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Beth Daniel is baffled. The quarters and the detergent are in the machine, but her clothes are sloshing around in sudsless water at a self-service laundry in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Two days before the first round of the Northgate LPGA Classic, in August, Daniel, the tour's most talented player, has a bad case of the wash-day blues. She poured the detergent in too late, and it didn't make it to her clothes in time for the soak cycle. Before throwing in the towel, Daniel opens the detergent compartment and tries blowing the thick, turquoise-colored liquid down the chute into the water. Finally she gives up, frowns at the machine and laughs at herself. "I guess I didn't do this right," she says.
Coin-operated washers are about the only things Daniel hasn't conquered lately. During the past 14 months, the 5'11" blonde with the fluid swing and iron will has taken command of her game and her emotions, winning 11 tournaments—including her first major, the 1990 LPGA championship—and finishing 23 times in the Top 10. With seven victories and $811,578 in winnings this year, she has won more tournaments in a single year than any female pro since Nancy Lopez, who racked up nine in 1978 and eight in '79. (Mickey Wright holds the alltime record, with 13 victories in 1963.) Last year Daniel won the Vare Trophy for low-scoring average, and this year she is fighting Patty Sheehan to the wire for that prize as well as for first place on the money list and Player of the Year.
Such achievement bespeaks a player at the top of her game and her sport. In the case of the 34-year-old Daniel, they also are testimony that her 12-year pro career has come full circle. She did turns as promising rookie, pouting prima donna, Player of the Year, stressed-out basket case and comeback kid before assuming her current role as hot player. "In the last couple of years, Beth has done what people expected of her earlier," says Judy Rankin, ABC golf analyst and winner of 26 titles from 1962 to '86.
That is, she plays the game at a higher level, and not just because she is one of the tallest women out there. After staving off a Daniel charge to win the Big Apple Classic, in August, Betsy King, winner of nine events over the past two seasons, including three majors, said, "Beth is a little bit above everybody else from tee to green. She is the best player in terms of having the ability to carry it and hit it high. When she's playing well, she probably plays better than everyone."
Daniel is more grudging. "I've played awfully good golf for the past two years," she says. "But I don't feel like I'm the best one out here. Maybe I'm the best player this week or this year, but when you talk about golfers being the best, you have to look at their whole careers."
If Daniel's career were a golf ball, it wouldn't be one of her high, consistently straight three-iron shots. It would be a duffer's hook that ricochets off a tree and through the rough before bouncing onto the green.
From the moment she turned pro, in 1979, she was hailed as the LPGA's next superstar, the next Lopez. The pundits expected remarkable feats, so awed were they by her smooth, rhythmic swing.
"Her ball doesn't spin like others," says Dee Darden, Daniel's caddie from 1980 to '84. "She hits it high off the club, and it drops on the green—bump, bump—and stops. It's such a pretty, pure shot. She doesn't hit many ugly ones."
Daniel's swing continues to be a featured attraction at LPGA events. From behind the ropes at Brooklyn Park's Edinburgh USA Golf Club, site of the Northgate tournament, a middle-aged fan and his younger friend studied Daniel at the driving range. ""Watch this girl," said the older man. "Betsy King, she scores, but Beth has the swing."
Early in her career, Daniel didn't disappoint. She won a tournament her first year on tour and was 1979 Rookie of the Year. In '80, on her way to the Player of the Year title, she won four events. But she didn't enjoy playing, and her swing notwithstanding, she wasn't a joy to watch. She threw clubs, screamed at her caddies and glared at reporters who asked what she considered dumb questions. Such behavior didn't win her any fans in the locker room, either. "We all wondered, Who is this girl coming out here being such a brat?" recalls fellow pro Vicki Fergon, now one of Daniel's best friends.