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Bracing for a rich breakthrough

The tournament had a little bit of everything: a big name in its title; a $110,000 purse thanks to dishpan hands and tooth decay; Palm Springs sunshine; and Burt Reynolds, the Cosmopolitan center-fold pinup, as its honorary king. Perhaps fearing the silver-haired matrons would shear him, Reynolds did not expose his now-famous hirsute chest at the Dinah Shore-Colgate Winners Circle golf tournament. Instead he remained away from his girl friend, leaving the women to wonder what Dinah had that they didn't have.

At the end of the week's rainbow, Dinah's charms still were being analyzed, but Jane Blalock's talents were obvious to all. When she birdied three holes on the back nine Sunday, even though strapped into a white back brace that gave her the appearance of a karate champion, she picked up the $20,000 first-place check, largest ever for the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

Immediately, all across America, golfing housewives who watched the winner's circle on television started rummaging around in the attic for their husband's old brace, the one he wore when he used to do work around the yard. It was like the time when Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol and everybody started painting putters white.

Sprawled in the wake of Miss Blalock's final round of 72 was Judy Rankin, the tournament leader for the first two rounds, who rediscovered an old and frightening habit. For years Judy was Little Miss Blowup of the women's tour, Tommy Aaron in shorts and low-quarter socks with cotton balls on their backs. Only in recent seasons has she become less prone to late disaster, winning six tournaments. There were times, when she was in contention on the final holes of a tournament, that the safest place for the gallery was the fairway. On Sunday it was the bottom of the cup as she three-putted four times to erase her chances for victory.

For the first two days, Judy was in control of the tournament, and her husband, Yippy, a 6'3", 220-pound insurance agent, was managing to control himself, barely. His furrowed forehead and forlorn eyes offered slight contradiction to his true mood. Biting his nails, stretching against the gallery ropes, offering advice, Yippy had nerves twanging with pain as he watched his wife play golf.

On Sunday, as the three-putts mounted and optimism drained, Yippy tore at his hair and moaned: "She couldn't sleep at all last night." Eventually, Judy dropped into a tie for second place with Carol Mann, that marvelously young oldtimer, a three-putt at the last hole offering final testimony to the futility of the day as she shot a 77 and finished three strokes behind Miss Blalock. At the end of the day, two heartbroken men, Yippy and Paul Torluemke, Judy's father, maintained slump-shouldered stances, and Judy was near tears.

For Miss Blalock, late of Portsmouth, N.H. and Cape Cod, it all seemed part of a pattern. She was named the most improved player on the women's tour the last two years, and she looks like a cinch pick again. She missed only two greens during the entire tournament, and said that the back brace kept her from swinging too hard. (She lacks some vertebrae, and all week long she gulped pills to ease the pain.) "I feel like I'm in control of myself and in control of each shot," she confided on the eve of the final round.

All week one word kept popping up at Mission Hills: breakthrough. It was a breakthrough, for instance, when Colgate put up $110,000, invited the tournament champions from the last 10 years and anyone who had finished third or better in the last three seasons. It was a breakthrough that the company packaged another $10,000 for a two-day no-entry fee pro-celebrity-executive-fan-am. It was a breakthrough that Dinah could take time off from the aforementioned Reynolds to promote the tournament. It was a breakthrough that some girls would make more in royalties from Colgate television commercials than they earned nerving in three-foot putts all last year. It was a breakthrough that a national television audience watched on Saturday and Sunday. Everywhere one turned there were breakthroughs.

The LPGA, in fact, is really breaking through. For years the women's tour scuffed along cow town to cow town with a group of players who often gave the impression that their underwear itched. It's a new tribe now, with the delighted Colgate people using the women golfers in television commercials. "We think we've had a breakthrough," explained a man from Colgate, who added that a few of the girls could realize up to $9,000 from the spots.

All of which left Bud Erickson with a shiny, toothpaste-bright smile. He is the LPGA executive director and the man who sets up the women's tournament schedule so well that this year the group will play for more than $800,000 in prize money. The pleased women are talking about giving Erickson a new contract over his $40,000-a-year salary.

"I remember winning a couple of tournaments where first place was $350," said Marlene Hagge early in the week, marveling at the prospects of spending $20,000 on new clothes. When Marlene and her sister Alice joined the LPGA tour in 1950 they were driven from stop to stop by their parents, and they eked out a livelihood by staging exhibitions.

The Colgate people used the tournament the same way they would employ a 10¢-off sale. Besides the TV spots, some of the girls gave talks at company sales meetings, 20 million leaflets boosting the tournament deluged Occupant boxholders and Colgate reserved the television time. The company invited 60 clients and business associates to join with Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra and the usual others in the pro-am, then threw two lavish dinner parties during the week, budgeting it all close to $5 million for advertising and promotion. "I think we're going to get more of a return out of this than we would have from a regular promotion," said David Foster, the avid golfer who is president of Colgate.

"I've never known a group of people like these women," he enthused. "They're not prima donnas. They're terribly natural. There's nothing too much for them to do. I think they're terrific."

There always has been the pull-together spirit of an emerging nation about the women's tour. While the male chauvinist golfers have a large staff to handle details, only Erickson and his assistant, Gene McCauliff, serve as administrators for the LPGA. The women golfers make their own pairings, keep statistics, make rules judgments and occasionally make contacts for future tournaments. They also have a rigid system of automatic fines for everything from failing to attend a pro-am cocktail party to unsportswomanlike conduct.

Palm Springs and the Mission Hills course posed separate quandaries for the women during the week, the first because of the nighttime, the second because of the daytime. Tantalized by the big purse, the golfers secluded themselves back at their motels during the evenings discussing the day's play and then going to bed. No one visited Jilly's, the Palm Springs Sinatra-watching place, preferring to conserve energy for Mission Hills by day. "This isn't the week to stay up all night," explained Sandra Elliott. "You can party at Waco."

Part of a complex that squats on 680 acres of transformed desert leased from a group of seven Indian families, Mission Hills has been open only 14 months. During that time, there has been just one rainfall, but an extensive irrigation system can dump up to 2½ million gallons of water a day on the grass.

Golf Architect Desmond Muirhead had a million yards of dirt moved to build the course, constructing four lakes and a generous amount of rolling fairways and greens in the process. The course played to 6,352 yards for the tournament and the final 570 were the most treacherous, setting up the prospects of an exciting finish. The par-5 18th has water guarding the length of the left side of the fairway, and the green is completely surrounded by water. In addition the prevailing wind usually is in the golfer's face.

It was at the 18th that Mickey Wright's chance for victory drowned on the first day. Most of the women professionals think Mickey could have made just as much money on the men's tour as she did on the women's circuit when she was playing at her zenith in the 1960s. And on Friday she was nicely under par and was challenging for the lead after 17 holes. Then she put two shots into the water.

Judy Rankin birdied the 18th that first day, and she did the same on Saturday, stamping her finishes with the flourish of a winner. But her Saturday round was not all that serene. After sinking an 18-foot putt on the seventh hole to keep from going over par for the round, Judy was accosted by Yippy while she walked to the eighth tee. "You're playing good, now start thinking," he growled. She thought her way to a two-under-par.

"I tried to put pressure on her all day," said Jane Blalock, who played Saturday's round with Judy. "But every time I did, she came back."

With a two-stroke lead going into the final day, Yippy at the edge of the gallery ropes and her father, whose birthday was Sunday, as added incentive, Judy seemed on her way—and who could have expected a back brace to come from two strokes behind in the last round? Certainly not Yippy. Earlier in the week the Rankins' 4-year-old son Tuey had asked his father: "Has Mommy won yet?" "No," answered Yippy. "She wins Sunday—if I can make it that long."

Yippy couldn't, and neither could his wife. But Janie Blalock could, holding her left arm as straight as her back. She was third on the money list last year with $34,492. She'll probably earn a lot more this season, but what's money if not just another breakthrough?