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Golf is one of those disconcerting games where an inch is the difference between glory and despair, a sport where you scrimmage with the elements and luck and, worst of all, your mind. For Debbie Austin, a shrill, nagging voice kept saying she couldn't win. Now it whispers yes, she can.
Last Sunday, for the fifth time this season, Debbie Austin did what she once thought she could never do—win a tournament. For nine years she had failed. But her one-stroke victory in the $50,000 Wheeling Classic was her third in the last four weeks. She is off those mean streets forever.
Even though she had been among the top 20 money-winners each year since 1973, a few months ago Austin was ready to quit. She had traveled a lot of miles to earn a decent wage and was exasperated by her failure to finish first. Going into this season, her main claim to immortality was that she was the leading career money-winner among players without a victory, with $154,702; just someone to beat. "It's more fun now," she says, laughing.
The competitive urge can keep athletes going for a long while, but Austin's persistence began to flag after she finished a doleful 51st at the Colgate-Dinah Shore tournament in Palm Springs last April. Her driver might have had a skull and crossbones painted on it. She had two shots: a whistling duck hook and a slice that looked the way a mountaintop yodel sounds. Her nerves were shot; she had hives. In desperation she got in touch with Sherry Wilder, an old friend and former LPGA competitor who is now head professional at Palm Desert's Shadow Mountain Golf Club.
In six years on the tour, Wilder had never won a tournament either, but her patience did not match Austin's. "I had to quit," she says. "I never could make it on Sunday, the money day. It's absolutely frustrating, the depression and the ebbing of self-confidence because you can't win against people you beat in practice." But Wilder proved to be an excellent teacher.
The two went to the practice tee, worked 12 hours a day in temperatures up to 112� and did not stop for 10 days. The lessons began with fundamentals. Wilder recalls that Austin did not even know where to tee up on a hole to avoid the hazards. And they discussed mental attitude.
When Austin left Palm Desert, her spirit was renewed and her game renovated. Two tournaments later she tied for third. The following week she won the $60,000 Birmingham Classic and was on her way. She shot a 70 to win that tournament, establishing a pattern of fine closing rounds. She had a 67 to take the Hoosier Classic, a 69 at Pocono, a 71 at the Long Island Charity Classic and a 70 last weekend at the Speidel course in Wheeling's Oglebay Park. She has lost the fear she shared with Wilder of Sundays, and her season's earnings are $72,644, sixth on the LPGA list.
Austin went into last Sunday with a two-stroke lead after rounds of 67-72—139. Coincidentally, three of her five closest challengers—Laura Baugh, at 141; Kathy Farrer, at 142; and Joyce Kazmierski, who was tied at 143 with U.S. Open champion Hollis Stacy and Jan Stephenson—never have won pro tournaments. Equally odd was the fact that Farrer, Kazmierski and Austin joined the tour the same year, 1968.
Baugh is another budding talent that never seems to bloom. "I've got a tough competitor on my hands tomorrow in Laura," Austin said Saturday evening after birdieing the 450-yard par-5 18th hole. "She's in sort of the same position I was in. If I can't win, I'd like her to, but I'm not going to break a leg either."
On Sunday, the only thing she broke was a lot of hearts. Baugh shot a 72 to end up in third place, but Farrer had 78 and Kazmierski stumbled to an 80. Austin led the entire day but bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes and came to the 18th tied with Hollis Stacy at six under par. She drove in the fairway, knocked a two-iron second shot onto the green and two-putted from 35 feet for a birdie and the victory. It used to be so difficult. Now it sounds so easy, but no one ever has figured out what it is that transforms an also-ran into a champion.