JoAnne Carner's progress through a match-play tournament is devastating and inexorable. If she can't beat you one way, she has two or three other ways that will do just as well. She is long off the tee and masterful from a bunker. She is a pretty good putter and a very good thinker. But her greatest advantage is that she loves match play, which puts her at least one-up against most opponents before they ever leave the first tee. Last week Carner reached the finals of the Colgate Triple Crown, the only match-play event on the LPGA calendar, by marching through Debbie Massey 5 and 4, Sandra Post 3 and 2 and Silvia Bertolaccini 5 and 4 at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Pat Bradley can hit a golf ball every bit as far as Carner can. She is just as strong, just as athletic and just as competitive. At 27, she is one of the four or five best players in the LPGA. In 1978 Bradley won three tour championships to Carner's two, plus the Mixed Team title with Lon Hinkle, and she finished second to Nancy Lopez on the money list while Carner dropped down to fourth, her lowest position in five years.
Nevertheless, when Bradley and Carner played Sunday for the $23,000 winner's check, Carner was the heavy favorite because nobody beats JoAnne Carner at match play. During her long amateur career, when she was winning a national championship every other year or so—always at match play—her winning percentage in USGA events was an incredible .893.
When Carner plays a head-to-head match she invariably has the initial advantage of greater experience at this particular type of golf than her opponent, and she adds to that advantage by making it clear she relishes it. Most of the other women share Amy Alcott's feelings about match play. "Personally, I like to get it over with," Alcott says.
By Sunday the desert snow had melted and Rancho Mirage was again experiencing the kind of midwinter weather that appeals to ex-presidents—dry and sunny with a breeze from the northwest. It was a perfect day for golf. Carner had apparently cured earlier putting problems by switching from a Bull's Eye to a Ping, while Bradley, charged up by her 4-and-2 dismantling of Donna Caponi Young in the semifinals, was breathing fire. "I'm going to come out storming," she promised.
They both came out storming, right into greenside bunkers at the 1st hole. They halved the hole with bogeys. No harm done, one might have assumed. As it turned out, however, the hole was crucial for Bradley. While Carner two-putted from 35 feet for her bogey, Bradley did so from only six feet, her first putt running right over the hole.
Somewhat disheartened, Bradley birdied the par-5 second. Trouble was, Carner made an eagle 3—the only eagle of the tournament—after hitting a five-wood second shot to within six feet of the pin. Bradley became even more disheartened when Carner won the third hole with a par 4 to take a two-up lead.
"When you get behind the master," Bradley said, "you know you have to birdie, and that can wear you down after a while."
"What happened at the start may have made her think she had to grind a little harder," Carner said.
For Bradley, the situation quickly went from bad to worse. She grimaced as two putts just missed the cup, and after eight holes the indomitable Carner had a secure four-up lead. At the 9th, a par-5, Carner played a shot that Bradley and those in the gallery will be recounting for years, earner's ball came to rest a few feet off the back of the green and only two inches from the base of a palm tree with a fat trunk.