Missing The Mark Due to a chronic case of poor putting, Laura Davies's shot at history came up short

March 30, 1998

Laura Davies will not cry, not in public, at least. She will not
give anyone that pleasure, that glimpse of vulnerability that
says, Yes, things are bad. She will not do it. No way. She will
make jokes and offer up empty one-liners and talk until there
are no more questions. She will laugh and ramble and scream.
What she won't do is cry. No, she will not. But if you
look--really, really look--between the words, it's there: the
pain, the exasperation, the embarrassment. Focus on Davies's
face immediately after yet another blown putt, not when she is
cheery and talking to you, nor when she is walking to the next
hole. No, look right after the miss, when her defenses have yet
to rise, her club is still in her hand and her shoulders are
slumped. That's when she's thinking the worst thought of all: I
may never make another putt.

It's there--mainly in hidden doses, sure--but it's there. In the
midst of the worst stretch of her 11-year LPGA career, Davies,
34, all but drowned in a sea of self-doubt last week. With the
city of Phoenix hyping her run for a record fifth straight
Standard Register Ping title, Davies made the cut at Moon Valley
Country Club by only a stroke, blowing putt after putt after
putt. She finished 16th, six strokes out of the Liselotte
Neumann-Rosie Jones playoff that Neumann won on the third extra
hole. "Sometimes I worry about what Laura's thinking," says Matt
Adams, Davies's cousin and frequent caddie. "You have this kind
of bad luck, and thoughts start to build up the wrong way. With
confidence, she's one of the top players in the world. Without
it, you don't know what will happen."

Here's what happened at Moon Valley. Through much of Thursday
and Friday's rounds, Davies played sound, if somewhat
unspectacular, golf. Her drives were the usual Ruthian 270-plus
yards, and her approach shots almost always wound up within 15
feet of the hole. After her first 29 holes, Davies was four
under par and very much playing the part of a defending champ
set on retaining her title. "I felt O.K. about how things were
going," she said. "It wasn't fantastic, but I was hitting the
ball well."

On her twelfth hole on Friday, however, Davies missed a
10-footer for par by a fraction of an inch--and went postal. She
slammed her putter on the ground, walked a few steps, then threw
her glove to the turf and kicked it, all the while muttering to
herself. "I won't repeat exactly what I was saying," Davies
said. "You wouldn't be able to run it, anyway."

Whatever it was, Davies was rattled. On the following hole, a
485-yard par-5, she hit her drive right of Oliver North, out of
bounds and into the rock garden of Morrine Pierson, mother of
four, grandmother of 11 and owner of scores of stray golf balls.
("But none," says Pierson, "from someone as good as Laura
Davies.") Davies took a penalty, reloaded and hit her third shot
wide right again, onto a cart path. She tried to bend a heroic
recovery shot with a one-iron, but instead of cutting, her ball
stayed straight and went O.B. left. She then hit a conservative
six-iron shot back into the fairway, an approach to the front
fringe and two-putted for a quadruple-bogey nine. Faster than
you can say Cindy Figg-Currier, all thoughts of the five-peat
had vanished.

"I let the previous hole get to me," Davies said in low tones,
her face turning red three hours after the fact. "You can't do
that. You have to let things go. The worst part is, I don't know
what there is to do. I can't hit shots better than I did today.
I'm putting better than I ever have. They're just not going in.
How do you fix that? What do you blame it on?"

Pressure, perhaps. If Davies could've pulled off a fifth
straight Standard Register Ping, she would've broken a record
she shares with Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen for consecutive
years winning the same event. That alone would have been a heady
achievement, but then a Scottsdale, Ariz., insurance company and
The Arizona Republic offered to donate $1 million to state
domestic violence and child abuse programs, as well as award
Davies $300,000 to go with the $127,500 first prize, if she
could come up with number five. If Davies came in second, the
insurance company and the newspaper would be off the hook.

"I'm not even thinking about that," Davies insisted before the
tournament. "If you concern yourself with things other than just
playing, you do yourself in. Really, I don't think it'll be an
issue."

Maybe, maybe not, but Davies was continuously asked about the
dough--reminded, reminded, reminded of the impact a win would
have. The Republic handed out pins proclaiming LAURA'S
$1,000,000 DRIVE, and until the heinous nine, her gallery was
easily the largest at Moon Valley. Mothers asked her to pose
with their babies, and she was the prime target of autograph
seekers. To complete the circus atmosphere, a chipper British
man hawked the instructional video Laura Davies: Play Natural
Golf for $25 on the tournament grounds. Davies is widely known
for having never taken a lesson. "The expectations for her are
sort of unfair," said tour veteran Deb Richard.

Sort of? Davies's last LPGA victory came in this event in 1997,
when she also struggled with her putting but beat Kelly Robbins
in a sudden-death playoff. "She hit some big shots then," says
Adams, "and she didn't have any 9s." This season Davies has had
two good showings (third in Hawaii and sixth in Los Angeles),
two decent ones (11th in Australia and 17th in the Office
Depot), one bummer (47th at the Healthsouth) and, the week
before Phoenix, one nightmare (a missed cut at the
Welch's/Circle K). Davies has not putted well in any of them.
She ranks 117th on tour with an average of 30.36 putts per
round. By way of comparison, the LPGA's best putter, Jenny Lee,
has a 27.80 average, while Neumann takes only 28.96 per round.

How bad has Davies's putting become? So bad that Adams says
she's putting better now than she has in "a long, long time."

Six months? "Oh, much longer," he says. "Last year she was a
total mess."

A year? "More than that, surely. Really, she's struggled."

Two years? "I'd have to think," Adams says. "Laura hasn't had a
really good run since mid-'96, maybe a little longer."

Davies has tried 50 putters in the past year--including four in
the '97 Standard Register Ping, which might be some sort of
record. They're all somewhere in her house in West Byfleet,
England.

Neumann made her presence felt from the start. She opened 69-67
and finished with a 13-under 279 at par-73 Moon Valley. The win
didn't come easily, though. Neumann squandered a four-stroke
lead on Sunday and survived a scare on the first hole of sudden
death, the par-4 18th, before beating Jones. Neumann hit her
approach into a bunker while Jones put her ball 10 feet from the
cup. "I thought that was it," said Jones. "I thought it was my
win." Neumann, however, almost holed her bunker shot and Jones
missed her try for birdie. After the two players matched pars on
the 17th, Neumann finally ended the playoff by making a
3 1/2-foot putt for birdie, again at the 18th.

Neumann, who has also had a pair of seconds this year, in the
Office Depot and in the Welch's/Circle K, jumped to the top of
the LPGA money list with $247,096. As soon as she sank the
winning putt, Neumann threw both arms in the air and then
laughed as Pee Wee, her tiny white Maltese, ran onto the green.
Neumann picked up the dog--putter in one hand, pooch in the
other--and flashed a smile that was 20 teeth wide.

Davies has shown flashes, too. On Saturday's back nine she hit
every green in regulation and two-putted them all. "Let's say I
make some of those putts," she says. "Not all, but some. All of
a sudden I'm eight under and back in contention. I'm struggling
a bit, but it's not that hard to picture."

As Davies rationalized, her father, Dave Davies, stood nearby
sipping the Bloody Mary he had made that morning and carried
around the course in a water bottle. Dave was divorced from
Laura's mother and moved to the U.S. when Laura was seven, but
father and daughter have maintained a friendly relationship.
Earlier that day, while Laura was missing yet another putt, Dave
recalled a time when she was three or four and walking
innocently through the house. "All of a sudden she fell, baby
teeth first, onto our stone fireplace," he said. "I remember
actually finding her teeth marks in the stone. But she didn't
cry. She just bounced up and kept going."

Maybe crashes are easier when you're a kid. Maybe when there's
no $1 million at stake and no adoring gallery, it's not so hard
to get up, brush yourself off and walk away. Maybe Laura Davies
needs to remember what that was like.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SLUMPING Davies's failure to win a fifth consecutive Standard Register Ping extended her LPGA victory drought to a full season. [Laura Davies putting] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK POOCH KICK After Neumann's win, Pee Wee had the run of the place. [Dog Pee Wee running towards Liselotte Neumann]

"You have this kind of bad luck," says Davies's caddie, "and
thoughts start to build up the wrong way."

When Neumann hit her approach into a bunker, "I thought that was
it," Jones said.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)