As a sporting experience, most women golfers on the pro tour would rank match play only slightly above pistols at dawn. Two of them go off for 18 holes but only one lives to tell about it. You may play better than anyone on the course except one person, but if that one person is your opponent, tough luck, you're out of the tournament. Unlike medal play, which is used in virtually all pro events, men's and women's, in match play it doesn't matter if you shoot 68 or 78 as long as you win more holes than your opponent.
Which may explain the following scene: the 16 players in the Colgate Triple Crown Championship have been assembled in a semicircle down by the pond guarding the 18th green of the Mission Hills course in Palm Springs. A little television promo is about to be shot and the director would like each of the women to offer, in one word if possible, her opinion of match play. Ready? Roll 'em. Donna Caponi Young? "Gross!"
"Cut! Donna, you don't really want to say that, do you?"
"No," answered Young, "I want to say something worse, but you won't let me do it on television."
And so gross stood. There was also a "traumatic," a "frustrating," an "awful" and—Judy Rankin's contribution—a "pride-buster." To be sure, some thought match play was "dramatic," "exciting" and "invigorating," while Jane Blalock said solemnly that it was "the greatest challenge in sports."
How David Foster must have loved that when he heard it later. Foster, the man in charge at Colgate, decided one day last year that it might be interesting if the Triple Crown tournament, involving top finishers from Colgate's three major events in 1977, became a match-play event. Few of the leading pros were crazy about the idea, because it is not nearly as fair a test as medal play, but Foster's contributions to women's sports have been such that, as Kathy Whitworth pointed out, "We would have stood on our heads if he told us to."
So there they were at Mission Hills last week, most of the best women players in the world ( Hollis Stacy, who won three tournaments including the U.S. Open, was not a qualifier) making nervous chatter as two by two they went out to duel to the death. And on Sunday evening, to no one's great surprise, when the 16 little Indians sitting on a fence had been reduced to one, that one was JoAnne Carner—the Great Gundy—the deadliest match-play golfer in the women's ranks. As JoAnne Gunderson, later Mrs. Carner, she won five U.S. Amateur titles in the '50s and '60s, all of them at match play. In the final at Palm Springs, Carner edged another veteran who seems to thrive on infighting, Sandra Palmer, winning one up.
Thanks to a draw that was a little short on logic, two of the most interesting matches of the tournament were played early in the week, both involving Nancy Lopez. It makes sense that the player who finishes first among 16 in the point standings should, as her reward for doing so. play the person who finishes 16th. The second place woman should oppose No. 15, and so on down the line. That's the way the seedings are arranged at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. But at Palm Springs, citing a USGA match-play rule, as if that alone made it logical, the tournament officials had the top player up against No. 9, the second player against the 10th.
Thus Judy Rankin, much to her displeasure, found herself on Thursday teeing off against young Lopez, No. 9 in the standings but much higher in true ability, because she had gained her ranking in only half a year as a pro, playing in just two of the three qualifying events. In a field containing several comparative lambs, Rankin had drawn a tigress.
It was not an outstanding exhibition of golf. Rankin, who has had little match-play experience, was up against a 21-year-old who as a recent amateur grew up on it. Rankin was nervous, looked it and, worst of all, putted like it. Lopez was devil-may-care. She had nothing to lose, she explained later, and she closed out the match on the 16th hole.