The Parable of Betsy King and the Hypnotist will serve as our Easter reading. It is told that the young Betsy, winless in her first seven years as a professional golfer, went to a hypnotist who had enhanced the careers of several bowlers. "Imagine yourself playing without a care," the hypnotist murmured to the entranced Betsy. "Picture yourself shooting high scores."
"She didn't know anything about golf," King said years later, having climbed the mountain on her own. "I told her, 'High scores in golf are bad.' She said, 'Oh, dear—I'll have to put you under again.' " No, thanks, said Betsy. The one true path to better golf, she decided, was the practice range. As she once explained to an apostle of Zen golf, "You can visualize hitting a 250-yard draw all you want, but unless you have the swing mechanics to produce that shot, it won't happen."
King's fundamentalist views came to mind last week in Rancho Mirage, Calif., as she led herself out of the desert with a surprising two-stroke victory in the first of the LPGA's four majors, the Nabisco Dinah Shore. Having won no tournaments in 20 months and having finished an uncharacteristic 45th on the 1996 money list, the 41-year-old King went to Mission Hills Country Club as a respected but discounted elder. "Burned out," said some, citing the year and a half she needed to get her last victory, the one that got her into the LPGA Hall of Fame. "Ready to move on," said others, citing her commitment to causes such as Romanian orphans and Habitat for Humanity.
How to explain, then, King's sudden return to Hall of Fame form? What to make of her winning score of 276—seven shots better than the 283s she shot to win the Shore in '87 and '90? Was it diet? Meditation? Transdermal applications of titanium extract? King had the answer on Sunday. "I think I'm swinging better," she said.
Coming from the LPGA's most other-worldly star, the swing-mechanics answer had its usual jarring effect. Despite all the credit she has given Jesus over the years, the devout King usually attributes her victories to some simple act of sinew and bone—a slight change in posture at address, say, or a correction of the hands at the top of the swing.
"For me, the mental side has always been pretty constant," King said last Saturday after shooting her second straight five-under-par 67 to share the third-round lead with long-hitting Kelly Robbins. "I think well on the golf course, so it's just a question of getting my swing mechanics straight."
It's not good, for instance, when King pushes down excessively with her left shoulder on the backswing. Last year that garden-variety swing fault had her upper body recoiling upward on the downswing, causing fat and thin shots. (Also fat: her stroke average, which jumped from 71.24 to 72.65. Also thin: her tour earnings, which fell by more than $344,000, to $136,459, her lowest total since 1983.) "I've been trying to keep my upper body level," she said last week at Rancho Mirage, "the way I did in 1989, when I won six tournaments."
To get back her '80s swing, King revisited her '80s swing coach, Ed Oldfield. Whenever possible she studied videotapes of her once-level self. At times this season, particularly on the Arizona segment of the tour, King regained command for a round or two. "She started hitting the ball cleanly and straight," said her father, Weir King, a retired physician. The week before the Dinah, in the final round of the Standard Register Ping, King hit 16 greens in regulation—a clear portent.
Still, the two-time U.S. Women's Open champion attracted little notice with her opening 71, which put her five shots behind coleaders Kathryn Marshall and Kris Tschetter. It was King's second-round 67, fashioned in a kite-crashing wind, that got everyone's attention. "It's so good to see Betsy playing well again," said Robbins, who partnered King in a four-ball victory at last fall's Solheim Cup. "It's great for the game."
But not, as it turned out, so great for Robbins. The 27-year-old Michigander, winner of five tour events, including the '95 LPGA Championship, had carried Laura Davies to sudden death before losing in Phoenix the week before. On Sunday morning, under a blue sky crisscrossed with airplane contrails, Robbins was the clear favorite—possessed of a precise draw and longer off the tee than King or Amy Fruhwirth, the other member of the final threesome.