Late last Friday afternoon on the back lawn of a country club in Springfield, Ohio, Mickey Wright was handed the largest check in the history of women's golf. It was two feet long, the numbers on it said $10,000 and for the two days preceding the check's presentation its probable existence shook the best players on the LPGA tour right down to the soles of their putters. For a moment or so Mickey Wright just stared at the check—the first prize in a new tournament called the Ladies World Series of Golf—as if it could not possibly be good. Then she stuffed it into her pocket, and with that motion the small-time realm of women's golf may have taken a significant step toward becoming a bigger, tougher and more interesting business.
Playing at the rate of $70 a swing, Mickey, who has won more championships than any other woman, needed about the best golf of her distinguished career to win the 36-hole two-day event at Springfield Country Club. She shot an eight-under-par 69-67—136. During her second-day 67 she had seven one-putt greens and sank a 25-foot chip shot. One of her primary challengers, Carol Mann, summed it up when she said, "Purse money like this pushes you beyond your capabilities."
It is hard sometimes to remember that, while the men play professional golf for almost $4 million in prize money each year, the women play for only $480,000. Arnold Palmer makes more in one 18-hole exhibition than the winner of the U.S. Women's Open. No woman professional golfer has earned in one year what Bruce Devlin received last Saturday for winning the Carting World Championship ($35,000). In short, the men's tour is far different than the women's. But now the women were also learning that the size of a check can grab at your throat.
Even before play in the Ladies World Series started last week, Lennie Wirtz, the LPGA tournament director, was predicting that more money would make the women better golfers. "They played for $3,750 first money at Toledo in August. That was the biggest purse we had until now," he said, "and you could see a change in the girls there. They became cautious, more concerned with their games. Why, I even noticed a difference in them last May when I put the World Series on the schedule. They began to work harder."
A big-money tournament for the six best women pros might never have materialized if a group of 13 Springfield business and professional men had not been looking for some action. In 1959 they formed an investment club called Buck Creek Enterprises, Inc. and by 1966 had parlayed their $50-a-month contributions into more than $80,000. In a conservative, early-to-bed, early-to-rise city, they took secret pride in their success as stock market speculators, as they traded in such volatile issues as suntan lotion, oil wells and The Pill. Staging the richest women's golf tournament of all time could hardly have been more adventuresome.
What the investors did not fully appreciate was that there had been little adventure in Springfield since 1780, when the Shawnees moved on. Springfield is an old town "older than the state of Ohio," the Chamber of Commerce points out, and it is settled in its ways. "We could be hosting the World Series of baseball," the sports editor wrote last week in the morning newspaper, "and the people wouldn't care."
Up to the day before the tournament began, only 900 tickets had been sold. By then the sponsors were estimating their losses at $20,000 and they had good-naturedly begun to refer to themselves as the Trembling Thirteen. Nonetheless, they were optimistic about a 1967 World Series, and some were even talking about how much money they will have made by the time of the 1976 World Series. There was considerable dropping of speculator's sentences: "This is like betting on Joe Louis when he was in the crib"; "You have to crawl before you walk." They figured the TV rights to next year's World Series could be sold for a quarter of a million dollars, and they said more than one large corporation was considering underwriting the purse. Hadn't Pepsi-Cola suggested that their board member, Joan Crawford, come to Springfield to make this year's World Series come alive? Joan came, and the Pepsi people got the soft-drink concession and practically everything else they wanted free. They even tried, unsuccessfully, to unhook the Coca-Cola machine in the pro shop.
The golfers who participated in the World Series qualified for it by winning one of the four major women's championships—the U.S. Open, the LPGA, the Titleholders or the Western—or by their standing on the season's money-winning list. A good measure of their ability is that they had won 19 of 22 tournaments on the 1966 women's tour. The field of six was the elite of the profession, and the players often seemed more conscious of the prestige attached to competing in the tournament than the fact that even the last-place finisher would take home $2,500, more than the winner of most tour tournaments gets.
Some of them had worked themselves into a frazzle over the event. "Three months ago," Carol Mann said, "I felt I was a good enough player to be in the World Series. I felt I was adequate and I could make it. I worked as hard as I could and I didn't skip a tournament. Now I'm exhausted. The difference between winning and losing is restraining your emotions, but now I am so tired I don't think I can handle them.
"You know, I'm glad about this tournament, but if we always played for a lot of purse money it could change people. It could make us colder and harder. You've got to get the chokes playing for that much or you have to be awfully cool. One or the other. I don't know if I want to become that controlled. I like to feel myself participating in things. I wouldn't like it if I couldn't sense myself. It would be like the death of a person, inside."