Colleen Walker wouldn't let go of her little golden trophy. Not now, not after all her prize had cost her. Walker had just wrapped up the du Maurier Classic, this season's final LPGA major championship, and it was a moment to cherish. One of the tour's keynote players from 1987 to '92, when she won seven times, Walker had almost vanished in the five years since, owing to injuries, nerves and the birth of her first child. On Sunday she flashed again, shooting a shiny 65 to outflank a crowded leader board and win her first major. Now here she was, exhausted but glowing in the twilight behind the 18th green of Glen Abbey Golf Course in suburban Toronto, smiling down at the trophy in her arms. Ten-month-old Tyler Walker Bakich, a blond cube for whom his mom had forsaken nearly two years of her career, smiled right back. "Five years and one baby later, I finally did it," Walker said, never breaking eye contact with her cherub. "It was all worthwhile. I love him, but I love my golf, too."
With that, Walker slid Tyler to her husband, Ron Bakich, and skipped onto the green for the victor's ceremony, during which she laid her hands on some serious crystal and the $180,000 that came with it. Walker's victory was as much a story about the uneasy marriage of motherhood and top-flight golf as it was about her eight-birdie, no-bogey final round, which tied the course record, made up four strokes on the third-round leader, Kelly Robbins, and leapfrogged Walker over nine players. "It's been a wild roller-coaster ride," her husband said while slipping Cheerios to Tyler. He was talking about more than just the events of Sunday.
Walker's triumph against the odds fit neatly into the overarching theme of the week, for the 25th du Maurier was a rousing success despite the fact that the tournament has a life expectancy roughly as long as Joe Camel's. In March the House of Commons of Canada passed Bill C-71, a piece of legislation that seeks to curtail the tobacco industry's presence in the lives of Canadians. To no one's surprise, Big Tobacco has fought back, and the courts will sort things out in the fall. As it stands now, C-71, which is also known as the Tobacco Act, will be phased in starting on Oct. 1, 1998, and it threatens to divorce the deep pockets of the tobacco companies (like du Maurier, which is a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco) from professional sports in Canada. Under the terms of C-71, tobacco conglomerates "may display a tobacco product-related band element only within the bottom ten per cent of the display surface of any promotional material." That, says LPGA commissioner, Jim Ritts, is "so restrictive that there is no incentive for companies to continue their sponsorship. From a practical, economic standpoint, this legislation severs all ties."
Losing du Maurier could well mean the end of the LPGA's fourth major as we know it. According to Don Brown, chairman of Imperial Tobacco Limited, his company commits "ballpark $4 million" to the tournament, including the $1.2 million purse, which is exceeded on the LPGA tour only by that of the U.S. Open. Many, if not most, of Canada's nonteam sporting events owe their financial underpinning to tobacco money, and come the fall of '98, who's going to pick up the slack is anyone's guess. "All the people are going to be out on the street at the same time looking for sponsorship money, and there's not a lot out there," says Brown. "Not at the level we play in."
Adds Ritts, "Without du Maurier's backing, it is highly, highly, highly unlikely this tournament will remain in Canada." Should the du Maurier fold, the LPGA will lose more than just a nation of fans. The tour will also be stripped of precious credibility. Can you imagine the Masters simply vanishing? Ritts knows how high the stakes are. "Along with increasing TV coverage, resolving the future of the du Maurier is the most important issue facing the tour," he says.
Brown is confident that a compromise will be brokered, especially as Canadians begin to see the extinction of their tennis tournaments, motor sports races, jazz festivals, ballets, fashion shows, fireworks displays and other events that du Maurier and the rest of the tobacco companies sponsor. "There is a consensus starting to build that simple title sponsorship is not tobacco advertising per se," says Brown, who affirmed that du Maurier is committed to next year's tournament, no matter what happens with the legal challenges to C-71. "It's not like we stick cigarettes in people's mouths as they walk through the door."
All this hullabaloo about the du Maurier's future overshadowed some superb play. Robbins grabbed a two-stroke lead at the midway point on the strength of a course-record 65 in the second round, during which she birdied all five par-5s on the par-73 layout. Robbins's shaky 73 on Saturday allowed the rest of the field to catch up, and when the final group made the turn on Sunday, the top nine players were separated by only two strokes.
It was about this time that Walker, who had quietly sneaked into contention with rounds of 68, 72 and 73, took control. The teeth of Glen Abbey are holes 11 through 15, a stretch known as the Valley, describing both the golfers' emotional state while playing them as well as the topography. All Walker did was stiff a five-iron to 12 feet on the nasty, par-3 12th and make the putt to take the lead, then bang in another 12-footer for birdie on the par-5 13th to stretch her advantage to two strokes over Juli Inkster and Liselotte Neumann, who were playing in the group behind. Walker's cushion was down to one as she reached the 72nd hole, but she ended the suspense with a curling 15-footer for birdie and a 14-under-par 278, celebrating with a delirious boogie across the green.
Walker, 40, called the 65 one of the best rounds of her life, and certainly it was the most meaningful. In 1992 she won three tournaments with her languid swing and flintiness on the greens, but the following season was compromised by tendinitis in both elbows, and 1994 was interrupted when she had to take time off to recover from surgery on her left knee. Though she didn't win in '95, Walker went a long way toward regaining her form, producing 17 top 20 finishes in 26 starts, including six top 10s. "I was this close to putting it all together," she says.
Walker had a big year in 1996, particularly in her midsection. Pregnancy limited her to seven tournaments, halting her comeback. "The timing wasn't ideal," she says, "but I wasn't getting any younger. We had been trying for three years."