Drawing attention to yourself on the picturesque island that is the 18th green on the Old Course at Mission Hills Country Club is no mean feat. It helps to hit a good short-iron shot over the water, into the wind and close enough to the flag for a birdie try on the large sloping green. But even then you could be upstaged by the work of Mother Nature. For members of the gallery, the Santa Rosa Mountains in the background and the desert sky over Rancho Mirage, Calif., are a great distraction.
Still, for a few moments during the final round of the Nabisco Dinah Shore tournament in March, one LPGA player became the particular focus of the spectators at that finishing hole. A delicate little blue-eyed blonde, who was dwarfed even more than most players are by the panoramic scene, sank a 12-foot birdie putt that made her seem a giant. As the crowd cheered her, Laura Baugh thrust her small fist skyward and flashed a bright—make that an ultrabright—smile.
Yes, that Laura Baugh. The same Laura Baugh who at 17 qualified for the LPGA tour and was declared "most beautiful golfer" by Golf Digest, whose calendars were all the rage in Japan for years and who made a small fortune from product endorsements. The same Laura Baugh who appeared in those Ultra Brite toothpaste commercials in the 1970s. Remember the opening line? "Hey, Laura Baugh, how's your love life?"
Because of her cover-girl looks, Baugh was one of the most popular players on the LPGA tour between 1973 and '81. Commanding the spotlight was a piece of cake for her in those days. But Baugh never won the Dinah Shore nor any other tournament, and eventually she disappeared into the shadows of the tour. Now 36 and the mother of three, Baugh has overhauled her game and is playing better than ever, albeit in relative obscurity.
It has been such a quiet comeback that she doesn't even have a golf-equipment sponsor this year, having been dropped by Wilson after last season as part of the company's cutbacks. How a tour victory would pay off now! "When I was young and single, I was easy to promote as a sex symbol," Baugh says in a voice that is surprisingly deep for one so petite. "But now I'm just a player who's married with three kids. They won't just hand me a deal with Toys "R" Us or a diaper maker. The only way to get [a sponsor] is to earn it by being a good player and winning tournaments. That's the way I'd like to get it now."
In the past, no one would have expected "Lovely Laura," as she was known by the galleries, to say such things. The U.S. Women's Amateur champion in 1971—at 16, the youngest ever—and a member of the victorious 1972 Curtis Cup team, Baugh burst onto the LPGA scene in 1973. "There was a lot of hoopla about her," LPGA contemporary Amy Alcott remembers. "She was the darling of the LPGA, and of Japan, where she made an absolute killing from endorsements."
Alcott and Baugh competed against each other regularly when they were both promising junior players in Southern California, with Baugh the dominant amateur. But Alcott, 35, who turned pro two years after Baugh, has fashioned the more impressive LPGA rèsumè: She has $2.6 million in career earnings, 29 tour victories (one shy of qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame), a Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average (71.51) in 1980, 12 consecutive years (1975-86) with at least one tour win, and three years (1979, '80 and '84) with four wins each.
Baugh was more accomplished away from the golf course. The whirlwind began almost immediately after she signed on, in January 1973, with agent Mark McCormack, who founded International Management Group, the giant sports marketing firm that still counts Baugh among its clients. Between tournaments there were pro-ams in Europe and all-day modeling sessions at far-flung, luxurious golf resorts that left her little time for rest or practice. But the long hours away from the game were not without reward. In her heyday Baugh was under contract at one time or another to Ladies Home Journal, Golf Digest magazine, Wilson, Ford, Suzuki, Rolex, Colgate-Palmolive, the Bermuda tourist bureau and various golf clubs in the U.S. and Japan. Her income from endorsements in 1976 was reported to be $270,000. It took her nine years to earn that much on the LPGA tour.
So it should not be surprising that it was Alcott who ultimately attracted the lion's share of the attention at Mission Hills in March, where she became the first three-time winner of the Dinah Shore, one of the LPGA's major championships. Despite being among the leaders for the first two rounds and finishing strong with that birdie on the last hole, Baugh tied for 17th place, at par 288, and earned $7,254.
Alcott laughs about it now, but she used to get ticked off whenever she shot a 69 to Baugh's 74 and the photo in the local paper the next morning showed Laura bending to line up a putt. Alcott's beef was with the newspaper's editor, not with Baugh, whom she respected. "Laura and I aren't close friends, but watching her from afar, I can tell she has always wanted to win," says Alcott. "I wouldn't put winning past her. She was always a great putter. But she has an all-around game now."
Says Baugh, "The publicity was good for me financially and for ladies' golf because sponsors like Colgate [the maker of Ultra Brite] got behind the LPGA tour. But I wish there had been some substance behind it—such as five U.S. Open titles."
Instead, her LPGA file lists 10 runner-up finishes and total earnings of $591,478 in 17 seasons (she was off the tour in 1982 and '88 on maternity leave). Indeed, her first LPGA outing was a harbinger of tournaments to come. She had a two-stroke lead heading into the final round of the 1973 Lady Tara Classic in Marietta, Ga., and was on the brink of becoming the second player to win in her tour debut. But Baugh's game unraveled, and she struggled to a 75, finishing in a tie for second behind Mary Mills.
Baugh didn't always choke, though. Once, after playing the back nine in five-under to get into her first and only playoff—with Hollis Stacy and Judy Rankin in the 1979 Mayflower Classic—she lost on the second extra hole to Stacy when her tee shot wound up in a miserable lie, behind a bunker. On other occasions it was simply a matter of somebody else's playing brilliantly and overtaking her down the stretch. "It was just rotten coincidence that she never won," says Rankin.
Her best effort this year came at the Phar-Mor at Inverrary in February, where she finished third, three shots behind winner Beth Daniel. Playing two groups ahead of the leaders, Baugh had birdie opportunities on the last four holes and converted two of them for a final-round 69. She put her second shot at the 17th hole, a 335-yard par-4, within a foot of the flag. At 18 she sank a 10-foot putt. "Those were the best holes I've played in a long time," says Baugh, who with four top-20 finishes in eight tournaments this year already has won $53,623—more money than she earned in any other season on the tour.
In the 1980s Baugh's game suffered, due at least in part to upheavals in her personal life. Her first marriage—in December 1979 to teaching pro Wayne Dent—lasted little more than a month. She married PGA Tour player Bobby Cole in 1980, divorced him after five years and then remarried him two years ago. They have three children: Chelsea, 8; Eric James, nearly 3; and Haley, 1.
In the last few years, Baugh worked on her game with a lot of help from Cole, and by the end of last season she had whittled her scoring average to a career-low 72.6, nearly two shots better than her rookie-year average and almost three shots below her average from as recently as 1987. "Having a happy life with Bobby has settled her down and helped her game," says LPGA Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner.
As Alcott notes, Baugh was always good around the green. But now, though her drives still land at least 20 yards behind those of the tour's longest hitters, she is striking the ball better. "Bobby helped me simplify my swing, and now it is more consistent—even when I'm nervous," she says.
Cole, 43, describes his wife as a "more mature and more proficient golfer." The only thing she needs, he says, is a little more weight on her 5'4½" frame. Baugh's weight, which she says is 115 pounds, is a subject of concern among some of her fellow pros and LPGA tour watchers. They believe she may suffer from anorexia or bulimia. Baugh says such speculation began after the failure of her first marriage with Cole. "I was very upset about the divorce," Baugh says. "I definitely didn't eat enough, and I got real skinny." Now happily reunited with her husband, she says she eats "tons of food" but burns off the calories during her daily aerobic workouts.
"I'm all for being bigger, but for me to be bigger and in shape takes a lot of work," she says. "It's just easier to be in shape if you're lighter. And I don't want to be just heavy. It's a bit of an ego trip for me, and it's one of the dilemmas I have."
Carner says Baugh could improve her game if she just played with more intensity. "You have to reach a point where you say, 'This is my tournament, and I'm going to win it,' " Carner says. "I don't think Laura's ever had that kind of grittiness."
Expecting such single-mindedness from a woman who plays the roles of wife, mother, golf pro, teacher, caddie, coach and chauffeur may be too much to ask. But one of Baugh's goals is to improve her concentration. By the time she tees off for an afternoon round, Baugh has usually already practiced for an hour and explained the principles of long division to her third-grader, Chelsea. Baugh doesn't have a college degree, but the Florida Department of Education has a home-school program that allows her to buy the teachers' guides to Chelsea's textbooks and tutor her daughter while the family travels from tournament to tournament.
Baugh says the teachers at Palm Lake Elementary in Orlando, where Chelsea attends school four to five months a year, tell her that Chelsea is keeping up with her classmates in math and is a little bit ahead in the other subjects—all of which lends credence to Chelsea's claim that her mother piles on the homework too thick sometimes.
Baugh doesn't overhear this small criticism, which is given while the family is gathered on the driving range at the Hattiesburg (Miss.) Country Club in mid-April. Haley is in the midst of a crying spell, and Baugh is trying to quiet her. Chelsea runs off to gather pine cones for a future science project. Just before Eric James toddles over, carrying his father's eight-iron and looking for a hitting lesson, Baugh says, "I consider this a perfect week off. I get to be around golf and my family."
While 99% of the golfing world is focused on the Masters, the Cole family is in this southeastern Mississippi city, at the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, the PGA Tour stop for players who did not qualify to play at Augusta National. It's also the first week of the LPGA's three-week spring break. Baugh is celebrating her second wedding anniversary by caddying for her husband. The tournament marks Cole's return to playing on the PGA and Hogan tours full-time after being sidelined for most of three years by injuries. While Laura chats, Bobby is on the range, atoning for missing the cut.
Now that Cole is back playing again and the LPGA tour has resumed, Baugh packs up the kids and drives the family van herself to the LPGA tour stops. Her mother, Sally, baby-sits while Baugh is competing, and Cole joins them on his weeks off from the men's tours.
"I'm a big family person," says Baugh, whose parents divorced when she was 12. Baugh moved with her mother to Long Beach, Calif., while her older brothers, Hale III and Beau, and their father remained in Florida. The lingering pain from her parents' divorce and her brief divorce from Cole have made her more appreciative of her own family life. "It has made me treasure everything I have," Baugh says. "I couldn't play well if Bobby and the kids weren't with me."
Just then Cole walks over and laments about his poor play that day. Baugh consoles him with a kiss. "I think he just tried too hard," she says. "Either that or his caddie was no good." Cole chuckles, and Baugh flashes her ultrabright smile. Her love life—and about every other facet of her existence—is just dandy now.