THE LPGA doesn't like to compare itself with the PGA Tour, yet at
the Sprint Championship last week it was hard not to notice the
vast differences between the men's and the women's professional
golf circuits. This was the sixth year of the Sprint, which was
conceived by the LPGA as its fifth major, the equivalent of the
PGA Tour's Players Championship. This year's Sprint was played for
the first time at the LPGA's new home course, LPGA International
in Daytona Beach, and the event's $1.2 million in prize money
matched the McDonald's LPGA Championship purse as the tour's
richest of the year. There was even national TV coverage, four
hours on the weekend by CBS. With that much going for it, you
would think the Sprint was a must-play. Yet something very big in
the picture was missing.
Namely, Laura Davies, the tour's biggest hitter and biggest draw,
not to mention its top player. She skipped the Sprint to play in a
tournament in Japan. That's right, the LPGA's leading money winner
was at the Satake Japan Classic in Higashi Hiroshima (she tied for
fifth). If you're looking for the PGA Tour equivalent, that would
be like Nick Price skipping the Players to do an outing overseas.
What does this say about the LPGA tour? Everything. The tour's
muted reaction spoke volumes about the LPGA's status among its
players. While outgoing LPGA commissioner Charles Mechem was
certainly disappointed at Davies's absence, he did not try to
pressure Davies into skipping the trip to Japan.
Davies, who's No. 1 in driving distance (269.6 yards), birdies
(99), rounds in the 60s (seven) and stroke average (71.04), has
won twice, had five top-10 finishes in seven events and made
$282,040 on the LPGA tour this year. Two weeks ago she won the
Chick-fil-A Charity Championship in Stockbridge, Ga., beating
Kelly Robbins by four strokes. This week and next she'll defend
titles at the Sara Lee Classic and the LPGA Championship,
respectively, two of the eight tournaments she won on five
continents in 1994.
No wonder the players almost blessed the English star's decision
to play in Japan last week. ``If she chose to do that, more power
to her, '' said Colleen Walker after shooting 66 to tie Kris
Tschetter and Dottie Mochrie for the Sprint first-round lead.
``Anytime you remove from the field that type of talent, it's good
for the rest of us,'' said Robbins, who ranks second to Davies in
It was certainly good for Val Skinner, who shot 67 on Sunday for a
15-under 273 to win the Sprint by two strokes over Tschetter. It
was the sixth career victory for Skinner, and the $180,000
first-place check vaulted her 15 places up the money list to
second, behind Davies, with $254,117. It also signaled that the
34-year-old Skinner's comeback is complete.
With victories in 1985, '86 and '87 Skinner had established
herself as one of the 20 best women players in the world. But
personal problems, which she firmly but nicely refuses to discuss,
blurred her focus, and she gradually burned out on golf.
``I'm a perfectionist, and golf's an imperfect game,'' said
Skinner. ``It's incredibly demanding, and I'm incredibly
demanding on myself.''
In 1992 she finished 100th on the money list and was
contemplating retirement. That's when sports psychologist Bob
Rotella, with whom she had worked in the mid-'80s, called and
invited Skinner to Thanksgiving dinner. She hadn't talked to
Rotella in four years. ``He asked me one thing,'' Skinner said.
``He said, `Is golf going to be a priority for you: yes or no?'
From that point on, my mind was back into it.''
Skinner's resurgence was also spurred by Kirk Lucas, a teaching
pro she started working with in 1994. Until then she had always
relied for instruction on her father, Richard, a North Platte,
Neb., club pro, who also made her golf clubs. Lucas, who is based
in Fairfax, Va., got Skinner to switch to Ping irons and to reduce
the motion in her legs, changes that produced quick results. She
won the 1994 Atlanta Women's Championship and earned a career-best
$328,021 last year to finish 12th on the money list.
``Kirk's definitely going to get a nice tip,'' Skinner said on
It was hard for Lucas not to have mixed emotions because he also
teaches Tschetter and occasionally caddies for her as well. They
have been dating for a year. Lucas was holding Tschetter's bag on
the par-5 18th tee when Skinner hooked her drive into the pond
that borders the fairway. At that point Skinner had a three-shot
lead and was just trying to get to the scorer's tent without a
mishap. She saved her par, and Tschetter made a birdie to steal
second place from Michelle McGann. ``I told Kirk, `You know, you
probably cost me $80,000,' '' Tschetter said afterward. ``I just
wish I was the player of his that won, but I'm happy for him.''
Tschetter played her college golf in the mid-'80s at Texas
Christian, in Fort Worth, and she used to practice at Shady Oaks.
Ben Hogan was still playing there then. He took a liking to
Tschetter and has helped her with her game over the years. He
taught her how to hit the ball in the wind, but she won't reveal
any secrets. ``I could tell you,'' she told reporters with a
smile, ``but then I'd have to kill you.''
She had at least a share of the lead for each of the first three
rounds, shooting 66-67-72. On Sunday, playing with Skinner and
Beth Daniel, she came back from a double bogey on the par-3 6th
hole with back-to-back birdies at numbers 7 and 8. She lost any
real chance to win when she lipped out for pars at 15 and 16, but
her runner-up check of $111,711 moved her from 19th to sixth on
the money list.
For McGann it was another disappointing ending to a well-played
tournament by a woman better known as a clotheshorse than a
closer. The knock on her is that she's all hat and no heart on the
weekend, yet on Sunday she shot 69. She had a chance for an eagle
on 18 that would have given her a 66 and put real pressure on
Skinner, but her seven-iron from the fairway kicked off a bank and
rolled into a hazard. She took off her sock and shoe to play out
of the water, then missed a two-footer for par.
``Someday it's going to happen,'' said the upbeat but still
winless McGann. ``We have a lot of tournaments left this year. If
I keep my confidence up, it will come.''
McGann is only 25, but this is her seventh season on the LPGA
tour. She now has 34 top-10 finishes, and the pressure mounts with
each blown opportunity. ``I don't think there's any reason why
Michelle hasn't won,'' said Daniel last week. ``Certainly her game
is good enough to win. I just don't think people realize how tough
it is to win out here.''
The finish provided some excitement to what had been a forgettable
week. The scores were low, but the women really earned their
paychecks for making the 8.2-mile walk around LPGA International,
which was designed by Rees Jones on the undeveloped west side of
Daytona Beach. This is the first home course the LPGA has had
since moving from Sugar Land, Texas, in 1989, but it is hardly a
memorable one, judging from the parade of players coming to the
press tent last week who were unable to remember specific holes.
There is no island green to strike fear in the hearts of the women
the way there is at the Tournament Players Club Stadium course at
Sawgrass. ``I've birdied the 12th hole three times, and I don't
remember it,'' Daniel said.
LPGA International is so new that there isn't a clubhouse yet,
and because of all the marshland, players needed carts to get to
the next tee from some of the greens. It didn't help, either,
that the course isn't right in the heart of Daytona Beach.
Attendance was poor. The crowd count was estimated at 22,000 for
the week, about 8,000 fewer than the daily limit at The Players
But this was a start, at least, and Skinner was proud to have won
the inaugural event at the LPGA's home course. ``I think she's got
a shot at being the best woman player in the world, if she isn't
that already,'' said her caddie, Marty Wells late Sunday. ``She
was this week.''
Maybe not the best woman player in the world--she was still in
Japan--but Skinner was certainly the best woman player in