Make that compelled to make a change. Paired with Donna White at the Ping Team Championship in Portland, Ore., King hit some practice-range shots so low that onlookers thought she was getting ready to play an Irish finks course. When White spotted Chicago teaching pro Ed Oldfield at the range, she shouted, "Oldfield, get over here! My partner can't get it off the ground!"
Oldfield, the swing architect who rebuilt the games of Jan Stephenson and top amateur Anne Sander, walked over and watched the embarrassed King hit a few more worm-burners. He saw about 20 things in her swing he would change, starting with her tendency to close the club face on the takeaway. "She had serious problems," says Oldfield. "Her divots were going way right, and the ball was going way left. I watched her play, and on one par-5 she couldn't carry a fairway wood 100 yards over water. She had to lay up with a wedge."
Orange Tree is Oldfield's winter office, so King arranged to spend the off-season in Phoenix instead of at her parents' home in Limekiln, Pa. The day of her first lesson, she was so nervous that she went out early in the morning with her father, Weir, to hit in private. "We found a deserted playground," says Weir, a semiretired physician who stayed with Betsy in Phoenix to give her support. "She was hitting balls, and I was chasing them—and a cop came and chased us. I think that was the low point in her career. But that afternoon Ed told me that she was going to be one of the five best players in the world."
From the start, Oldfield was patient with King but not patronizing. The first thing he did was alter her takeaway, conditioning her to swing the club back so that the face was square at the point of impact. He offered no "Band-Aids"—quick fixes—and he warned her that her game would get worse before it got better. "It was pretty drastic," says King. "Ed pretty much breaks down your whole swing."
Another three years passed before King won her first LPGA tournament, the Women's Kemper Open in 1984, but her scoring average improved year by year, from 73.96 in 1981 to 71.77 in '84. After her Kemper victory, she went on to win two more tournaments that year and finished the season with the money title and her first Player of the Year award.
Her practice sessions with Oldfield are still devoted to swing mechanics. "I'm not a believer in positive mental imagery," says Oldfield. "There's no magic to golf. The best players are the ones who are best coordinated and work hardest." Oldfield even rejects the conventional wisdom that players should leave thoughts about mechanics on the practice range. "If you're playing the last hole of the U.S. Open with a two-shot lead," he says, "you still think whatever your last lesson was—left arm straight, good extension, whatever."
King's ability to do just that—to reduce stress by thinking about mechanics—has earned her an unfair reputation as an "ice lady." When she took a four-stroke lead into the third round of last year's U.S. Open at Indianwood in Lake Orion, Mich., and then finished bogey, double bogey, bogey to fall into a first-place tie with Patty Sheehan, King answered questions in the press tent with a serenity bordering on indifference. "If drama is a balloon," one writer muttered at his keyboard, "Betsy King is the slow leak."
In truth, King was shaken by her collapse and couldn't wait to get Oldfield on the phone. "What did I tell her?" he says, chuckling at the memory. "I just said, 'You're so much better than the other girls under pressure. If you're tied going into the last round, you're actually ahead.' " Reassured, King birdied four of the first seven holes the next day and cruised to a four-shot victory.
King's fellow LPGA players have their own theories as to why she has gone from mediocre to outstanding. Those who remember her as a pathetic putter say she owes her recent success to a newfound knack for holing 30-footers. Maybe so, but she certainly doesn't look confident on the greens. Before each putt, she squats behind the ball and carefully sets the blade square to her line—a routine popular with 10-year-olds playing miniature golf.
Others believe King has simply gained confidence since breaking her seven-year victory drought in 1984. Says England's Laura Davies, winner of the '87 Open, "When I'm paired with her now, Betsy seems to be playing for the hell of it. Although"—and Davies laughs—"she probably wouldn't put it that way."