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The tournament had a little bit of everything: a big name in its title; a $110,000 purse thanks to dishpan hands and tooth decay; Palm Springs sunshine; and Burt Reynolds, the Cosmopolitan center-fold pinup, as its honorary king. Perhaps fearing the silver-haired matrons would shear him, Reynolds did not expose his now-famous hirsute chest at the Dinah Shore-Colgate Winners Circle golf tournament. Instead he remained away from his girl friend, leaving the women to wonder what Dinah had that they didn't have.
At the end of the week's rainbow, Dinah's charms still were being analyzed, but Jane Blalock's talents were obvious to all. When she birdied three holes on the back nine Sunday, even though strapped into a white back brace that gave her the appearance of a karate champion, she picked up the $20,000 first-place check, largest ever for the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Immediately, all across America, golfing housewives who watched the winner's circle on television started rummaging around in the attic for their husband's old brace, the one he wore when he used to do work around the yard. It was like the time when Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol and everybody started painting putters white.
Sprawled in the wake of Miss Blalock's final round of 72 was Judy Rankin, the tournament leader for the first two rounds, who rediscovered an old and frightening habit. For years Judy was Little Miss Blowup of the women's tour, Tommy Aaron in shorts and low-quarter socks with cotton balls on their backs. Only in recent seasons has she become less prone to late disaster, winning six tournaments. There were times, when she was in contention on the final holes of a tournament, that the safest place for the gallery was the fairway. On Sunday it was the bottom of the cup as she three-putted four times to erase her chances for victory.
For the first two days, Judy was in control of the tournament, and her husband, Yippy, a 6'3", 220-pound insurance agent, was managing to control himself, barely. His furrowed forehead and forlorn eyes offered slight contradiction to his true mood. Biting his nails, stretching against the gallery ropes, offering advice, Yippy had nerves twanging with pain as he watched his wife play golf.
On Sunday, as the three-putts mounted and optimism drained, Yippy tore at his hair and moaned: "She couldn't sleep at all last night." Eventually, Judy dropped into a tie for second place with Carol Mann, that marvelously young oldtimer, a three-putt at the last hole offering final testimony to the futility of the day as she shot a 77 and finished three strokes behind Miss Blalock. At the end of the day, two heartbroken men, Yippy and Paul Torluemke, Judy's father, maintained slump-shouldered stances, and Judy was near tears.
For Miss Blalock, late of Portsmouth, N.H. and Cape Cod, it all seemed part of a pattern. She was named the most improved player on the women's tour the last two years, and she looks like a cinch pick again. She missed only two greens during the entire tournament, and said that the back brace kept her from swinging too hard. (She lacks some vertebrae, and all week long she gulped pills to ease the pain.) "I feel like I'm in control of myself and in control of each shot," she confided on the eve of the final round.
All week one word kept popping up at Mission Hills: breakthrough. It was a breakthrough, for instance, when Colgate put up $110,000, invited the tournament champions from the last 10 years and anyone who had finished third or better in the last three seasons. It was a breakthrough that the company packaged another $10,000 for a two-day no-entry fee pro-celebrity-executive-fan-am. It was a breakthrough that Dinah could take time off from the aforementioned Reynolds to promote the tournament. It was a breakthrough that some girls would make more in royalties from Colgate television commercials than they earned nerving in three-foot putts all last year. It was a breakthrough that a national television audience watched on Saturday and Sunday. Everywhere one turned there were breakthroughs.
The LPGA, in fact, is really breaking through. For years the women's tour scuffed along cow town to cow town with a group of players who often gave the impression that their underwear itched. It's a new tribe now, with the delighted Colgate people using the women golfers in television commercials. "We think we've had a breakthrough," explained a man from Colgate, who added that a few of the girls could realize up to $9,000 from the spots.
All of which left Bud Erickson with a shiny, toothpaste-bright smile. He is the LPGA executive director and the man who sets up the women's tournament schedule so well that this year the group will play for more than $800,000 in prize money. The pleased women are talking about giving Erickson a new contract over his $40,000-a-year salary.