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If golf is one of the few sports left whose best players don't look as if they've been receiving hormone injections since birth, it is because golf's specific geometry values strength and finesse equally. The beguiling arc of a well-struck nine-iron counts just as much as the more majestic parabola of a 250-yard drive. Vicki Goetze began learning to play the short game when she was three years old, hacking at a Whiffle ball with plastic clubs. She won her first tournament at five, using short irons and putter to crush the field. Her game has always been long on short, and now that she has turned 18 and is perhaps the top amateur prospect in the country, it is even more so.
For two years now, Goetze, a high school senior from Hull, Ga., has been one of our best women amateurs. Last year, while still 16, she was the third-youngest winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur, and she was low amateur in the Women's Open. This year she repeated as low amateur in the Open; lost in a quarterfinal match of the Amateur; won three of the four matches she played in her first Curtis Cup; and won the PGA Junior Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The only important amateur title that has eluded her is the U.S. Girls Junior. In August, she was beaten in the final of the junior championship, 3 and 2, by Sandrine Mendiburu of France.
Duck-walking down the fairway, Goetze keeps her stance open and her mind closed to everything but business. During the stroke-play qualifying rounds of this year's Amateur, at Canoe Brook Country Club, in Summit, N.J., she was consistently outdriven by her playing companion, 20-year-old Stephanie Davis, who finished runner-up to eventual winner Pat Hurst. But even the extra 15 yards Davis got on most drives were not enough to overcome Goetze's brutally efficient short game. "She gets up and down from just about anywhere," Davis said later, "and she never three-putts. Ever."
It was Goetze's putting that won her the U.S. Amateur last year. In the final at Pinehurst No. 2, her drives were falling as much as 20 to 30 yards behind those of her longtime rival, 17-year-old Brandie Burton, but Goetze won the match, 4 and 3, by nailing six birdie putts. Most improbable of all, despite Burton's walloping drives, Goetze won five of the nine par-5 holes they played, then closed out the match with back-to-back birdies. She wouldn't have made it to the final at all had she not strung together three consecutive birdies in her quarterfinal match—the last one coming on a 30-foot putt from off the 18th green to win the match—when she was two holes down with three to play against Terri Thompson. "It doesn't bother me if people outdrive me," Goetze says. "That's the way it's been for a while now."
And that's the way it's likely to remain, for Goetze is 5'4�" and at 110 pounds, slight of frame. She lifts weights to add a few yards to her tee shots, but she has been doing that since childhood, so it seems unlikely she'll be bulking up anytime soon. When her height appeared to have leveled off at 5'2" in the sixth grade, her parents took her to a doctor for tests to determine whether she would grow any more. "But they found out that was about it," says Leslie Shannon, captain of the winning 1990 U.S. Curtis Cup team, of which Goetze was the youngest—and smallest—member.
It wasn't long ago that Goetze frequently found herself hitting woods when everybody else was hitting irons, but it rarely mattered. "I think she's picked up some yardage in the past year," says Shannon. "She's got a new driver that's bigger than she is—I think it comes up to her shoulders—and a lot of the time when the rest of us are using a three- or four-wood on the fairway, she'll pull out that driver and just blast away."
When Goetze showed up for the Open this year on the 6,298-yard Riverside Course of the Atlanta Athletic Club, ABC's Dave Marr, one of the commentators for the network's coverage of the tournament, pulled out a popgun of his own and blasted away at her game.
" Dave Marr made a statement to the effect that Vicki Goetze was not going to be able to play that course, that it was too long for her," recalls Shannon. Goetze was set to play the first two rounds with Jane Geddes, the 1986 Open winner who was ninth on this year's LPGA money list at the time, and Betsy King, the 1989 Open champion who went on to win this year's championship. "So Vicki went out and tied Betsy on Thursday," says Shannon, with some satisfaction, "and beat Jane on Friday."
Goetze's delicate chip shots and feathery touch on the greens make her the equal of the game's heaviest hitters, and far more interesting to watch. Her putting stroke seems naturally rhythmic and smooth, but at age 14 she became frustrated by her lack of consistency. "I knew I could play, but when I lost, it was usually because of my putting," she says. "I always either shot lights out with my putter, or I missed one-footers."
So she began practicing her putting for as much as six hours a day during the summer. "Vicki has probably the best putting stroke I've ever seen," Shannon says. "But she also spends more time practicing than anyone I've ever seen. She works very hard at it." Goetze is a familiar sight on the practice green at any tournament, her Walkman hanging from her belt as she goes about her work, usually finishing each day with 100 putts.