There was always a Norma Jean Baker quality about Laura Baugh,
the blonde starlet who was supposed to take women's golf to
Madison Avenue. That's how she was packaged and sold--not as a
player who had been good enough at 16 to become the youngest
winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur and good enough at 17 to earn
a living on the pro tour. Her management company, IMG, and the
LPGA tour took every opportunity to promote her pulchritude over
her putting. In 1976, her fourth year on the tour, she made a
reported $270,000 from endorsements; it took her nine years to
earn that much on the course.
Last Friday, Baugh spent her 41st birthday at the Betty Ford
Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., receiving counseling for what
friends and family have long suspected to be a combination of
alcoholism and an eating disorder. Mark McCormack, the founder
of IMG, was among those who finally persuaded her to seek
Baugh was not talking last week. But in a 1991 SI story she
hinted at the pressures she faced in trying to make the
transformation from golden girl to working pro. "When I was
young and single, I was easy to promote as a sex symbol," said
Baugh. "But now I'm just a player who's married with three kids.
[She now has six.] The only way to get a sponsor is to earn it
by being a good player and winning tournaments." But though she
finished second 10 times in 23 years on the tour, she never won,
failing to live up to the promise she showed as an amateur. She
may have spent too much time posing for cover shots and too
little time on the practice range. And even when she was at her
best, her tee shots left her yards behind her competitors. An
eating disorder may have been a factor--she never carried more
than 115 pounds on her 5'4 1/2" frame.
Those close to Baugh say she has long been in denial about her
eating and drinking problems. Her husband, South African golfer
Bobby Cole, whom she divorced in 1985 and remarried four years
later, told SI that she occasionally induced vomiting to look
slimmer before fashion shoots. And tour golfers have whispered
about smelling alcohol on her breath during competition. Last
June, as Baugh worked as a commentator for ESPN at the
Oldsmobile Classic in East Lansing, Mich., she was asked to
leave the tower by producer Larry Cirillo. "She was incoherent,
and after 20 minutes I had to pull the plug on her," Cirillo
says. An LPGA official later found Baugh dazed, huddling on a
cart path. Four months later, Baugh played in her last LPGA
tournament, tying for 18th at the Fieldcrest Classic in Charlotte.
Family and friends took it as a promising sign that Baugh
entered a treatment program. "This has probably saved her life,"
said Cole. "But we'll have to wait and see."