Where I came from, a so-called lady golfer was always something to be hollered at, like an overheating '53 Buick blocking traffic, or a sullen waitress who couldn't remember to put cheese on the burger and leave off the onions, the dummy. Hey, you. You up there on the green with the legs like tree bark, and the schoolteacher skirt and the one-foot putt. It's good. I give you the putt, all right? So take your 135 shots back to the Mixed Grill and jump into your vodka martini with your nitwit husband who took your father's thieving money and built the country club and won't let you play here but once a week—in front of me. Go shell some peas or crochet an afghan or do whatever women ought to be doing instead of cluttering up a golf course. Fore! Fore, Agnes Zilch!
That's how it was growing up back in Texas. The most fun was to stand back there with your guys and then, after all the yelling and waiting, everybody would cut loose with a three-iron. And then when the shots would burn into the green and go between the putting stances of Slow-Play Fay and Play-Slow Flo, and when they would hop around like an assortment of Ruby Keelers, we'd sink to the knees of our khakis in aching laughter.
We had it all worked out in our minds that we belonged on the course and they didn't. We were there to sharpen up for the Goat Hills Invitation and they—the women—were there to keep us from becoming the future Hogans and Nelsons. "Women golfers are meece," we said, referring to our plural of moose.
We never asked to play through. We just did it, often while they were studying their chip shots. And there would always be one of them, a slightly rotund, menacing, scowling soul who would challenge us. "Don't you boys know anything about manners?" she would say.
We would all very wittily ask each other if we knew anything about manners and, while we putted out, we would discuss it. One of us would say he thought he used to know something about manners, back when manners lived over on Hemphill near Kenny Don Minter, who couldn't beat nobody. Manners was pretty good, we would say, but he had a tendency to snap-hook it when he got moved up in cash. We would be going on toward the next tee and the big lady would still be after us. "I know who you are, and I'm going to tell your parents," she would say.
One of us would say, "That's gonna be a lot of phone calls because we all come from broken homes."
The big lady would usually turn out to be somebody I'll call Mrs. R. F. Zinger, 14 times city champion and president of the women's district golf association. She would be the first lady ever to pass the local bar exam, the first lady pilot, a former Curtis Cup alternate, an ex-national spelling-bee champion, the daughter of the city's first four-term mayor, the author of a textbook on the history of the Colorado River and the architect of the town's new West Side freeway system.
With Mrs. R. F. Zinger lecturing after us, we would bound off down the fairway, having successfully played through, but of course a couple of us would insist on calling something back at her from out of slung-wedge distance. "Miz Zinger eats Maxflis," somebody would shout. And somebody else would holler, "In an unraked bunker."
Such was my fondness for women's golf in those days. Not to suggest, however, that my attitude would be changed by a certain maturity or my advancement into newspaper work. Anyone who ever did time on a newspaper sports desk is familiar with the type of phone calls you get from lady golfers. Mine usually came when I was listening to the Kentucky Derby and the horses were at the post. I would get the call from Mrs. Simcox reporting the net 77 that Mrs. Slocum shot to win the local women's golf association's Tuesday Flag Tournament.
"I'm sure it was a net 77," Mrs. Simcox would say. "Let's see. She bogeyed 1, double-bogeyed 2...."
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I guess my most favorite phone call of all time—true story—went something like this:
Me: Hi, sports fans. Pegler here. Runyon's out to lunch.
"Sports department, please."
This here's it.
"Is this the sports department?"
Take it on one, Hildy.
"Hello? Sports department?"
"This is Mrs. J. D. Stephens calling for Mrs. R. F. Zinger, the president of the women's district golf association. Mrs. Zinger asked me to call you because she said you always wanted the results of our weekly tournaments."
"Mrs. Zinger said you liked to print the results."
Well, Mrs. Zinger looks out for us pretty good.
"Mrs. Zinger said to tell you that we played our weekly blind-flag bogey event today, and I have the results."
You played a what?
"Our weekly blind-flag bogey tournament is what Mrs. Zinger called it."
What exactly is that?
"Well, it was sort of complicated, but we all played and I have the winners here."
Fine. What was it again?
"It was our weekly blind-flag bogey tournament, a different type of event that Mrs. Zinger thought up."
"I'm not sure I can explain it, but we all played 18 holes and then Mrs. Zinger figured out who won."
O.K. Just start with the winner.
"Well, first place in the championship flight was Mrs. R. F. Zinger...."
It was inevitably my experience that women didn't actually ploy golf. They casseroled it. They all stood there in front of my gangsome, poking at two-inch putts. They all had woefully slow, four-piece backswings with curious hip moves. They took the clubs back so far that the shafts whipped them on the shoulder blades, and then they lunged forward and the club heads plundered into the earth and the balls went dribbling off into the weeds.
A lot of the time I figured it was the way they dressed that made them play so badly. And slowly. They all wore those goofy things on their feet that weren't socks and came up just above the shoe tops and reached down below the anklebones. Ugly. And they wore straight skirts that hit them below the knees, with white blouses that were too tight, and big-brimmed hats with red bows.
Then there was the cackling in the clubhouse. After their rounds, I noticed that most women golfers could get into the booze better than most men. Several times I thought I saw two women having a bitter fight across a table, but they were just chatting over their Manhattans—or whatever women drink—about curtains and drapes.
I understood, of course, that there were supposed to be a lot of women golfers in the world who weren't like the ones I had always been exposed to. I knew about the Babe and Jameson and Suggs and all that. The lady pros. I knew they had a tour of their own, but I also knew what most guys felt about it: you would've bet that every one of 'em out there on the women's pro tour could overhaul a diesel truck if she put her mind and energy to it.
In recent years I have been presented with a number of chances to visit a women's pro tournament instead of hanging around the men's tour all the time. Each time I gingerly managed to escape, and the assignment most often fell to an associate in the golf department, a child star who writes too well for any of us to loaf much.
"You ought to go see 'em," he would say. "They're great."
Wrong. Got to stay with the guys, I would insist. Tom Weiskopf is getting ready to issue his first quote of the year, and I don't want to miss it.
"It isn't like you remember it," my colleague would argue. "Most of them are cute and friendly, and they can play like hell."
Well, one of these days, I would say. Can't now, though. Got a biggie coming up in Pensacola. Eichelberger's moving up on the point list. McGee's ready to bust out. Crampton smiled the other day. All very exciting with the men.
To be candid about it, one of the things that kept me away from the LPGA tour was the knowledge that the girls don't exactly travel the caviar circuit in terms of towns. I mean, do you want to spend a week in Shreveport or Waco? Take your shot. Alamo, Calif. or Winchester, Va.? Horsham, Pa. or Prospect, Ky.?
Also, the names of their tournaments were troubling. They all sounded like stock-car races. Last year, for example, there were things like the Shreveport Kiwanis Invitational, the Johnny Londoff Chevrolet, the Len Immke Buick, the Springfield Jaycee, the Lincoln-Mercury and the Quality Chek'd Classic. How did they miss Darlington and Daytona? What was Sandra Haynie driving these days? A modified Spalding with dual grips?
Then it happened. My young associate said early last spring he thought there might be a women's event coming up that I'd like. The $50,000 Sealy-LPGA Classic. Sealy like in mattress.
That's funny, I said.
"No, seriously," he said. The men's tour was quiet, after all. Terry Dill wouldn't be changing his grip for another week or so. Dick Lotz still had the same putter. Bert Yancey had postponed his annual interview till July.
"And it's in Las Vegas," he said.
That was the magic word. Vegas. Now, I know that to some people Las Vegas is not all that fascinating. To some, it's Baghdad-by-the-Copperheads, the mob's idea of chic, a neon-lit asylum, the blonde-wig, no-bra, no-brain capital of the Western world. To others, such as me, however, Vegas comes up as the only civilized city in the U.S., because it's the only one where there aren't a lot of lightweight lawmakers trying to tell you that you can't eat, drink, gamble or fall in love between two a.m. and noon. So I take Vegas whenever I can get it, even if I have to fool around with women's golf.
Judging from the number of blue Sealy blazers around The Desert Inn during one full week last May, there weren't many mattresses being sold anywhere. Sealy was venturing into golf for the first time, and the company had selected a women's tournament to sponsor for what it believed to be a tidy statistical reason. Women make or influence nine out of every 10 mattress purchases, said a Sealy press release. Furthermore, the release pointed out, "Research confirmed that the millions of people who enjoy golf conform to what Sealy believes is the predominant purchaser of its Posturepedic mattress."
There was an early moment at The Desert Inn, when I saw all of the lady pros attacking the slot machines, that this terrific headline came to me:
CAPONI POUNDS POSTUREPEDIC PAR.
It didn't take long, in Vegas, for me to realize that one of the major differences between lady pros and men pros is that lady pros scream a whole lot more at a dice table. On the first night in town I was trying to have a quiet drink in the lobby bar at The Desert Inn with my old friend Bud Erickson, a former employee of the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons who had been cast into the unlikely role of executive director of the LPGA, when we heard these female noises ringing through the casino.
"I think those are my people," Bud said.
We looked and there they were, nine of them, jammed around a dice table as if it were a washrag sale. One of them—Gerda Boykin, her name was—was shooting, and she had just rolled a seven. Almost everything in The Desert Inn stopped for the next few moments as Gerda Boykin, an attractive, brunette who was once the only lady pro in Germany, made three more' passes with the dice amid a chorus of some of the best shrieks since Arnie first hitched up his trousers.
What had happened was, a bunch of the girls, including Judy Rankin and Pam Higgins and this Gerda, had formed a syndicate on the tour a few weeks before Vegas. Every time one of them three-putted in a tournament, she put $1 into a pool, and they had this pact that they would take the money to Vegas for the Sealy. And on the first night there, one of them—it turned out to be Gerda Boykin—would shoot the bundle at craps for three, maybe four rolls. They went in with $60 total, and the nine of them came out with an average of $40 after Gerda got through.
Bud Erickson said, "Pretty good story, huh, right off the bat? Nothing like that on the men's tour, I guess."
Right, I said. You can't find nine guys who'll speak to each other.
"Lot of good stories out here," said Bud. "There's a girl named Diane Patterson who used to be a trapeze artist. She took up golf after she quit The Flying Viennas."
"Got a kid named Pam Barnett who throws her wig around when she gets mad, instead of breaking clubs."
"How about the Watusi Kid? Donna Caponi. She'll dance all night and play great golf."
"Got a couple of Japanese girls on the tour now. Chako Higuchi and Marbo Sasaki."
"Hey," said Bud. "How about Sharron Moran? She's really attractive and she does these hat tricks. She's always wearing a different hat on the course. She must have 20 or more different hats."
Z-z-z-z-z-z-z. Oh, excuse me, Bud. Almost dropped off there for a minute.
The Sealy-LPGA Classic had an odd format. It was a 72-hole tournament for the girls, of course, with a hefty $10,000 going to the winner. Well, that's big for the women. It's a shrug for the guys. Anyhow, John Montgomery, the tournament director, had it all worked out that to make it different—to give it something extra—it would be played sort of like the Crosby in reverse. The lady pros would have men partners every day in what constituted four separate Pro-Ams. In other words, each day the girls would play for some extra cash, and the amateur men would compete for what appeared to be just about all of the Steuben glass that had ever been steubed.
On Wednesday evening John Montgomery ran down the list of all the glittering male types from sports and show biz who had been invited to participate. There were Joe Namath, Glen Campbell, Mickey Mantle, Joey Bishop, Don Adams, Joe DiMaggio, George Blanda, Jerry Lucas, Fred Williamson, Joe Williams, Tige Andrews, Fred Biletnikoff, Peter Marshall, Jim Lange, Dale Robertson, Joe Louis, Vic Damone.
"And you," he said.
I said uh-duh-who?
"You play at 8:42 a.m. with Donna Caponi and Glen Campbell," John said.
Later that evening my lovely wife, whom I shall call June, and I were trying to decide where to go in Vegas—I was torn between "Vive Les Girls" at the Dunes and "Geisha'rella" at the Thunderbird—when she asked what I was going to wear tomorrow morning because there would be a gallery.
The usual, I said. My basic-blue button-down with the sleeves cut off and bush jeans. Maybe the gray sweater.
"You'll smother to death and look stupid," she said. "How's your game?"
Terrific, if I don't shank, I said.
"Then don't shank," she said. "What'll Glen and Donna think?"
Relax, I said. What do show-biz guys know about golf? And forget Donna. This is hardly the Masters, you know.
You could probably say that the crowd was fairly large around the 1st tee, most of them there to see Glay-yun. We stood around for a little bit, posed for pictures and waited for the P.A. to announce our pairing. Donna Caponi came over and said, "You and Glen both have eight strokes. We've got a chance to win this today. We'll just play loose and see what happens."
I told Donna that the tournament itself was the most important thing, where she was concerned. We'd try not to bother her, me and Glen, I said.
"Listen, we're going to have fun," she smiled.
Donna teed off first and whipped it about 240 down the middle with a pretty solid swing, and it suddenly dawned on me that she was, after all, the U.S. Women's Open champion of the past two years.
Glen Campbell stepped up next and flogged it about 260 down the middle with a very good swing, and I wondered where in the hell that came from.
I don't recall a great deal of applause when I was announced on the tee, but I do remember teeing up the ball, backing away for a practice swing and seeing my wife over behind the ropes. She was trying to tell me something in a whisper, hoping I could read her lips. Which I could. She was saying: "Take...off...the...dumb...sweater...Dummy."
That didn't bother me, however. I opened up with the tee shot I always open up with—a howling slice which, when last charted, was headed so far out of bounds that Glen Campbell said, "Fore on The Strip."
The provisional drive I hit was the same old second effort, a boring hook that hammered its way into the nearest fairway bunker.
"That completes our clinic, folks," Campbell said. And we were off.
It wasn't the most comfortable triple-bogey 8 I've ever made because, by notable contrast, Campbell put a spoon up near the green in two and had a couple of leisurely putts for a birdie. Donna raced over and kissed him.
Look, I'm just one, I said. Can I play through?
"If you're not going to try" my lovely wife said, "then I'll just go on back to the hotel and wait for you by the swimming pool."
By the end of the 3rd hole I had cost our team a net birdie by missing a two-foot putt—specifically, my wife said, because I refused to take a cigarette out of my mouth before I stroked the ball, and I had smashed another drive out of bounds and made a double bogey.
"You have a good swing," Donna Caponi was kind enough to say, "if you'll slow it down about four speeds."
Yeah, I know what to do, I said. It's just that sometimes, if you drink a little....
"You'll be O.K.," Donna said. "Just take it back low and slow."
A little later my lovely wife came over and said, "Can I go get anybody a Coke, or a golf shirt, perhaps?"
Billy Casper frequently plays in a sweater in warm weather, I pointed out, rather testily.
"You're soaked under that thing," she said. "Yuk."
I'll tell you what else is making me hot, I said.
There were those in the gallery who, were they willing, could testify that for the next several holes everybody in our threesome, including the dummy, played pretty well. Donna Caponi certainly wasn't any Slow-Play Fay or Play-Slow Flo. She was hard at work on a 71. Glen Campbell, the celeb, was in the process of carving out a surprising 72. When I finally started helping, our team chewed its way down to serious under-par figures. My moment of real glory came at the 13th when I got into a good drive, and a decent eight-iron, and then casually dropped a 15-footer for a birdie. Smoking. Donna raced over and gave me a birdie kiss, the crowd clapped, Glen patted me on the damp sweater and I looked around for the wife. Wasn't there, naturally. Had gone to get another Coke. Figured.
You blew my birdie back there, I told her.
"Well, thank goodness for something good," she said. "I just wish you hadn't picked today to play so badly."
Hold it, I said. It's not all that bad. I'll be about an 82 with a triple bogey and a double bogey. Take away those two holes and....
"Glen's played just great all the way," she said.
...it's down to about a 77 or so, which isn't all that....
"He's really hit some wonderful shots."
...bad, actually. And I've made a few pars. It isn't exactly like I never hit a single....
"I love his shirt and pants. Aren't they good-looking?"
...shot, all day long. I mean, it's not exactly my profession, playing golf. Considering that I only play....
"Did he say he'd get us a table for his opening tonight at the International?"
...a few times a year, living in Fun City, whereas certain show-biz guys don't have anything to do but play a guitar and hang around Riviera and Lakeside....
"Isn't he the cutest thing? And so nice and friendly."
...and, anyhow, you sure missed seeing a good birdie back there.
Nobody I've ever known in my entire life has ever won a Pro-Am. I have played in maybe 7,895 of them over the past 25 years, with any number of fine partners—guys who could really play and guys who had a bundle of strokes to use—and I have very often been "the leader in the clubhouse," as the TV commentators say, but before nightfall every one of these Pro-Ams has been won by a bunch of guys from Sacramento or Tampa. The pro would be an unknown, and his amateur partners would consist of a real-estate developer, an electrical contractor and a priest. They would be 24 under par.
Obviously, then, it was quite silly for Donna Caponi, Glen Campbell or me to think that our measly little round of 14-under would win anything on that first day. And of course it didn't. Marilynn Smith had a team that featured Jerry Lucas, the basketball star who had just been traded to the Knicks. Jerry was so delighted with the trade that he went out with his 12 handicap and shot a two-under 70—gross—just like most of the 12-handicappers I ever knew back in Texas. They won laughing.
At the daily cocktail party and prizegiving, where all the Sealy folks got to work on their autograph collections and wondered where Joe Namath was, Jerry Lucas apologized and Donna Caponi confided that she was taking a party of 12 to both Glen Campbell shows that night.
For Friday's round the dummy got himself a golf shirt, his wife stayed at poolside, he drew for a pro a nice young married lady from Midland, Texas named Judy Rankin who had captured three LPGA tournaments last year, and, for his other partner, a guy from Tampa with a long drive and a lot of strokes. Guy named Bill. Land developer. I thought we were a lock.
For a long time we were. Bill from Tampa was a cheerleader who called our pro "Judy, baby," and liked to take out a nine-iron for a five-iron shot and announce, "If it's only 170 yards, a nine's plenty for me, baby."
We played the back nine first and didn't cause any particular commotion until the 18th (our ninth) when I did one of those things we all did every week when we were 15 years old. I holed out a chip shot for an eagle.
From up on the TV tower, where the Hughes Network people were rehearsing, Bob Toski was giggling. "Where'd you learn that?" he called down. "In a subway?"
Our gallery consisted primarily of one: Walter (Yippy) Rankin, Judy's husband, a golf widower, a big, good-natured guy who sells insurance when he's not applying body English for his wife's putts.
Somewhere on the incoming nine, Yippy Rankin made the mistake of telling us, "You know, you-all are 15-under and that's leading. I think you can win it today."
The ninth hole at The Desert Inn course (which would be our last) is an unprintable annoyance as far as I'm concerned. You have two choices off the tee on this par-4. You can drive it into a pond on the left or out of bounds into some homes on the right.
Knowing we had it all wrapped up, then, Judy Rankin promptly hit her drive into the pond, and I promptly hit mine out of bounds. None of this seemed to bother Bill from Tampa, however. He just stepped up and split the fairway with a boomer. Nine-iron to the green.
"I'll handle it, baby," he said.
When we reached Bill from Tampa's tee shot, we could see the scoreboard and absorb the fact that our team was leading. I reminded our partner that he had a stroke on the hole, on top of everything else, so there was no point in being brave. Just a little flip up there to the big, safe part of the green and two putts would give us 16-under, more than we needed. That'll be a sweet $500 for Judy Rankin and some Steuben for the good guys.
"Don't worry, I'll put her right up there, baby," said Bill from Tampa.
Who cold-bladed it out of bounds, and we finished tied for second.
Saturday's round was fairly uneventful, except for the fact that I was paired with some of the best set decoration on the new ladies' tour. She was Donna's sister, Janet Caponi, who wears hot pants and helps make the LPGA look a lot different from the way I remembered it. Donna had taken the lead in the Sealy Classic itself, and we spent a lot of time asking for reports on her round. It was hot and windy, and the round passed as slowly as you might guess it would for somebody who had now been in Las Vegas for five days, which is the equivalent of 17 years. I was sadly over-Don Rickles-d, over-Bill Cosby-d, over-Juliet Prowse-d, over-dinner-and-late-show-d, over-black jack-d and soundly asleep on each and every backswing.
John Montgomery and Bud Erickson decided that I created something of a minor problem for Sunday's final round. They had quite an athletic event on their hands, what with Donna Caponi holding a one-stroke lead over Janie Blalock, who had a sweet personality and a fine, fine game, and Sandra Palmer, an old friend of mine, as it happened, from Texas, who had yet to win her first tournament. And bunched together right behind them were all of the other top lady pros: Sandra Haynie, who had just won three in a row, Marlene Hagge, Jo Ann Prentice, Kathy Whit-worth, Peggy Wilson, Pam Barnett, Margie Masters, Judy Rankin and Carol Mann.
Not only were the girls going out there on Sunday and battling it out for what was a big payday for them, they were going to have to play threesomes: two lady pros with one celeb of sorts. For example, Montgomery and Erickson (and Sealy) thought it would be nifty for national television if there was a Glen Campbell or Joe Namath in every group of girls. And no writers.
"Let's face it," Bud Erickson told me. "You're not much of a TV attraction."
Just blurt it out, Bud, I said. No need to doll it up.
"How about 7:37 a.m. with Mary Lou Daniel and Jan Ferraris?"
I said I thought I'd be off the tables by then. Fine.
Part of the offering Sunday, to keep the men stimulated, was a competition for a huge chunk of Steuben shaped into the form of a trophy, The Heart of Variety Cup, they called it. A man took his handicap and used it, and took the best holes he could get from his two lady pros, and all of that counted as his score, best ball.
Inasmuch as I was a dew sweeper that Sunday, Mary Lou and Jan and I got around rather swiftly. In fact, we finished at 11 o'clock just as Donna Caponi, Janie Blalock and Glen Campbell were teeing off. Mary Lou and Jan had been excellent companions and pretty impressive shotmakers, I must admit.
Maybe I particularly liked the two of them because I beat them with a light-running 75. From memory. In any case, our combined scores gave me eight-under for the round, and I was the leader in the clubhouse.
"Hey," John Montgomery said. "You're the leader in the clubhouse."
That's right, Byron, I said. Now back to you, Chris.
When you finish early you get to be the leader in the clubhouse for quite a long time. At The Desert Inn, I suppose I was the leader in the clubhouse for, oh, three or four hours. As a matter of fact, I was the leader in the clubhouse for so long that I finally started worrying that I might win.
There is no rule, of course, which says the leader in the clubhouse can't leave the clubhouse. So I went out on the course to watch Donna, Janie and Sandra Palmer throw the lead in the Sealy back and forth in pure melodramatic fashion. Hell of a tournament. They were each making one immense pressure shot after another while the Namaths and Campbells tried to stay out of the way.
Presently, after glancing at a scoreboard, I realized that I was a co-leader in the clubhouse. Although I had finished ahead of a split end, some guy from Petticoat Junction, another guy from Mod Squad, a fellow from Bracken's World, The Dating Game man, a couple of pro quarterbacks and the guy from The Hollywood Squares, I had suddenly been tied by Mr. Dithers, or an actor named Charles Lane.
Then it all fell apart. Namath, Mantle and Campbell went by me, and then here came Don Adams with 18 strokes and a couple of pretty fair partners in Sandra Haynie and Marlene Hagge. He would win by a stroke.
"You're tied for fifth in the clubhouse," my wife said.
The Sealy-LPGA Classic came down to the very last hole where Sandra Palmer, who had never won a tournament, held a one-stroke lead over Donna Caponi, directly behind her. As Sandra hit her second shot into a front bunker by the 18th green, Donna smashed a big drive down the fairway. Everybody figured it would go into sudden death.
I curiously found myself standing out there halfway up the fairway watching both, pulling for both; for my old friend Sandra from the old home town, the ex-college cheerleader whom I had first seen play when she was 14; and for my new friend. Donna, the dancer, in many ways the solidest player of all the girls.
My wife said, "You've got to admit this is pretty exciting."
Big deal, I said. Ten thousand dollars. Nicklaus gets that much for marking his ball.
"You're phony," she said.
Yeah, I know, I said. But keep it in the family. It's an image deal.
About then, Sandra Palmer hit a slightly stupendous bunker shot that took two hops and rolled straight into the cup for an eagle 3; for all of the whoops, all of the glory and the biggest chunk of the cash. For victory.
I saw her later. She was still in semi-shock from her first win.
"Did you have fun?" Sandra asked. "I hope you got to see that we have lots and lots of really fine players out here and some awfully nice people."
That's true, I said.
"It's great you could be here. I hope a lot of the girls have told you that," Sandra said.
They had, and it was embarrassing.
"See you again somewhere?"
I grinned and said I'd have to check the towns first. See what the bus schedules were like. And the diners.
"We'll see you again," she said.