Beneath the golden desert sun, in the sporadic popping of flashbulbs and the discriminating view of national television last week, down among the personalized licence plates, chauffeur-driven golf carts and million dollar ghettos of Palm Springs, the Ladies Professional Golf Association took off its braces, lost its acne and threw away its bobby socks. Women's golf, like Patty Duke, finally grew up. Now we won't have to lie awake nights worrying about it anymore.
The occasion was the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle, a golf tournament that is to the women what the talkies were to the movies. Call it a breakthrough if you must, but there they were, playing for fame and a whole lot of fortune, their knees locked in mounting terror as they edged closer and closer to the heaping pot of gold at the end of the 72-hole rainbow.
It was Jo Ann Prentice who finally survived the experience of competing for more cash than any of the women thought existed only a few years ago, survived it by beating out Jane Blalock and Sandra Haynie in a dramatic sudden-death playoff that lasted four holes at the Mission Hills Country Club. The victory brought her the $32,000 first-place prize, a new car, a paid trip to England and a television commercial contract. All told Jo Ann Prentice earned more than Dinah Shore or just about anyone in the world last week. She was Queen for a Day.
That day began with Haynie in the lead by a stroke over Prentice and Blalock, and the three stayed close as they moved through the back nine. Prentice caught Haynie with a birdie at the 13th and went into the lead by herself when Haynie hit her tee shot in the water on 14 and bogeyed. Blalock appeared out of it when she three-putted the 16th to fall three shots behind, but moments later Prentice did some three-putting of her own on 17 while, in the next group, Blalock hit her tee shot a foot from the pin for an easy birdie.
The 18th at Mission Hills is a par 5 and Prentice could do no better than par it. Now she could only watch and hope. Haynie stuck her approach 15 feet away, Blalock eight. When Sandra missed and Jane made it, the three women were tied and had to be carted back to the 14th hole to begin anew.
All three parred 14, but on 15 Haynie was short in two, and when she missed a six-footer for a par, she was out. The survivors both parred 16 but on 17 Prentice hit the shot that won the tournament, a 4-iron tee shot three feet from the cup. Blalock's tee shot landed only 12 feet away, but her birdie putt was never close while Jo Ann's hit dead center. Jo Ann Prentice is 41 and has been on the tour since 1957, but in none of those years did she come close to making the $32,000 she picked up on this single afternoon.
For years the women's tour wandered around somewhere out there in Waco or Muskogee, the girls pitching and putting for caddy fees and halfhearted applause, actors without an audience, grilling hamburgers out in back of the motel and trying to figure the best route from Mississippi to Maine, six in a car for a 36-hour drive. They played courses that always had a rusty sign on the first tee, GOLFERS MUST WEAR SHIRTS.
"It wasn't too bad playing the courses with the rubber mats for tees because they usually had nice greens," says Patty Berg. "The greenskeepers never had to spend time mowing the tees." In 1948 Patty was one of the founders of the LPGA and for years the girls' odyssey qualified them as little more than the equivalent of golf's mailmen. Through all kinds of weather they made their appointed rounds, but no one noticed. More recently, Donna Young or Susie Berning would win the U.S. Women's Open and Kathy Whitworth would win the rest of the tournaments, and at the end of the year everyone still qualified for food stamps. In 1970 Whitworth was the leading money-winner with a mere $30,000, and the tour's best player, Mickey Wright, was so bored that she decided to quit and take a correspondence course in finance.
Carol Mann, now president of the LPGA, told the press this year that she was so destitute early in her career that she talked to several other girls about some unathletic ways to supplement their incomes. "I was broke and desperate and too proud to go home a failure," she said.
And then along came David Foster, president of the Colgate-Palmolive Company. Foster is a precise, proper man who started with Colgate 27 years ago as a $60-a-week trainee and now earns $225,000 a year as its chief executive. But he also is a golf fan and in 1971 he decided to stage the first $100,000 women's tournament. He knew he was crawling out on a corporate limb, and when they heard about it, 10 guys who thought they were in line to succeed him undoubtedly went home chuckling about "Foster's Folly." They told their wives to get ready to be addressed as the wife of Colgate's new president, because Foster had just signed the order that eventually would scrape his name off the office door.