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Hocus Focus
John Garrity
April 05, 1999
Dottie Pepper had that look in her eye last week, and, sure enough, by the end of the Dinah a major record had disappeared
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April 05, 1999

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

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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.

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.

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