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Original Issue


The women's pro golf circult, with the Babe away, is currently being carried very well by THE BIG THREE

These winter months, while the pro caravan is transcribing its customary dusty arc across the southern states east to Florida, that ambulant sorority house, the Ladies PGA, is as usual plying its own cold-weather circuit. Life on the LPGA tour requires a few less suitcases, Val-A-Paks, and free-lance clothes hangers than the men's tour does, for the girls pursue a fairly compact itinerary: Sea Island, Tampa, Havana, Miami Beach, St. Pete, Sarasota, Jacksonville and finally their equivalent of the Masters, the Titleholders at the Augusta Country Club in early March. These tournaments, for the most part, are orthodox strokes-play events but occasionally the format undergoes mild variations. For example, at the Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, where the sorority was encamped for a spell early in February, on the last two rounds each of the girls went out in a foursome that was made up of three club members partnered with her in a best-ball event, the members using their respective handicaps and the lady pros playing at scratch. (One of these days someone will coin the perfect word for a lady or woman professional golfer but it certainly is not proette, the current stand-in for the right word.)

A playing arrangement like the one that obtained at Havana puts more of a burden on the key player, the pro, than may appear at first glance. Patty Berg, for example, drew as her partners: 1) a dashing young air force major who serves as President Batista's personal pilot; 2) a delicate middle-aged senora who wore a colossal vizor that shielded her entire face from the sun—a bronzed complexion is less highly prized in Cuban society than in ours; and 3) a peppy, sociable little fellow who was in the throes of that international virus, the slice. The slicer paused occasionally to scatter a few local imprecations among his divots, but he kept a nice golfing pace and was probably no bother at all. The delicate senora, however, played at a tempo that even Cary Middlecoff would have found disturbingly slow. She traveled the course in an autocart and is the only person I have yet seen who could invest the act of stepping out of a cart and up to the ball with the same ceremonial air that members of the British royal family have when they disembark from a town car on an inspection tour of an orphanage. The dashing major, on the other hand, was all for getting on with the game with no delays whatsoever, particularly so on Saturday morning when his concentration was split between his golf and the worrisome knowledge that he was expected at the airport at noon to chauffeur the President on a short air trip. On the 11th hole he hit a whale of a slice off the tee and took off after it at a great speed. That was the last that was seen of him that day. The following morning he explained that he had gone directly from that slice to the airport. He had changed from his golf clothes into his uniform in his car, and hadn't kept the President waiting long at all. For all these distractions, Patty kept hitting her shots and getting her figures and then, needing only a par on the final or 54th hole to tie for the top with Louise Suggs, had to go and hook her wood to the green out-of-bounds.

This season about 25 players are making the women's winter tour, ranging from Patty Berg, the veteran of the veterans, to Diane Garrett, a slip of a girl from Houston who is such a cutie pie you are inclined at first not to take her seriously as a golfer but who, you soon appreciate, is actually quite an accomplished player. The girls devote the same long, wearying hours to their business that the men do. The Havana Biltmore, for example, offered every opportunity for escaping from work—it is a really wonderful country club which provides its 1,800 members with ocean swimming, a sandy beach, a yacht basin, a swimming pool, a riding stable, tennis courts, a softball field, a baseball field, a basketball court, bowling alleys and a darn good golf course in addition to a stimulating clubhouse. Yet, with very few exceptions, the girls were out on the practice fairway before and after each day's round rather stoically accepting the inescapable fact of golf life that continual practice never makes perfect but without it you cannot hope to stand up in stiff competition.

There is an interesting difference in the ways the men pros and the women pros practice. The women spend less time, comparatively, working on their full shots with the irons and woods, about the same amount of time as the men do on their putting, and a lot more time on their chip shots. They have absolutely astounding short games, and they must in order to score, for women's circuit golf is essentially a different proposition from men's. On most of the circuit layouts the men visit, just about the only times a player needs a fairway wood is on the par 5s. On the high percentage of the par 4s, a seven-iron or even a higher club is all he requires to get home after powdering his drive. At Havana, where the course admittedly played longer than most of those the girls visit but where overall conditions were generally typical, a relatively long hitter like Louise Suggs could play a five-iron or less for her second shot on only two of the 10 par 4s. A long iron or a spoon or a brassie was necessary on the rest of the 4s, and sometimes when the wind was blowing against her, two good woods still left Louise yards short of the green. To pull out your par under such conditions, you have to be able to get that chip to within reasonable holing distance, and the girls do it time after time. That is one of the great treats of watching them. Another is the beautiful slow rhythm which sets up their club head power. A few of them—Fay Crocker, Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls and Beverly Hanson come first to mind—have strong wrists and hands and can power the ball almost the way a man does, but sheer "hands golf" is beyond the capacity of even the most sturdy females. They must swing the club head, extract the full vinegar from a correct body turn, and integrate the action of their body and hands with precise timing. Patty Berg, Betty Jameson, and Louise Suggs, the best of the lady pros, possess three of the finest swings golf has known, and to follow them for a stretch of holes as they produce one beautifully struck shot after another is to get very close to the heart of the game.

For the past decade or so, Patty, Betty and Louise along with Babe Didrikson have made up what was known as the Big Four of women's professional golf. The Babe, to be sure, was the tour's primary attraction, what with her flair for showmanship and her zest for competition gilding her big and frequently brilliant game. The tour is certainly not the same without the Babe, but Berg, Jameson and Suggs have taken up the slack and are carrying it very well. Their styles are quite dissimilar. Louise, who is considerably the youngest of the three—she won her National Amateur title in '47, Patty hers in '38, and Betsy her two in '39 and '40—has what might be termed an exceedingly modern technique. A trim, athletic girl, she takes a generous cut at the ball on her full shots and develops her club-head speed in much the same area as the men pros do. The shot that Louise plays best—she not only plays it better than any of the other girls but better than most of the men—is the short approach with the six-, seven-, and eight-irons. Not too long ago she and Toney Penna, teamed up in a selected-drive Scotch foursome, went around a medium-length course in 64. They took Toney's tee shot on just about every hole, and then, with that nice, crisp, uncomplicated style of hers, Louise would smack the approach five feet or so from the pin. That simplifies life. She is a very good player to watch if you happen to be in a slump yourself, for Louise has the knack of reducing the hitting of firm golf shots to their basic essentials. All you have to do is cock your chin as you figure out your line, then get the feel of your club head in your hands while you size up the distance, place the head of the club soberly in front of the ball for a second or two as you square up to the shot, and move into your swing all in one piece. Whack! Why, it's an easy game.

Betty Jameson is far and away the sorority's most knowledgeable technician, an honest-to-goodness scholar who can weave her way through theory with the likes of Armour. Not unlike Tommy, who is one of her best friends in golf, she has the uncommon gift of not letting her erudition throw her and of being able to determine with clarity what slight departures from orthodoxy work best for her own particular talents. A mild and quiet person, her love of golf lights her up whenever she plays or talks it, and she could easily become one of the game's few significant teachers. Betty has groomed her swing sedulously for years, and it shows it. She is extremely deliberate about finding a solid stance—which amounts to an eccentricity for her since the rest of her style is so polished: a truly impressive grip, a backswing a little on the upright side where all you are conscious of is how perfectly the left hand does what the left hand is supposed to do, and, as she moves into the ball, an acceleration which keeps building so smoothly that it is hardly perceptible. Offhand, with the one possible exception of Hogan's golf at the Masters in 1953, I cannot remember watching as straight a player as Betty Jameson. On her opening round at Havana—she missed a three-footer on the home green which would have given her 18 straight pars—I followed her on about eight holes and at no time was she more than 10 yards off the dead center of the fairway.

It hardly seems possible but two decades have whistled by since the third member of the triumvirate, Patty Berg, first came into prominence—back in 1935, to be specific, when the warm and gracious redhead from Minneapolis, then a full 17 years old, made her way to the final in the National Women's Amateur against Glenna Collett Vare. Patty has proved to be nothing less than one of the great golfers of all time, men included. It isn't just her durability or her overall record or her figures on any one round. It is how she plays, and you must watch her make her way around a course for at least nine holes before you can begin to appreciate her wonderful gift for hitting golf shots. She can handle a club in her fingers like no one since Hagen. Her mannerisms at address and as she rocks into delivering the shot are highly reminiscent of Sarazen. Like these champions of an earlier era, as distinct from the leaders today who are first and foremost masters of precision, she is the intuitive shot-maker who expresses her full personality as she plays each shot to fit its different requirements—buzzing a low approach into the wind when it is blowing against her, floating a short approach into a banking wind, girding herself on another hole for an extra-long drive (when it will take her two big clouts to get home) and getting that added 10 yards without sacrificing her accuracy, punching a long iron to roll onto the green over a stubbly apron when a wood would not have held the hard, flat green, and so on with infinite instinctive variety.

There is a very human quality to Patty's manner. To cite one example at random, on the short 16th at Havana, her chip from the apron ran out of gas eight feet short of the hole. The mediocrity of the shot might have been due in some measure to the noise coming from a dirt road that intersected the course just before the green and that was being traveled at that moment by a man on muleback transporting a large bale, a carpenter on a bicycle with an armful of boards that were banging against his vehicle, and two young girls clattering along with their father's lunch pails. The tintinnabulation continued as Patty assembled herself for the putt. She managed to roll it in. Now, if you are a star golfer, custom prescribes that you must admit to impenetrable concentrative powers, in the tradition honestly established by Joyce Wethered at St. Andrews who holed a crucial putt just as a train rattled by the 17th green and, when later asked if the train had bothered her, asked, "What train?" When Patty's putt rolled in and the major, the slicer and the fragile senora chorused "Bueno!," Patty smiled her thanks and then turned to study the traffic on the road. "Boy," she said, blowing her breath out, "all they need is a marimba player and they could open at the Tropicana tomorrow."