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Hocus Focus Dottie Pepper had that look in her eye last week, and, sure enough, by the end of the Dinah a major record had disappeared

April 05, 1999
April 05, 1999

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April 5, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Hocus Focus Dottie Pepper had that look in her eye last week, and, sure enough, by the end of the Dinah a major record had disappeared

Dottie Pepper is Lucy Van Pelt grown up. At last year's Solheim
Cup, in which she was 4-0 for the victorious U.S. team, Pepper
so annoyed the Europeans with her arm pumping and gamesmanship
that they wrote her name on a pop-up punching bag and took turns
socking it. But there is more fun than funk in her act, and no
one this side of Arnold Palmer has eyes that gleam like Pepper's
when the game is afoot.

This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue

She's vocal, too. On Sunday, having just launched a seven-iron
approach shot toward the 16th green in the final round of the
Nabisco Dinah Shore at Rancho Mirage, Calif., Pepper shouted,
"Oh, damn, be right!" The ball, in one of those rare instances
when physics follows rhetoric, landed on the green, 140 yards
away, and hopped into the hole for an eagle 2.

Pepper's shot--greeted with shrieks, squeals and a sustained
ovation from the disbelieving gallery--put the 33-year-old golf
provocateur at a tournament-record 19 under par and propelled
her toward a six-stroke victory in the LPGA's first major
championship of 1999. Her only challenger of the weekend, Meg
Mallon, crossed the fairway and gave Pepper a concessionary hug.
Afterward Mallon said, "Dottie is proof that you can will things
to happen."

We're talking about the force of personality here, the notion
that it's not just how you use your sticks that counts, but also
what sticks in people's memories after you've played your best.
Take Mallon. Meg, at 36, is still the sweetheart of Sigma Phi, a
freckled, beaming throwback to the days when teenagers went on
hayrides and girls wrote diary entries in green ink. Mallon is
so popular with her LPGA peers that they didn't mind a bit when
she won two major championships back in 1991. They didn't resent
it last week when she made more than her share of birdies on the
Dinah Shore Course at Mission Hills Country Club. Last Thursday,
Mallon actually got an award--the William and Mousie Powell
Award, which is given annually to a tour member by her
peers--for playing good golf while being a warm and
compassionate person. That's a prize they should give out once
every 20 years or so, if they were being honest.

Then you have the young Australian star, Karrie Webb, who
resembles neither Pepper nor Mallon. Webb, in fact, seems not yet
to have decided, at 24, what her adult persona will be. Webb shot
a final-round 66 at Rancho Mirage and finished third. She
departed, however, having left almost no impression at all.

Let's look at this secondary story line first, the one involving
Webb and her ability to frustrate America's celebrity-making
machine. Webb strikes many as the distaff David Duval, right
down to the bat-winged sunglasses and small, down-turned mouth.
Her name is common currency among golfers, but her inner self is
a well-guarded fortress, accessible only to a few close friends
such as fellow LPGA star Kelly Robbins and Kelvin Haller, Webb's
Australian swing coach. For reporters, Webb briefly lowers the
drawbridge, but only on Tuesdays and only at tournament sites
and never all the way. Her press conference last Tuesday at
Mission Hills lasted six minutes, and the transcript filled
little more than half a page. "I looked at the counter on my
tape recorder," said one amazed reporter, "and it was stopped on
70." Consequently, Webb generates little fan excitement and a
fraction of the media play she deserves for winning 12 tour
events in little more than three years.

Approaching the Dinah, Webb looked as unstoppable as a runaway
oil tanker. She had won three of her six LPGA starts in '99, had
finished no worse than eighth in the others, had reached
$400,000 in season prize money faster than any player in LPGA
history and had broken the tour's scoring record by three
strokes with a 26-under-par victory at the Australian Ladies
Masters. "I've kind of shocked myself," she said. "I've hit the
ball this well before, but I've never made so many putts."

The only thing the young Queenslander lacked was a victory in a
major, a feat already accomplished by her three closest rivals,
the '98 rookie of the year Se Ri Pak (last year's LPGA
Championship and U.S. Open), the 29-year-old Robbins (1995 LPGA)
and three-time player of the year Annika Sorenstam ('95 and '96
Open). "The majors are more of a maturity level thing," said
Webb, "where you have to be patient to play well."

Webb will have to be patient awhile longer. She matched Pepper's
score on Sunday to beat out her pal Robbins for third, but for
three rounds Webb's new cross-handed putting grip coaxed fewer
putts into the hole than it has of late. A first-round 73 left
her somewhat cross, and a second-round 71 anchored her nine
behind Mallon. After Friday's round, Webb sat on her golf bag
behind the 18th green and stared at the leader board for 20
minutes, as if expecting her name to suddenly appear. "I've
gotten off to such a great start this year that it's hard not to
be in contention," she said on Saturday evening, calmly
analyzing a third-round 70 that left her 11 behind Pepper. "I'm
not playing any worse, but I just haven't made the putts this
week." With a thin smile, she added, "I can't complain. I've
made so many putts this year."

The truth is, Webb's third-place finish probably helped women's
golf more than a Webb win would have. The LPGA is currently
reeling from sticker shock, watching in alarm as the PGA Tour's
prize money, buoyed by rich television deals, goes
stratospheric. The total purse at the Dinah Shore, for instance,
was $1 million, the same amount that one male golfer, Jeff
Maggert, got in February for winning the Andersen Consulting
Match Play. In the same vein, Webb, with three wins and four
other top 10s through the Dinah, has $486,996 in winnings, while
Duval, with three victories and one other top 10, has about
$2.15 million.

Ty Votaw, in his first week as LPGA commissioner following the
resignation of Jim Ritts, tried to minimize the psychological
impact of the green gap, saying, "They [the PGA Tour] are 18
years older than we are." But his players, for the most part,
worry that their tour is losing ground to the men. They worry
even more because the LPGA's two top money winners of '99, until
Sunday, were the media-shy Webb and the equally reserved
Robbins, both of whom often duck the coverage that their tour
desperately courts. (Robbins refused to visit the interview room
when she led after three rounds of last year's Tournament of
Champions. Only after the press complained did she appear the
next day when she had won.) One veteran player points to the
absence of Karriemania and says, "It's pretty much her own
doing. She just doesn't try to connect with people."

Webb concedes that she doesn't feel a lot of support from U.S.
galleries. "It doesn't bother me," she says. "If I keep playing
the way I'm playing, I'll be happy. I'm not concerned about
anybody else. I can't change the person that I am."

Perhaps not, but she can, and almost certainly will, change her
status as a nonwinner of majors. Webb left Rancho Mirage with
her third top 10 in four starts in the Dinah, and she already
has top five finishes in the three other majors. "I think if I
were to win 20 or 25 tournaments and never win a major, then it
might matter," she said last Saturday, "but I've only played 12
majors. It's not like I've played 50."

Or even 40--the threshold that both Pepper and Mallon crossed
last year. The two friends, who have been competing and carrying
on an endless conversation since their college days at Furman
and Ohio State, respectively, seized control of the tournament
during a third round in which Pepper holed a 72-yard wedge shot
for eagle on the par-5 9th. Her 13-under-par score tied the
54-hole record for the tournament, gave her a three-stroke lead
over Mallon and made kite tails of everyone else in the field.
Pepper, of course, was Pepper--yelling at her ball, employing
psychokinesis on wind and water, and generally having the time
of her life. Mallon, meanwhile, plugged along like a big sister,
making birdies at a rate that wins most majors in a walk, yet
falling further behind.

Two holes on the weekend swung things Pepper's way: the par-5
18th on Saturday, where Mallon double-bogeyed after hitting what
she described as a ballistic nine-iron right over the flag into
tenacious collar grass; and the par-3 14th in the final round,
where Pepper putted from the fringe with a wedge, holing the
downhill 45-footer for birdie to take a four-shot lead over her
lone challenger. After that it was a foregone conclusion that
Pepper would end a 2 1/2-year victory drought that had seen her
finish second six times, including a playoff loss to Mallon in
last year's Star Bank LPGA Classic. "Her determination overcame
her nerves," said Mallon. "Dottie fought off her demons about
not winning, and that's hard to do."

Thus, Pepper's deuce at the 16th was more magical than
meaningful, a kind of exorcism. (Not that Pepper ever lost faith
in herself. She played the best golf of her life during a
luckless '98, when her scoring average was almost a half stroke
better than it was in 1992, a four-win, player-of-the-year
season in which she won the Vare Trophy. "To not have a win,"
she says, "was baffling.") Walking off the green at 16, Pepper
gave the eagle ball to her caddie, Don Wilson, and then set out
to do more damage--to get to 20 under, if she could. Instead,
Pepper pull-hooked her tee shot into the water on the par-5 18th
hole and took a penalty stroke on the way to a closing par.
Still, her four-round total of 269 shattered Amy Alcott's Dinah
Shore mark of 273, set in 1991, and broke the record for an LPGA
major, 18 under, set by Brandie Burton at last year's du Maurier
Classic. "Record-setting golf," Mallon said. "That's hard to
beat."

What neither Mallon nor Pepper could settle was the personality
issue--whether records and victories are marketable when
delivered without verve and flair. Judging from Karrie Webb's
lonely trek at the Dinah, and Pepper's lively jaunt, the answer
is no.

An hour after the win--Pepper's 15th career title and second
victory at the Shore--someone asked her if she was comfortable
with her image as a firebrand. Still wet from her celebratory
jump into the moat at 18, Pepper smiled mischievously and
answered pretty much the same way that Webb had responded on
Saturday: "It's just sort of me."

Yes, but what a different me.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK MEGNIFICENT In almost any other year, Mallon would have been a Shore thing at 13 under.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK LONE STARS Webb (left) and Robbins, two of the LPGA's top talents, are reluctant to do more than the minimum to promote the tour.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK GIMME FIVE Pepper broke the Dinah mark by four shots and the major record by one.
"Dottie fought off her demons about not winning," said Mallon.
"Her determination overcame her nerves."
"If I keep playing the way I'm playing, I'll be happy," Webb
says. "I'm not concerned about anybody else."
Pepper had played the best golf of her life during a luckless
'98. "To not have a win," she says, "was baffling."