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Major League
Kelli Anderson
May 26, 1997
Chris Johnson left no doubt that she's a big-time player with her victory at the LPGA Championship
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May 26, 1997

Major League

Chris Johnson left no doubt that she's a big-time player with her victory at the LPGA Championship

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There are many ways to measure the length of a round of golf—by yards, by holes, by hours or, in the case of Chris Johnson, by the amount of food consumed. By that measure Sunday's final round of the McDonald's LPGA Championship at the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., was a 3½-spelt-bread-and-almond-butter-sandwich round, or long enough for Johnson to get through her entire supply of sandwiches but not long enough to deplete an emergency bag of almonds.

By a more standard measure, the final round lasted 20 holes, long enough for Johnson to hold off both Annika Sorenstam, who made a late charge but blew a two-foot putt on the 72nd hole to miss getting into the playoff, and Leta Lindley, who clung tenaciously to Johnson before losing her way in a thicket of dogwoods on the final extra hole.

For the third straight year the LPGA Championship, the second major of the season on the women's tour, came down to the last putt, but this was the first time it had gone into overtime since moving to DuPont in 1994. "It was a nerve-racking day," said the 39-year-old Johnson, who along with Lindley finished at three-under-par 281. "I never felt I had it in hand until that final putt dropped."

Nothing could be counted on last week. Certainly no one expected to see two relative unknowns such as Johnson and Lindley locked in a head-to-head match for much of the weekend. Johnson, an 18-year veteran who was born in Arcata, Calif., and now lives in Tucson, hadn't won in 1997 but had shown signs of a breakthrough in recent weeks. A seven-time winner on tour—her last victory came in the '95 Star Bank LPGA Classic in Dayton—she already had six top-11 finishes in her 12 starts and, other than 10th-ranked Barb Mucha, was the highest player on the money list (12th) without a win. Still, Johnson had contended in a major only once before, in 1991, when she tied for fifth in the U.S. Open.

Lindley, a third-year pro from Carlsbad, Calif., was even more of a long shot. She had made just four of 11 cuts this season and was best known for her fifth-place tie in the 1995 U.S. Open and for rooming for a semester with Sorenstam at Arizona, where she was a four-time All-America. "Every tournament is a major for me," Lindley says.

The only thing that seemed familiar in Wilmington was Laura Davies's taking the first-round lead with a four-under-par 67. Davies has owned this event ever since it moved to the tight, 6,386-yard DuPont course and had flourished in the soggy conditions that plagued the championship in recent years. She won in 1994 and '96 and came in second in '95. Davies was pleased to do so well in dry conditions last Thursday but couldn't help hoping for an assist from the heavens. "I'm going to be up on my roof doing a little rain dance tonight," she said after Thursday's round.

She must have done the wrong step. It wasn't the customary rain that arrived on Friday. It was wind—a good old-fashioned apocalyptic blow that picked up a golf tournament in Delaware and dumped it upside down in a fun house on the Jersey Shore. Suddenly, certain verities, like the greens holding and long drivers having an advantage, went out the window. Davies threw away her lead by four-putting the 1st hole for double bogey. "That was a shock," she said. She made three more bogeys and only one birdie and shot 75, her worst score ever on the par-71 DuPont course and her highest in the event since 991. Another long hitter, Kelly Robbins, who won the championship the year Davies didn't, in '95, tacked a 74 onto Thursday's 73 and disappeared from contention. Karrie Webb of Australia, second on the money list going in and always a threat, went eight over for the first two rounds and barely made the cut, which was set at 150. Even at that number, Tammie Green (75-76) and Terry-Jo Myers (75-78), the winners of the last two tour stops, missed it.

Any day that saw the giant inflated Ronald McDonald tethered to the roof of the clubhouse bob and feint like a jack-in-the-box was bound to be a bit freakish. It was a day when Sherri Steinhauer, who would lead after two rounds by two strokes over Johnson, Lindley and Mucha, watched her ball roll a foot and a half as she bent down to mark it on the 14th green. It was a day when 26 players failed to break 80. It was a day when DuPont, normally the benefactor of the long, smiled upon the short. Indeed, the only player with the wherewithal to withstand the 30-mph gusts and break par was the 5'4", 123-pound Lindley, who earned her 69 with low-flying drives, solid putting and patience. "Sometimes the wind was so bad, I was gripping with my toes to stand still," she said. "So I'd wait for it to stop gusting and then hurry up and putt."

Lindley, 24, is one of the LPGA's shortest hitters. Her drives average only 220 yards, putting her 156th on tour in that category, which is why she carries five woods—three, five, seven and nine, in addition to a 48-inch-long driver. "They're my scoring clubs," she says. "I've had to hit woods all my life. It's not like I got short all of a sudden. I've been short all my life."

Lindley's lack of length, and the lack of a major on Johnson's résumé, didn't matter on Saturday, when the wind died down and the sun reappeared. Davies continued to struggle with her putting and shot a frustrating 74 to fall hopelessly behind, and none of the LPGA's other bright lights, players such as Nancy Lopez, Robbins, Sorenstam and Webb, made any kind of move. Lindley, meanwhile, put up another tidy 69 to tie for the lead at 210 with Johnson, who also shot 69. Heading into the final round, the top five players on the leader board—Johnson, Lindley, Kim Saiki, Steinhauer and Mucha—had only 13 victories among them, one less than Davies.

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