Says Baugh, "The publicity was good for me financially and for ladies' golf because sponsors like Colgate [the maker of Ultra Brite] got behind the LPGA tour. But I wish there had been some substance behind it—such as five U.S. Open titles."
Instead, her LPGA file lists 10 runner-up finishes and total earnings of $591,478 in 17 seasons (she was off the tour in 1982 and '88 on maternity leave). Indeed, her first LPGA outing was a harbinger of tournaments to come. She had a two-stroke lead heading into the final round of the 1973 Lady Tara Classic in Marietta, Ga., and was on the brink of becoming the second player to win in her tour debut. But Baugh's game unraveled, and she struggled to a 75, finishing in a tie for second behind Mary Mills.
Baugh didn't always choke, though. Once, after playing the back nine in five-under to get into her first and only playoff—with Hollis Stacy and Judy Rankin in the 1979 Mayflower Classic—she lost on the second extra hole to Stacy when her tee shot wound up in a miserable lie, behind a bunker. On other occasions it was simply a matter of somebody else's playing brilliantly and overtaking her down the stretch. "It was just rotten coincidence that she never won," says Rankin.
Her best effort this year came at the Phar-Mor at Inverrary in February, where she finished third, three shots behind winner Beth Daniel. Playing two groups ahead of the leaders, Baugh had birdie opportunities on the last four holes and converted two of them for a final-round 69. She put her second shot at the 17th hole, a 335-yard par-4, within a foot of the flag. At 18 she sank a 10-foot putt. "Those were the best holes I've played in a long time," says Baugh, who with four top-20 finishes in eight tournaments this year already has won $53,623—more money than she earned in any other season on the tour.
In the 1980s Baugh's game suffered, due at least in part to upheavals in her personal life. Her first marriage—in December 1979 to teaching pro Wayne Dent—lasted little more than a month. She married PGA Tour player Bobby Cole in 1980, divorced him after five years and then remarried him two years ago. They have three children: Chelsea, 8; Eric James, nearly 3; and Haley, 1.
In the last few years, Baugh worked on her game with a lot of help from Cole, and by the end of last season she had whittled her scoring average to a career-low 72.6, nearly two shots better than her rookie-year average and almost three shots below her average from as recently as 1987. "Having a happy life with Bobby has settled her down and helped her game," says LPGA Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner.
As Alcott notes, Baugh was always good around the green. But now, though her drives still land at least 20 yards behind those of the tour's longest hitters, she is striking the ball better. "Bobby helped me simplify my swing, and now it is more consistent—even when I'm nervous," she says.
Cole, 43, describes his wife as a "more mature and more proficient golfer." The only thing she needs, he says, is a little more weight on her 5'4½" frame. Baugh's weight, which she says is 115 pounds, is a subject of concern among some of her fellow pros and LPGA tour watchers. They believe she may suffer from anorexia or bulimia. Baugh says such speculation began after the failure of her first marriage with Cole. "I was very upset about the divorce," Baugh says. "I definitely didn't eat enough, and I got real skinny." Now happily reunited with her husband, she says she eats "tons of food" but burns off the calories during her daily aerobic workouts.
"I'm all for being bigger, but for me to be bigger and in shape takes a lot of work," she says. "It's just easier to be in shape if you're lighter. And I don't want to be just heavy. It's a bit of an ego trip for me, and it's one of the dilemmas I have."
Carner says Baugh could improve her game if she just played with more intensity. "You have to reach a point where you say, 'This is my tournament, and I'm going to win it,' " Carner says. "I don't think Laura's ever had that kind of grittiness."