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In the unreal patch of California desert called Rancho Mirage, they name the streets after stand-up comics, clear blue lakes rise out of the hot sands like Old Testament miracles, and the son of a Philadelphia gambler entertains kings and presidents behind a mile-long oleander hedge. One not-so-improbable aspect of Rancho Mirage is the Nabisco (n�e Colgate) Dinah Shore Invitational, and Sally Little gave even that event a tinge of unreality on Sunday when she shot an astounding 64, the best round of her life, to beat Hollis Stacy by three strokes.
Little's irons kept her close to the pins all day and her putter did the rest. Rarely did she have to make a putt longer than 10 feet, and two were gimmes. She was unmistakably in the zone, or "the ozone," as she put it. "To tell you the truth I didn't know what I was shooting," she said afterward. Indeed, she could do no wrong. Her 76-67-71-64—278 was 10-under on the Mission Hills course.
If Little didn't know what she was shooting, Stacy did. She had carded a 65 on Friday to lead the field by three shots, and added a 71 on Saturday to increase her lead to four. But on Sunday she couldn't buy a birdie. As she scored par after par she could only watch Little, playing one group ahead, eating away at her lead until finally, at the 12th, Stacy was in second place to stay. Later someone asked when it was she became aware of Little's extraordinary round, and the irrepressible Stacy said, "I kept seeing her ass all day, bending over to pick her bailout of the hole."
Both players would have been good bets going in. Stacy had already won two tournaments this year and seemed to have a new determination, as if she had decided to make better use of her considerable talent. A friend said of Stacy, "When Lopez was starting to dominate, Hollis won two U.S. Opens back to back, but never got any acclaim. She was put out by it. Now I think she realizes that Lopez is just one of the field and that she too can be a star."
Little has been improving markedly over the last three years. A month ago she won the Olympia Gold Classic near Los Angeles and she had three other finishes in the top 10 coming into the Dinah Shore. She also had a special feeling for the tournament. "I'm so motivated to play here that I want to practice and get ready," she said. "I don't feel that way every week."
The other great round of Sunday belonged to Hall of Famer Sandra Haynie, winner of the 1974 U.S. Open, two LPGA championships and 37 other tournaments. Haynie's 65 brought her from seven shots back into a tie for second with Stacy at 281. After a four-year retirement, Haynie returned to the tour last year at the age of 37 and had the most lucrative season of her 21-year career, winning $94,124.
The opening day at Rancho Mirage wasn't auspicious. Drenching rains driven horizontal by cold gusts up to 45 mph swept across the desert, blowing umbrellas inside out and scores sky high. Two young survivors, Kyle O'Brien and Lori Garbacz (pronounced gar-buh-cee), both 23, shot 71s and lived to tell about it. "Miserable," is what they said. Theirs were the only sub-par rounds of the day.
Friday was as glorious as Thursday had been rotten. Stacy soared into the lead with her 65, three strokes ahead of Pat Bradley, six ahead of JoAnne Carner and seven in front of Jan Stephenson, newly married to her business manager, Larry Kolb. Nancy Lopez-Melton, after an opening 77, returned with a 71, leaving her 10 strokes back, too far for most folks, but not necessarily for her.
Not much changed Saturday, except that Bradley faltered and Stephenson had a 68, tying her with Carner, four behind. Stacy birdied the last two holes for a 71. Still lurking six strokes back after a 67 was Lopez-Melton, but the gap looked unbridgeable now. "It's a lot," she said that evening, "but you never know."
The joyful competitive intensity of a Little in her winning trance, or a Lopez-Melton, is typical of the spirit in which the pros approach the Dinah Shore each year. The tournament is without equal on their calendar. The U.S. Women's Open carries greater historic weight, the LPGA Championship is older, and the Peter Jackson Classic has been designated "major," but the Dinah Shore is the players' favorite. It is their Masters without portfolio. They wouldn't consider skipping it, and they would kill to win it. They lie awake in the dark thinking about it. Stephenson claims she cried herself sick the year (1974) she had to sit it out. Last week, when Carner was asked what was special about the tournament for her, she grinned and said, "Money." But Carner would give an eyetooth and her Honda Trail 90 to win it, and not for its $45,000 first prize alone.