again.
At the start of the final round of the Greater Washington Open in August '89, she held a four-stroke lead but confided to Fergon that she was afraid she would lose once again. "Second's not so bad; you still make a lot of money," said Fergon jokingly, trying to loosen her up. "Just go out there and play."
Daniel prevailed by four strokes and then won three of the next seven tournaments she entered. By the end of '89, she had set a scoring-average record of 70.38 and was runner-up to King on the money list and for Player of the Year honors. Her 20 Top 10 finishes and 56 subpar rounds led the LPGA.
Daniel's current caddie, Greg Sheridan, had been on the job for six months when the victory drought ended in Washington. "It was such a relief for her; you could see the tension leave her body," he says. "It was like a dam being broken."
Because they are closest to the flame, Daniel's caddies have always felt the heat of her temper. She fired the man who worked for her during her rookie year because, she says, he was "too close personally." During the years Darden carried her bags, he was a calming influence, taking her tantrums and pouting in stride. Sheridan's temperament is much the same. "He's very laid-back," says Daniel. "I have a tendency to get fiery. But when I get too worked up, I just look at him and say to myself, You're stupid. Why can't you be more like him?"
Daniel knew the 36-year-old Sheridan for several years, and he had caddied for her on two occasions, before she hired him full-time. In appearance, the two are an odd couple. With his cigarette smoking, outlandish eyewear and spiky-on-top, long-in-the-back hairdo, Sheridan could be mistaken for a rock guitarist. By contrast, Daniel, always neat and conservatively attired on the course, calls to mind one of those high school coaches who tacks on extra laps if your uniform isn't ironed. But when the two share a laugh striding down the fairway, or walk to the edge of the green to confer, or smile at each other after a birdie putt falls, they seem perfectly matched. When she slams her seven-iron like a hatchet into the fairway turf, Sheridan gleefully retrieves it. Chances are, he has been egging her on.
"I encourage her to misbehave a bit, because it seems to snap her out of whatever she's doing," he says. "It looks bad, but it's part of her personality. If it gets her going, I'm happy."
Sheridan is part tape measure—"If Greg says it's 132 yards, I believe him, because nine out of 10 times, he's right," says Daniel—and part cheerleader. When the boss needs a rally, Sheridan spurs her on by wearing his fluorescent-pink Nike cap backward. Credit Sheridan with helping make Daniel smile a lot more. She still is no Lopez out there, but at least Daniel occasionally looks as if she's having some fun.
If Daniel sounds like a single-minded golf machine, it's because she is—or at least she used to be. Her main avocation is bicycling, but since her bout with mono she has cut back. For relaxation, she puts soul music on the CD player and washes her Mercedes or puts up shelves around the house. Daniel is trying to develop interests apart from golf, which is one reason she recently moved out of the golf-mad world of the Loxahatchee Club, in Jupiter, Fla., where her two-bedroom home sat just off the 14th fairway.
"I'd be outside washing my car, and someone would drive up in a golf cart and ask me why I shot a 74 in the final round the week before," Daniel says. "Finally, I decided that I don't want to talk golf where I live. I have to be able to get away from it when I want to." She has spent some of her $2,841,482.80 in career winnings on a boat so that she can go fishing near her new three-bedroom home in Delray Beach, Fla.
Daniel can move, but she can't hide, particularly if she continues to play the way she has. At Edinburgh she was mobbed everywhere she went. As she strode through the crowds, young, old, male and female autograph seekers shoved golf balls, sun visors, programs and T-shirts in her face. Spectators stopped her to shake hands, hug her and snap her picture. By the second day of the event, tournament officials had to summon extra volunteers to control the throng that followed Daniel's group in the 90° heat.
In her early years on the tour, she took success for granted and detested playing the part of a celebrity. But now that she has gone through adversity, she savors the good times and tries to endure the irritations that accompany fame. At times, Daniel looked vexed by the chaos at Edinburgh, but mostly she signed her name, smiled for the cameras and accepted the warm wishes. "These people are fanatics, and it's great to see it," she said, surveying the scene. "They're starving for golf."
Daniel is more composed than she once was. She was on her best behavior during the LPGA championship in July, despite shooting a 73 on the second day. No clubs were thrown and no expletives were uttered as drive after drive veered to the right. Tony, who watched from the gallery with his wife and two children, congratulated her for having controlled her temper. "I felt like I needed to be an example for my niece and nephew," said Daniel. "Also, I've realized that winning a major requires a lot of patience. On the days when you're a little off, you have to keep the round right around par, and I did that."
After the tournament, Daniel took two weeks off to let the victory sink in, but she didn't rest on her laurels long. In August and September she finished second at the Big Apple Classic, won the Northgate Classic and the Rail Charity Classic.
Last week Daniel won the $1 million Centel Classic, in Tallahassee, while Sheehan finished third. With two tournaments remaining, Daniel holds a slim lead in their race for end-of-season honors, but she is not counting her titles yet. "Golf is such a streaky, mental game," she says. "You take it when you get it, and right now I'm gettin' it."