Drawing attention to yourself on the picturesque island that is the 18th green on the Old Course at Mission Hills Country Club is no mean feat. It helps to hit a good short-iron shot over the water, into the wind and close enough to the flag for a birdie try on the large sloping green. But even then you could be upstaged by the work of Mother Nature. For members of the gallery, the Santa Rosa Mountains in the background and the desert sky over Rancho Mirage, Calif., are a great distraction.
Still, for a few moments during the final round of the Nabisco Dinah Shore tournament in March, one LPGA player became the particular focus of the spectators at that finishing hole. A delicate little blue-eyed blonde, who was dwarfed even more than most players are by the panoramic scene, sank a 12-foot birdie putt that made her seem a giant. As the crowd cheered her, Laura Baugh thrust her small fist skyward and flashed a bright—make that an ultrabright—smile.
Yes, that Laura Baugh. The same Laura Baugh who at 17 qualified for the LPGA tour and was declared "most beautiful golfer" by Golf Digest, whose calendars were all the rage in Japan for years and who made a small fortune from product endorsements. The same Laura Baugh who appeared in those Ultra Brite toothpaste commercials in the 1970s. Remember the opening line? "Hey, Laura Baugh, how's your love life?"
Because of her cover-girl looks, Baugh was one of the most popular players on the LPGA tour between 1973 and '81. Commanding the spotlight was a piece of cake for her in those days. But Baugh never won the Dinah Shore nor any other tournament, and eventually she disappeared into the shadows of the tour. Now 36 and the mother of three, Baugh has overhauled her game and is playing better than ever, albeit in relative obscurity.
It has been such a quiet comeback that she doesn't even have a golf-equipment sponsor this year, having been dropped by Wilson after last season as part of the company's cutbacks. How a tour victory would pay off now! "When I was young and single, I was easy to promote as a sex symbol," Baugh says in a voice that is surprisingly deep for one so petite. "But now I'm just a player who's married with three kids. They won't just hand me a deal with Toys "R" Us or a diaper maker. The only way to get [a sponsor] is to earn it by being a good player and winning tournaments. That's the way I'd like to get it now."
In the past, no one would have expected "Lovely Laura," as she was known by the galleries, to say such things. The U.S. Women's Amateur champion in 1971—at 16, the youngest ever—and a member of the victorious 1972 Curtis Cup team, Baugh burst onto the LPGA scene in 1973. "There was a lot of hoopla about her," LPGA contemporary Amy Alcott remembers. "She was the darling of the LPGA, and of Japan, where she made an absolute killing from endorsements."
Alcott and Baugh competed against each other regularly when they were both promising junior players in Southern California, with Baugh the dominant amateur. But Alcott, 35, who turned pro two years after Baugh, has fashioned the more impressive LPGA résumé: She has $2.6 million in career earnings, 29 tour victories (one shy of qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame), a Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average (71.51) in 1980, 12 consecutive years (1975-86) with at least one tour win, and three years (1979, '80 and '84) with four wins each.
Baugh was more accomplished away from the golf course. The whirlwind began almost immediately after she signed on, in January 1973, with agent Mark McCormack, who founded International Management Group, the giant sports marketing firm that still counts Baugh among its clients. Between tournaments there were pro-ams in Europe and all-day modeling sessions at far-flung, luxurious golf resorts that left her little time for rest or practice. But the long hours away from the game were not without reward. In her heyday Baugh was under contract at one time or another to Ladies Home Journal, Golf Digest magazine, Wilson, Ford, Suzuki, Rolex, Colgate-Palmolive, the Bermuda tourist bureau and various golf clubs in the U.S. and Japan. Her income from endorsements in 1976 was reported to be $270,000. It took her nine years to earn that much on the LPGA tour.
So it should not be surprising that it was Alcott who ultimately attracted the lion's share of the attention at Mission Hills in March, where she became the first three-time winner of the Dinah Shore, one of the LPGA's major championships. Despite being among the leaders for the first two rounds and finishing strong with that birdie on the last hole, Baugh tied for 17th place, at par 288, and earned $7,254.
Alcott laughs about it now, but she used to get ticked off whenever she shot a 69 to Baugh's 74 and the photo in the local paper the next morning showed Laura bending to line up a putt. Alcott's beef was with the newspaper's editor, not with Baugh, whom she respected. "Laura and I aren't close friends, but watching her from afar, I can tell she has always wanted to win," says Alcott. "I wouldn't put winning past her. She was always a great putter. But she has an all-around game now."