It was fitting that this year's U.S. Women's Open began on the Fourth of July, for America's best golfers had a patriotic duty—to wrest their national title from a 23-year-old French amateur, Catherine Lacoste. And then there was that matter of restoring the star-spangled prestige of the ladies' professional golf tour. Lacoste, when she won the championship last summer, had upset the tradition that an amateur could never beat a field of pros, and she had done it with a casual ebullience. Observing the intense gamesmanship of one of her competitors, Susie Maxwell, she declared, "My word! It takes the fun out of golf, doesn't it? Why, that girl would leave you in a pool of blood!"
Well, last week at the Moselem Springs Golf Club in Fleetwood, Pa., Susie Maxwell, now married and playing as Susie Berning, left Lacoste and the rest of the 1968 Open field bloody as she led the tournament for four days and won by three strokes with a 289. Lacoste finished 13th with a 302.
Even the 13-stroke difference in their scores, however, cannot put amateur Lacoste out of sight, out of mind and back in her place, a fact that Catherine is well aware of. Before play began on Thursday she told of lying in bed that morning "hooting with laughter" about the position she was in. "They can't take the title away from me, no matter how badly I play this year," she said.
For Catherine has become a celebrity, an impish one who enjoys the discomfort her presence causes the pros. The galleries at the Open were filled with women wearing Lacoste dresses. The pro shop had stacks of Lacoste shirts, and the back of the official program carried an ad for them headlined: "It takes years to become a golf pro. It takes 60 seconds to look like one."
For all the excitement, Catherine was hardly a striking figure. She began the defense of her title wearing rumpled turquoise shorts cut below the knee, ankle socks, a red visor and a yellow Lacoste shirt.
"If one of our players showed up like that," LPGA Tournament Director Lennie Wirtz said, "I'd fine her $50."
The pros decided "not to try to out-dress Lacoste." They were subtle in evincing their distaste for her. At a players' meeting held the evening before the tournament began, LPGA President Kathy Whitworth made a point of welcoming all the competitors. "I wish you all luck," she told them. "And that goes for you, too, Catherine," she added. Lacoste was apparently delighted with the expression of good will, but most of the players in the room felt a steely edge to the remark, and the next day on the practice tee when Wirtz suggested Kathy might be more friendly, she told him to go soak his crew cut.
The professionals were sore at far more than the personal indignity of being beaten by a 22-year-old. The 1967 defeat had hurt their image. They lost a $115,000 TV contract to do a Shell series with the men professionals, in part at least because the men complained the women couldn't even beat amateurs.
They had been ribbed by spectators throughout the year, and, even worse, Lacoste had depicted them as ruthless opponents, which scarcely helped the feminine mystique that the LPGA tries so hard to cultivate with hair spray, cold cream and Clairol.
It was not surprising, then, for Lacoste to see the backs of 14 pros as she walked to the practice area on Thursday. They were acutely conscious of her presence, but the time had come to forget Lacoste and play golf.