So how does she manage to rub so many people the wrong way?
"I don't fully understand it myself," she says in a British accent much like her mother's. "In America they called me a loner. Well, I wasn't a loner by choice, I can tell you that! The American pros saw to it that I was a loner; not all of them, but almost all. And in France it's difficult for me to find friends on my own golf level, because there's simply no one else of my age on my level. My nearest competitors are 27 to 45 years old, and they don't like me one bit. They were reigning in French women's golf for a long time, and then I came along and...you know, it knocked them back a bit, and they didn't appreciate me."
"Look here," says an English journalist who has followed the Lacoste girl's career closely. "It's all quite clear, isn't it? This is a girl it is almost impossible to dislike, and yet she is always the center of a storm. The French amateur women hate her because she's made it all seem so easy, and the American professionals hate her because she doesn't need the money that they fight and scratch to get and the entrepreneurs of golf hate her because she goes around telling everybody that the game is not at all important and she would rather get married and have babies. You see? Nobody likes her except the galleries!"
More than anything else, Catherine Lacoste is a product of Golf de Chantaco, the spectacularly beautiful course built by her maternal grandfather, Ren� Thion de la Chaume, and overseen for three decades by Catherine's parents. "Simone and I feel that we owe much to sport," says Ren� Lacoste, "and we are trying to give it back with this golf course. For many years now Golf de Chantaco has been a place where good young players could practice and play for nothing and even take free instruction from the best teacher in France, Raymond Gara�alde. Luckily, it is a private course, and we can let the young people play as our prot�g�s. Three out of four of the top amateurs in France either started at our club or developed here. It is what you might call our own assembly line for champion golfers."
The course itself may be the most densely foliated area outside the jungles of Brazil. The narrow fairways are lined like the walls of a corridor with sycamore and pine, oak and hazelnut trees, chestnut and walnut trees, tens of thousands of them, and all because of the German occupation in World War II. "The Germans were sending French workmen off to Germany," Ren� Lacoste recalls, "and we had to figure out how to save the nine or 10 grounds-keepers who worked for us. So we found a funny old German law under which anyone working in forests couldn't be taken to another job. When the Germans showed up to take our workmen I explained, 'They are planting trees, they come under your law.' We kept up nine holes at Golf de Chantaco all through the war, but the Germans appropriated the other nine for training some cavalry units, and they left us with another permanent legacy, some very tough weeds that come from Asia. It must have been in the feed they brought in for the horses. You can still find this weed on the fairways. But we also got our 50,000 trees."
Catherine Lacoste first appeared on the Chantaco course at the age of 8 when she picked up a foreshortened driver and hit a ball over a hill and more or less out of sight. "That is what made me become a golfer instead of a tennis player," she says. "I could hit a golf ball 50 or 60 yards, and I couldn't get a tennis ball over the net. You can't at 8, you know."
By the time she was 15 Catherine was the best young player of either sex at Golf de Chantaco, but she was still having trouble with her driving—too many were going out of sight into the trees. It was then that she adopted her distinctive swing for tee shots. "I sort of wind myself up like a spring, and then I uncoil everything, like Gary Player," she says. "I go up on my toes and throw every ounce into the drive." Classic, it is not. Effective, it is.
The most characteristic part of her golf game, however—as much a trademark as the alligators on the shirts manufactured by her father—is her total abandonment, her laissez-faire attitude. She is no Ara Parseghian. There is not a member of Golf de Chantaco who can remember the last time she played safe. On the other hand, they can recite chapter and verse from the tournaments she has blown by going for the pin with the obsessiveness of a lemming. "It's just my character," she says. "I like to plow ahead and see what happens. If there's a possibility of reaching the green, no matter how difficult the shot, I go for the green. That's the game, isn't it?"
Playing in such a boisterous manner, Mile. Lacoste became, inevitably, an in-and-outer, and although there are those on both sides of the Atlantic who think that she is inherently the best lady golfer alive, no one will ever know for sure, because she does not intend to change her game. On a day when everything is clicking, her shots sizzle. On a day when she is bad, she can be very, very bad. In 1966 she set an alltime women's record of 66 on the treacherous Sandwich course in England. But, despite her acknowledged superiority over the French female players, she was not able to bring home the French Open before this year. When she finally did, it was in her customary bulldozing manner: eight and six over Brigitte Varangot, the perennial winner.
Before Catherine left France for the U.S. Open this year, her father told a newspaperman, "In life you have to choose. Catherine has declined her selection for the European Championships for that reason. In the U.S. she can learn, and at her age she still has a lot to learn. She will play in the U.S. Open. but without any particular aim. If she finishes in the first 10, it will be a good performance." Catherine left France, in other words, with somewhat less fanfare than Lafayette, or, for that matter, somewhat less than her father 40 years before. But anyone, including the old Crocodile himself, who thought she was playing the Open "without any particular aim" was either kidding himself or the public. As a friend of the family put the matter with Gallic precision, "The Lacostes don't play for practice." The American pros soon found that out.