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Bad luck ends in a pot of gold

A relentless siege of illness, injury and misfortune was lifted at last when Ruth Jessen finished first in the $60,000 Sears Classic

It is the eve of the Sears Women's World Classic at Port St. Lucie, Fla., and a party is taking place inside a huge green-and-white-striped tent near the clubhouse. The last effects of sunset linger in the sky, wreaths of candle-lit gardenias float in the pool and floodlights beam down from the surrounding palms. Inside the tent, there are glasses clinking and laughter and a small band playing Moon Over Miami. Surely any golf tournament that starts this way can't be all bad.

"Sears cares about women," a man in a pink blazer had been saying earlier, explaining why his company had put up $60,000 for the tournament, the largest purse in the history of the women's game. "You see," he continued, "we discovered that women own about 75% of the stocks in the country. They are also responsible for 83% of our consumer dollar and I'm certain they have an influence on the other 17%. So we decided to say thank you. You might call this Sears' salute to America's women."

Well, O.K. The company also flew in, housed and fed free of charge some 170 women's page editors from 41 states, treating them to three days of fashion shows (guess whose fashions), lectures on art by Vincent Price, all those sunsets and gardenias and, if they cared to, a look at the lady pros.

The tournament, like the entire week at Port St. Lucie, was tailored for women. No men were allowed in the Thursday pro-am. Bouquets were used for tee markers at every hole and ladies in green pants suits acted as caddies, driving the golf carts and holding the pins. Hair was a major topic of conversation—where to get it set, how to work in appointments around practice time. Many of the girls have taken to wearing wigs."Jo Anne has three," says JoAnne Carner's husband, Don. "Otherwise, it would cost her $30 a week just to keep her hair set." Pam Barnett, an attractive pro from North Carolina, wears one, but she has the rather disconcerting habit of tearing it off and flinging it to the ground when one of her shots goes wrong. Surprisingly, the effect of all this femininity was a remarkably friendly tournament, much more so than the average men's event.

It was held at Port St. Lucie's Sinners golf course (there is a companion 18 holes named, naturally, Saints), and the $10,000 first prize brought all the girls out. For nostalgia, there were the Bauer sisters, Alice and Marlene, who turned pro five years before Arnold Palmer did, and Jackie Pung, just in from Hawaii, who in 1957 tossed away the U.S. Women's Open when she signed an incorrect scorecard. Jackie, who is now a grandmother, still refers to it as "the Open I won." For trivia fans, there were a tennis champion, Althea Gibson Darben; a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Amie Amizich; and a registered nurse, Kathy Farrer.

Also, there were the best of the lady pros: Kathy Whitworth, a severe-looking Texan who was the leading money winner last year and five of the last six years; Carol Mann, friendly and unaffected, hoping to bounce back after a disappointing 1970; Donna Caponi, who makes a habit of winning U.S. Opens (the last two) and likes to dance all night; Shirley Englehorn, winner of four tournaments last year and, as a member of the Sears staff, a busy hostess-type all week; Mrs. Carner, who, when she turned pro last year after winning five U.S. Amateurs, started miserably but finished so well that everyone expects her to win tournaments by the handfuls.

Most of all, Ruth Jessen was there, and that in itself was a minor miracle. Ruth turned pro in 1956, but since 1963 she has spent as much time in the hospital as on the golf course. Here is the play-by-play: Plagued with a disk problem in the neck for many years, she was operated on in 1963 (the doctors removed a piece of bone from her hip and inserted it in her neck). In 1964 nothing happened, except that she lost the U.S. Open in a playoff with Mickey Wright. In 1965 it was back to the hospital for the removal of a cancerous tumor in her throat. In 1967 her left hand kept going numb until medical science solved that by taking out her first rib. In 1968 there was another cancer operation. In 1969 she was feeling pretty good, considering, until one day, when she was preparing to play the last round of a tournament, a tent she was sitting in collapsed and a pole struck her in the neck. Her neck has bothered her ever since. In 1970 she was plagued with tendinitis of the elbow; she tried to play in the LPGA Championship last June but was obliged to quit after 27 holes. Going into the Sears Classic last week, she had not played in a tournament since the LPGA and had not won one since 1964.

So Ruth Jessen, 34 and out of competitive practice, was hardly a betting favorite at Port St. Lucie, nor did her first-round 76 attract attention. A 72 the next day moved her into a tie for fourth, but she was still four strokes behind bouncy little Sandra Palmer, who was playing so well it seemed no one could catch her. In a sense, no one did. Sandra, putting timidly, took an ugly 40 on the first nine of the last round in this three-day tournament and fell back into a three-way tie with Jessen and DeDe Owens. Then, midway through the back nine, Palmer took a bogie, Owens did, too, and there was Ruth Jessen with the lead. She made a birdie 2 on the 16th and came in with a 1-under-par 72 to win by two strokes from Miss Palmer. The Sears people thrust a green jacket on her—now wherever did they get that idea?—and, more important, handed her a check for $10,000.

Now, $10,000 may not mean a lot of money if you're Jack Nicklaus, or maybe even Tom Shaw, but to the lady pros the very thought of it was enough to make a few stomachs queasy the morning of the first round. There has never been a lot of money in women's golf—no one has ever earned $50,000 in a season—and this comparative poverty is the main reason most women's tournaments have only three rounds instead of four. Most players simply cannot afford to fly, and so they drive from tournament to tournament. Driving takes longer and is more exhausting, and therefore three rounds is more practical. Money and expenses are a continuing topic of conversation. It was a source of some bitterness among the lady pros last week that while free room and board at the Hilton Inn was offered the women editors, the players were on their own. They were offered a chance to win a mink coat. Sears was giving one away to the golfer who came closest to the cup on the par-3 third hole. On the first day Jackie Pung hit her tee shot 25 inches from the pin (a mink is just what you need in Hawaii), but on Saturday Betty Burfeindt put one 10 inches away to take the coat from Jackie.

Last year was an especially lean one for the girls. Late in 1969 the LPGA board decided to buy up the contract of Lenny Wirtz, the controversial executive director. Wirtz, who doubled in the winter as a pro basketball referee, had run the ladies' tour for eight years. He also acted as a players' agent, which led to at least one awkward situation. In 1968 at the Buckeye Savings tournament in Cincinnati Marilynn Smith walked off the 18th green an apparent winner. But Wirtz, a stern official, then told her he was penalizing her and her two partners two strokes for slow play, which cost Miss Smith the tournament. This in itself was bizarre enough, but the incident took on unfortunate overtones when the new winner became Carol Mann, for whom Wirtz was agent.

"We felt the time had come when we should expand," says Cynthia Sullivan, who was president of the LPGA at the time. "Lenny wanted to keep on running the tour by himself. We wanted a tour director as well as someone schooled in public relations who could set up tournaments for us."

What the girls really disliked was Wirtz' abrasive, overly authoritative behavior in public, which many of them felt hurt the tour. Too often tournament sponsors failed to renew contracts for a second year. So, late in 1969, Wirtz went. In his place as executive director the girls hired E.M. (Bud) Erickson, a tall, quiet, good-looking man of 47 who was once with the front office of the Atlanta Falcons. What Erickson inherited was not exactly rubble but it was a tour without an awful lot of tournaments. The number had dropped from 32 in 1968 to 28 in 1969 to 21 in 1970. The corresponding loss of money is reflected in the 1970 earnings of Kathy Whitworth, who led the ladies with $30,235, the lowest high figure since 1965. The year before, Miss Whitworth had earned $48,000 and had finished second in total earnings.

"I'm not going to knock Lenny," Erickson said the day before the Sears tournament began, "but I don't think you can spend your time as a basketball referee in the winter and still do your best for the girls."

What Erickson has done is take on Gene McCauliff as full-time tournament director and increase the number of tournaments to a probable 25 (and, since the schedule is not yet complete, possibly 30). Total prize money should top $750,000, the highest ever. It was Erickson who worked out the Sears tournament, and he has arranged to have the LPGA Championship in June sponsored by Eve cigarettes. In May the Sealy mattress people will back a tournament in Las Vegas, and at the end of the year Eve will give a trophy and $10,000 to the leading players on the tour. So perhaps bigger money is coming to the ladies' tour at last. As far as Ruth Jessen is concerned, it couldn't happen at a better time.