Beth, you were ready,
Look what you've done.
You're on top, ain't it fun.
Ah, now Beth, you're Number One.
—SHE'S A WINNER (BETH'S SONG)
Fun? Well, not really. True, Beth Daniel is the major figure in her game now, having unseated that smiling face, Nancy Lopez-Melton, the media heartthrob who almost single-handedly propelled the LPGA from newspaper agate to headline type. But Daniel has discovered that with stardom have come all these people looking at her, studying her, eating away at her time and privacy, challenging her to get back into the kitchen if she can't stand the heat. Her inclination is to put on a fake nose and dark sunglasses. Daniel doesn't want to be adored, only appreciated for what she is: the best woman golfer around. If she can get her putter fully straightened out and her temper cooled down, and if everyone will stay behind the gallery ropes so she can hit practice balls from dawn to dusk, she could become the finest female golfer of all time.
Naturally shy and reclusive—she and her similarly inclined roommates at Furman called themselves The Possums—Daniel is a reluctant superstar, just as the young Jack Nicklaus was some 20 years ago when he arrived, fat, rumpled and socially awkward, to challenge the charisma of Arnold Palmer. Daniel happens to be tall and thin—gawky, if you will—and she, too, is uneasy among people and happiest on a lonesome, uncrowded road, preferably one that leads to a private golf course. When she joined the tour two years ago and got her first look at the mob chasing after Lopez, as she then was, Daniel was aghast. "I'll never be another Nancy," she said at the time.
And she isn't. Last season, while winning four tournaments and a record $231,000 in prize money, becoming LPGA Player of the Year, setting standards for consistency and displaying a nearly flawless swing, Daniel almost got herself suspended for throwing clubs and digging up greens. She chewed out a photographer who aimed his camera at her at the wrong moment and sighed loudly and pointedly at any journalist who dared ask what she considered an inane question. "I'm a golfer, not a movie star," she says. "I come across on first impression like a jerk, stuck-up, really a cold fish."
But holy mackerel, this woman can play! Alltime great Mickey Wright took a look at Daniel and announced, "In three years people will be saying, 'Nancy who?'" And Daniel's caddie, a 53-year-old former jet fighter jockey named Dee Darden, says he would tote her bag for free because "She hits shots that just make you tingle." Over the last half of the 1980 season, after she'd figured out to some extent how to get the ball into the hole from six feet, Daniel played the best run of golf anyone ever saw on the women's tour. Discounting a tournament in Atlanta, from which she withdrew because of a muscle spasm in her back, she dominated the tour—utterly and completely. At one point she won three straight tournaments, among them the World Series of Women's Golf. Only once did she finish worse than fifth, in the U.S. Women's Open, in which she was 10th. Week after week, from Birmingham to Japan, a span of 19 tournaments, she either won or had a chance to win.
Women's golf used to be a sideshow. As recently as 10 years ago, the tour consisted of a small band of impoverished players plying the back nines of America. Country clubs limited women's play to ladies' days and occasions when the demand from men for course time was low. But with the rise of feminism, Title IX and a new professionalism in the LPGA management, this has all changed. Daniel grew up on a course, the Country Club of Charleston, S.C., where she could get out and play as often as the boys did. She entered amateur tournaments all over the world. She even competed on the men's team at Furman. And by the time she was ready to join the tour, she didn't have to act like a lady. If she missed a shot she said something stronger than "darn." And she'd stick a club in the ground or bounce one off her caddie and roar like Tugboat Annie. In other words, if she could play like a man she could act like one, too.
Lopez joined the tour in 1977 and almost immediately was dubbed Wonder Woman. Hers is still the standard against which Daniel's performance is measured. When Johnny Miller mounted a challenge to Nicklaus a few years ago, it was noted that while he won a lot of Phoenixes and Tucsons, he couldn't win with Nicklaus in the field; in fact, he couldn't finish ahead of Nicklaus, even when neither of them won. In the last half of last season, when she finally stopped fighting herself, Daniel beat Lopez-Melton in nine of the 14 tournaments in which both were entered. And that success provided a measure of inner peace. "Inside I'm much more relaxed now," says Daniel. "It's not like a matter of life or death. I get upset still, but that's just the competitiveness in me."
Daniel has discovered one way to ensure tranquillity: when the walls start closing in on her, she disappears, taking a week or two off. She also tenaciously guards her freedom by not taking on a multitude of commitments for personal appearances and endorsements—easy money to most top players. As a result, she stands to lose perhaps $200,000 a year, according to her manager, Vinny Giles. When she leaves the course she is drawn toward solitary pursuits—reading books, watching television, or listening to Willie Nelson laments on her elaborate stereo system. "I'm a very private person," she says. "I don't thrive on popularity. Everyone wants to be popular, and everyone wants to be wanted, but Lopez is in the limelight so much that she gave up something precious: her time. I treasure mine too much for that."
It has been said that Daniel plays like a man. Actually, she plays like a machine. When the gears are meshing properly, as they were last August and September, no one can touch her. Even when Daniel plays poorly she will nonetheless be somewhere on the leader board. And even scarier for her rivals, at 24, some three months older than Lopez-Melton, Daniel is still emerging from the insulated Southern environment that protected her during her childhood. She's only starting to discover just how good she can be.
The Swing. Golfers talk about Daniel's swing as the best among women players since Wright starred in the mid-'60s. It's long, slow and rhythmical, its cadence reminiscent of Sam Snead's. Because Daniel is 5'10", she generates enormous power. She's easily the longest driver on the tour. Nicklaus' competitors used to say of him, "He plays a different game." In women's golf, Daniel plays a different course, one a lot shorter than that confronting other players. At a tournament in Dallas last September, one rival told her, "Beth, I wanted to shoot my ball out of a cannon today so I could keep up with you."