It took Sandra Palmer eight years to win a tournament. Judy Rankin needed seven. Kathy Whitworth and Carol Mann were on the tour four years before they made their first acceptance speeches. Sharron Moran has played since 1967 and has yet to finish higher than fourth. And Beth Stone, despite twice being second in the U.S. Open, has never won in almost 17 seasons.
"Breaks are so important in this game," says Austin, about her turnaround. "And lately I've been getting them. I've made a few putts I never thought I'd make." And more important, the spooks have been exorcised from her golf bag. Since working with Wilder, she has not hit a ball out of bounds, where once the neighboring cows were in danger. In previous years, Debbie figures she had chances to win 10 tournaments, but usually the only times she saw her picture in the papers were when she posed with her dogs, Teddy and Putter. She had a set of excuses that fit her like tailored clothes. At 5'4" and 140 pounds, she tired at the end of tournaments. Her putting was bad, as was her luck. Last year in Plymouth, Ind. she came down to the final holes tied with JoAnne Carner. A succession of putts hit the cup and danced away. At the 18th, Austin parred while Carner came out of the woods to make a miracle birdie and win by a stroke.
Austin became adept at hiding behind a big smile, accepting condolences and being gracious about congratulating her friends. Her roommate for the last seven years, Sue Roberts, won four times. Now Roberts is in a slump.
The two superstitious players act out a strange charade now that Austin is winning. It began in Birmingham, where Roberts did not play and so missed her friend's victory. The next time Austin won, Roberts had left the course early. The third time, Roberts stayed out of sight, although she stuck a congratulatory note in Austin's purse in the locker room, predicting the victory. Two weeks ago on Long Island, Roberts dutifully fled after she completed her round, and Austin promptly birdied the next hole and went on to win by two. On Sunday at Wheeling, Roberts again was under strict instructions to disappear.
Austin long has had a fascination for numbers. When she contemplated quitting the tour, she considered going back to school to become an accountant. Now she charts each round, stroke by stroke. Afterward, she studies the figures and consults Wilder by telephone if they show something is wrong with her game. Her confidence has soared and she is swinging so freely that her tee shots are going 10 to 30 yards farther, and much straighten
Only a handful of players ever have won five tournaments in a season. Austin is not certain she deserves to be in their company. "I'm still hesitant to think that I belong up there with the Whitworths and the Rankins," she says.
Wilder shakes her head at such talk. "Debbie is such a nice person that it may have held her back," she says. "With her ability, there's no end to what the kid can do. I say 'kid,' but she's 29. Still, she probably has 12 good years left."
Twelve good years after nine lukewarm ones. That is better than an even trade. But best of all, the inner voice is not nagging anymore.