Pat Bradley has had the reputation of a golfer who could be counted on to dissolve in the clutch, but last week, on the final day of the U.S. Women's Open in the Chicago suburb of La Grange, the long-hitting Bradley punched her way out of her choker's reputation, beating par, the record book and—somewhat sadly for sentimentalists—Kathy Whitworth, too.
From the first day, when her 69 earned her a half-share of the lead, the 36th Open was Whitworth's tournament. At 41, she was perhaps making her final serious bid to win a championship which has eluded her throughout her distinguished 23-year career. She also was going for her 82nd victory, which would have tied her with Mickey Wright for the alltime lead in that category, and trying to become the oldest female Open champion. And finally she was looking for the last $1,031 she needed to become the first woman to earn a million bucks on the golf course. And for 3� rounds, she had a shot at doing all of that. But Bradley took the play away from Whitworth on Sunday with some back-nine heroics that included a chip-in, a 70-foot birdie putt and enough other sensational feats that she seemed perpetually to be raising her arms in triumph.
Some might count this as an Open that Whitworth lost, but, in truth, Bradley won it with an almost perfect final round of 66, a course-record score that helped her set a tournament 72-hole mark of 279, nine under par on the La Grange Country Club course, a treelined layout made docile by rains and the absence of winds. And she clinched the win with a birdie on the last hole, tapping in a two-footer that blunted a late charge by her playing companion, Beth Daniel, who finished second and smiling after a 68.
Whitworth had begun the fourth round holding—by one stroke—the lead she had nurtured on and off since the first day. But she was visibly jittery on the greens and bogeyed the 3rd and 4th holes while Bradley and Daniel, playing ahead of her, were sowing birdies. Whitworth would never again gain the lead, and her quest for victory ended at the par-3 17th when she dumped her four-iron tee shot into the water. Afterward she was philosophical. "I'm kind of getting used to it in the Open," she said. "The harder I tried, the more it didn't work. Why I can't win the Open, I don't know. I knew early it was going to be all uphill, and I was going to have trouble climbing the hill."
Her task was made all but impossible by Bradley's play. Hers was the sort of round not often seen on the final day of a major championship, and hardly ever by someone who has finished second 24 times in eight years on tour. Bradley is usually an inscrutable, almost dour sort on the course, her face largely obscured by a visor. But Sunday she kept reacting to the miracles she was performing; she seemed airborne for most of the day. "For someone who's not supposed to have emotions, I can jump pretty high," she said later.
After Saturday's play, Bradley was in fourth place, three strokes behind Whitworth, two behind Bonnie Lauer, a virtually unknown seventh-year professional out of Michigan State, and one behind Daniel. But Bradley almost eagled the 1st hole when she sailed in a seven-iron shot that did a dance around the cup. After she tapped in for the birdie, she thought to herself, "Well, this could be the start of something."
Meanwhile, Whitworth was playing in the last group with Lauer, whose excruciatingly slow pace probably didn't help Whitworth's state of mind. As she stood by like a statue while Lauer fretted over a series of misfortunes that led to a front-nine 40, Whitworth could hear wild-cheering for whatever was happening up ahead. After the 4th hole, she was out of the lead for the first time since Friday.
In the end, although Whitworth closed to within one stroke for a time on the back nine, she shot a 74 and had to be satisfied with third-place money of $9,500, which boosted her career earnings to $1,008,469. On the men's side, millionaire status is no big thing; 31 PGA players are over the $1 million mark, including one ( Jack Nicklaus) over $3 million and two ( Lee Trevino and Tom Watson) over $2 million. But for the women, Whitworth's achievement was a huge milestone.
Her performance at La Grange also showed that she is back on her game, after three doleful years in which a duck hook almost sent her into retirement.
Whitworth has never received quite the kind of attention she deserves because, just as women's golf was taking off on the coattails of corporate sponsors and television, her game was falling over and playing dead. And now an Open she didn't win would put her in the headlines again. "I'm glad she's finally getting a little credit," said Wright from her home in Port St. Lucie, Fla. "It's a shame she had to wait so long. Patty Berg has a saying: 'It's not how fast you get there, but how long you stay.' Well, Kathy's been there 23 years. That's a pretty long time to stay, isn't it?"