There is something alarmingly nonchalant about the way Laura Davies wields a golf club or, for that matter, a snooker cue, a deck of cards, the wheel of a car or a credit card. "She makes my hair stand on end," says her mother, Rita Allen, sitting in the garden of their geranium-bordered row cottage in Ottershaw, a suburb of London. Davies has a way of ignoring the consequences of dangerous situations, whether they be debt, potential bodily harm, rough, sand, water, cart paths or cringing spectators. The thought that she might hit a bad shot or find an unplayable lie seems never to occur to her. There are two kinds of people who play games this way: youths and champions. Davies is both.
Compared to her recklessness with her bank account and her passion for speed on the road, Davies's behavior on the golf course seems restrained. Bestriding the European and American tours, the 30-year-old Davies has won three tournaments so far this year, with two seconds, a third and a fourth-place finish. This by a woman who practices "about 25 minutes" a day. "You've got to have fun," Davies says with a smile. "Otherwise this would be too much like a real job."
She takes her fun seriously. On the eve of the Evian Masters tournament in June in ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢vian-les-Bains, a tiny French resort village on Lake Geneva dominated by palatial hotels, most of the players lined the driving range, hitting balls into the Alpine dusk. Davies was not among them. She was in the rambling old waterfront Casino Royal, a cream-colored building with curved windows affording a view of the lake. Davies sat at a blackjack table, fingers curled around a stack of colorful chips. The casino was quiet except for the spin of wheels and the occasional sighs of gamblers.
She anted up 1,000 francs, about $185. Cards slid from the dealer's shoe and whispered across the green felt. Davies shook her head, standing pat as the dealer offered her a card. He turned over a combination of 21 for himself and swept away Davies's chips. She shrugged. She had already won about $2,300 for the night.
Davies finished 10th in the Evian tournament, disappointing by her recent standards, and earned $6,463. At the casino she broke even at blackjack and roulette, giving back most of her early winnings.
She seemed contented, but not nearly as satisfied as she had been in May when she won the McDonald's LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Del., between pilgrimages to Atlantic City. The LPGA was Davies's second win in a major, but it came seven long years after her first, at the 1987 U.S. Open in Plainfield, N.J. Then Davies was a 23-year-old whose length off the tee was the cornerstone of her game. At 5'11" and at least 180 pounds, with hulking shoulders and tree-trunk calves, she is one of the strongest players ever on the tour, but until this year her power hadn't translated into dominance. "Now she's taken the game by the scruff of the neck," says Terry Coates, the chief executive of the Women Professional Golfers' European Tour.
The win in Wilmington pushed Davies past the $450,000 mark on the 1994 LPGA circuit, so she treated herself to a racy new green BMW 850CSi. She had priced the $120,000 car in the spring after finding that her first choice for new wheels, a Ferrari Testerossa, didn't have room for golf clubs in the trunk. Her mother, who helps handle Laura's finances, told Laura she could afford the car—as long as she made $100,000 in the following weeks. "I covered it," Davies says, "and ordered the car."
Covering it meant winning back-to-back tournaments. The Sara Lee Classic in Old Hickory, Tenn., was worth $78,750, and the LPGA Championship $165,000 more. Those victories were part of a two-month streak on the American tour during which Davies finished out of the top two only once and earned $456,810.
Before turning pro in 1985, she had worked as a stock clerk in a grocery market, a gas station attendant and a bookie's assistant at Coral's Betting Shop near Ottershaw, where she developed her love of gambling. Working there as a clerk when she was 20, she used to race the computer, calculating odds and settling accounts. "It's a thrill, drawing the right card or hitting the right number," she says.
Davies's gambling is not such a thrill to her mother. In 1991 Allen quit her job as a secretary after 18 years and began keeping tabs on Laura's bank account, having concluded that her daughter had all too calmly absorbed the loss of ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£100 on one hand of blackjack. "We've had quite the fray about it," Allen says. Davies has learned to brace for her mother's reaction on "Gold Card Day," the 15th of every month, when the credit card bills arrive and reveal how much cash she has drawn while frequenting one casino or another.
Lately Davies's gambling ledger has been in the black, thanks to a wager on Josè María Olazàbal to win the Masters. Davies got Olazàbal at 16-to-1 odds with a London bookmaker, and the wager paid about $13,860. Still, such sums make Allen uncomfortable. "Laura's had good luck, but like most gamblers she loses more than she wins," Allen says. "And at the end of the day it's a sickness, isn't it?"
Davies admits she once dropped $6,160 in a week. That was four years ago in Atlantic City, and she says she hasn't played for such high stakes since. "It was stupid," says Davies, whose limit is now much lower. "I don't go silly anymore," she says. Davies insists her gambling is merely another form of play to her, albeit an expensive one, and her only real vice.
Davies's attitude is that she started with not much, and if she ends up with the same, well, at least she has had fun. Back in 1985 she stood in the doorway of the small row cottage that her mother and stepfather, Mike Allen, an aerospace mechanic, had saved for years to buy. Davies swept her arm at the block of houses, three in all, and said, "Someday we're going to own all this." Two years later, in only her fourth tournament on the LPGA circuit, she won the Open, defeating Jo-Anne Carner and Ayako Okamoto in an 18-hole playoff. In 1988 she made good on her promise and bought the entire row.
"All this" wasn't much, just a trio of narrow, two-story redbrick cottages of almost doll-like cuteness. They sit on a winding suburban road not far from Heathrow Airport. Laura occupies two of the cottages; her parents live in the third.
Davies's home is a testament to her breathtakingly short attention span and, perhaps not unrelated, the abandon with which she spends money. There's a television in every room, one in the garage and another in a camper van. Scattered around Davies's living room, otherwise furnished with chairs covered in chintz, are a dartboard, a half-sized snooker table, a Ping-Pong table, a basketball hoop, a cricket bat, a Space Invaders game, a slot machine and several board games. Part of her collection of 100 outsized teddy bears is on display. Stan, a six-footer, is in the front window. A five-foot grizzly she picked up in Los Angeles sits on a chair. "Stuffed him in the overhead to get him home," she says.
Play seems to be the only thing Davies is really suited for. "To tell the truth, she's never been interested in anything else," Allen says. Laura's father, a design engineer, and Rita divorced when Laura was seven. Dave Davies moved to Columbia, S.C., and Laura and her older brother, Tony, remained in England with Rita, who remarried the same year. When Laura was 10, Rita and Mike gave Tony a set of golf clubs for his birthday. Laura got a five-iron just so she wouldn't be jealous. "So I had something to swish about in the garden," Laura remembers. Within four years it was golf that Laura wanted to play.
Davies likes to play golf, not work at it. This was her regimen in ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢vian: a stroll to the range every day before her round to warm up with half a dozen drives and a handful of iron shots, followed by some chipping to get the feel going, a few putts and a walk to the 1st tee. "Just hitting balls aimlessly is a complete waste of time," Davies says. "These people who make it so technical, I mean, you need a degree in——to understand them. You take the club back and bring it through. If something goes wrong, it's probably too fast or too slow. Putting? If it's my day, they go in, and on a bad day they don't."
If you want well-schooled golf, watch Nick Faldo or Beth Daniel. If you want to see pure talent, watch John Daly or Davies. She offers raw power and imaginative shot making as, blonde hair flopping over her visor, she trundles down fairways like a bus that has lost its brakes. Her swerves across the course can be dizzying. In the final round of the Sara Lee Classic, after a wicked slice off the 11th tee came to rest in a bunker behind the 17th green, Davies calmly hit a low, raking two-iron that traveled 219 yards across a lake and bounded onto the green. She wound up with a birdie. "There's no question that what really thrills her is to hit that shot that no one else can hit," says fellow Englishwoman Trish Johnson, who also alternates between the European and the U.S. tours. "She plays golf the same way she lives her life."
Davies's admirers are mystified as to why it took so long for such a forceful player to blossom into a dominant one. But Davies's problem wasn't physical, it was temperamental. "Because I hit it such a long way, everyone assumed the game was easy for me," she says. Until recently, her maturity didn't match up to her game. She became easily frustrated over bad bounces and what she calls "the injustice of the game." She battled her erratic driver and her streakiness on the putting green. And she suffered terrible bouts of homesickness if she traveled the LPGA circuit for more than four weeks at a time.
The turning point came last spring when Davies was prevailed upon to begin treating golf as a serious business. The European tour was in danger of collapsing, with more and more of its top players defecting to the LPGA, when a group of players led by Alison Nicholas went to Davies, the European circuit's chief drawing card, with a plea for help.
Nicholas asked Davies to back a plan to replace executive director Andrea Doyle with Coates, a former marketing consultant for British Airways. In March 1993 Coates took over, and the following month Davies became one of six player-directors on the restructured tour. "Without her we wouldn't have dragged the tour out of the muck," says Coates, who credits Davies for the tour's success in securing a richer TV contract and more sponsor support. "I think when she took on the responsibility of leading player, she took on the mantle, too. I'd like to think that made a contribution to the way she has played."
"Having a bit of an opinion, a bit of a say, made a difference," Davies says. "If something goes wrong, I just smash my putter on my foot and say, Oh, well."
Those who have been on the course with Davies this season see a more composed player who has stopped howling at the golf gods for her mishaps. When Davies finds trouble now, she thinks her way out of it. It is telling that she ranks sixth in greens hit in regulation among LPGA players. "She accepts that if a shot goes into the trees, she hit it there and she has to deal with the consequences," Nicholas says. Or, as her caddie, Matt Adams, succinctly puts it, "A bit of responsibility has made her more responsible."
Not that Davies has started laying up on par-5s or stopped using her gold card. Her next large purchase will probably be a new house, something with grounds so she can erect a basketball hoop, build a tennis court and kick a soccer ball around in the garden without her mother calling out, "Mind the geraniums." Then all Davies will lack is a home life. Traveling 38 weeks a year doesn't leave much time for relationships. But she still hopes for marriage and kids. "So far no one's been stupid enough to ask me," she says.
Standing on a tee in ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢vian, Davies casually lofted her putter and studied her reflection in the glinting metal club face. She reached into her bag for a hairbrush and began meticulously teasing her hair in the club-face mirror. Done, she exchanged the putter for a driver. Davies twirled the club, twitched it once or twice and lashed one of those signature tri-level, two-time-zone, to-be-continued drives. The ball soared across the pastoral French countryside, unsettling cows and threatening to fly over the border into Switzerland, which lay just on the other side of shimmering Lake Geneva. Davies sauntered down the fairway, the toast of golf on two continents.