She stood on the fringe of the gallery, just another face fixed on Arnold Palmer as he strode to the first tee at the JCPenney mixed team classic last week in Largo, Fla. A certain leader had no way of knowing there was a special newcomer in his vast army of followers. "If I could just meet Arnold Palmer this week," Laura Davies had said a few minutes earlier, "now that would be good enough for me."
Davies, a quiet 24-year-old Englishwoman, could be forgiven for sounding more like a fan than a heralded new addition to the LPGA tour. She was still walking through a dream, less than five months after she had stunned the world of women's golf by winning the U.S. Open. She had done it with the power generated by her husky 5'10" frame, outdriving her competitors by more than 30 yards on average, and winning a tense three-way, 18-hole playoff with JoAnne Carner and Ayoko Okamoto. Not bad for a third-year pro playing in her fourth tournament in the U.S. Now here she was back in the States, so busy stargazing like a duffer that she was hardly aware that she was one of the primary attractions at the Bardmoor Country Club.
Her remarkable Open triumph didn't earn her a qualifying exemption for the LPGA tour, but in September, LPGA members officially welcomed Davies by voting a change in the bylaws to give tournament winners a one-year exemption. Still, Davies, a standout on the European tour, hadn't planned to be back in America before the start of the 1988 tour. But IMG, the Cleveland-based management firm, was looking for a mixed team partner for 5'7", 140-pound client Willie Wood of the PGA Tour. The invitation was extended to Davies, and she snapped it up. "I asked them for a strong partner, and they sure got me one," Wood said last week.
IMG may be getting Davies, too. A contract between her and the firm was to have been signed this week. In the meantime the JCPenney tournament benefited from having a genuine odd couple in large Laura and little Willie. As a duo they finished 17th, eight strokes behind the championship pair of Steve Jones and Jane Crafter.
Davies's power, coupled with a fiery competitiveness, could make her the first LPGA superstar since Nancy Lopez a decade ago. Her new colleagues certainly expect a lot of her. Said 14-year tour veteran Pat Bradley, "In a word—awesome. I've seen a lot of big hitters, but this girl takes the cake. They said JoAnne [ Carner] was Big Momma, but this young lady fiat-out goes by all that. She's probably the strongest woman I have ever seen in the game of golf."
As mild December winds rippled across Bardmoor, Davies stood above the ball, choking down on the club, and then, with a smooth, self-taught swing, she blasted low, long shots that drew "oohs" and "ahs" from the crowds.
Curiously, Davies's strength is a source of insecurity to her. She feels terribly self-conscious about her shoulders and build. "I hate it," she says. "Really, I hate seeing pictures of me from the back. But I guess nobody's really happy seeing themselves on TV. Anyway, there's nothing I can do. That's the way I am."
The dimensions she frets over, however, might actually work in her favor commercially. "I see her almost exactly as Jack Nicklaus was when he came up," says Norton. "Jack was huge, and he hit it farther than anybody did. People are talking about Laura with the same sort of amazement. In addition, with the women's tour in Europe making strides, she can be a heroine on both sides of the pond. From a marketing standpoint, the sky's the limit."
Davies and her older brother, Tony, grew up playing golf together. They would endlessly hit balls into a blanket their father had draped over a clothesline. On the course, tempers would flare over close games. Clubs would fly over missed shots. That rivalry cemented Davies's interest in the sport at age 13. Starting with next year's tour, Tony, 26, will become his sister's permanent caddie. "We still play golf, and I can't beat him," she says. "That's why I let him read my putts. I think he still watches videos of the Open two or three times a week."
For Davies, the tournament was a pleasing introduction to an LPGA career that, like her drives, seems about to be launched into high orbit. "It still feels like a dream," she says. "It's a career ambition fulfilled early. But I don't want to dwell on it. I don't ever want to be known as a one-tournament wonder."