Skip to main content
Original Issue

Breezing in at the Open

Gritty Sandra Palmer overcame 30-mph winds, mower-busting rough and hard-baked greens to score a four-stroke victory at Atlantic City

In the town that Monopoly made famous and on a course that nature made impossible, the U.S. Women's Open was played last week. Actually, misplayed might be a better way to put it, since by the time Sandra Palmer walked off with her four-stroke victory, the Atlantic City Country Club course had been thoroughly buffeted and bogeyed. It was the week the wind blew ol' Mary down.

Although Atlantic City is not quite the place it was when the Parker Brothers put this New Jersey resort on the game board, it remains a good spot for a respite from July concrete. But for the golfers there was no summer vacation as they fought par throughout the tournament. The Open rough always is thick, and this year it was especially dense with eight straight days of rain falling before the event. It grew and grew, and Green Superintendent Doug Fraser broke two hand mowers giving it a trim.

Atlantic City C.C. had been the site of two previous Opens. The first, in 1948, was won by Babe Zaharias with a score of 300. The 1965 champion, Carol Mann, finished 10 strokes better, and last week there were high expectations for even lower scores, since Debbie Massey recently had shot a course-record 65 on her way to winning the Eastern Amateur there.

But no one figured on the wind, which gusted up to 35 mph. Most players did not pass Go, most did not collect $200. Most felt as if they had been run over by the Reading Railroad. Each morning they peeked out of their motel windows to see the wind bend back the branches and knew it would be another long day. The breezes dried the greens, then the sun baked them to the hardness of biscuits. The course was listed at only 6,165 yards, but it played as if it was 10 miles long, because the wind came from the south, the direction Club President Leo Fraser says makes his layout toughest to play. To score pars, the golfers needed perfect wood shots that put them in range to chip; if they had to hit to the greens with their longer irons, their shots ricocheted off the crusty putting surfaces and bounced away toward Marvin Gardens.

The week before the Open, Mann had won at Columbus, Ohio with seven straight birdies and a 29 for nine holes. In her first nine at Atlantic City she shot a deplorable 45, finished the round with an 84 and missed the cut. Jan Ferraris, who had been the runner-up in her two previous tournaments, also missed the cut, as did three-time Open champ Susie Berning. The golfers were pulling the trigger but coming up blank. "You can't be in diapers and play this course," said Jo Ann Prentice. She, too, missed the cut.

As Sally Little proved, it was the type of tournament where a golfer could score 80 in the first round and be tied for the lead two days later. It was an Open in which halfway leader Sandra Post could shoot a third-round 76 and still share a spot atop the leader board.

Some of the golfers up there with Post were as unfamiliar as last year's astronauts. Particularly for amateur Nancy Lopez and professional Diane Patterson, this Open turned out to be a good one; it helped them erase some of their identity problems.

Lopez (SI, Aug. 13, 1973) is only 18 years old and recently graduated from high school. She finished 18th in the Open last year and won the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship in 1972. At Atlantic City she had a first-round 73 that put her one stroke behind leader Judy Rankin, then was tied at the midway point with Post and was never out of contention thereafter, finishing tied for second with a 299 total.

Lopez has the strength of a low-handicap male golfer and refreshing innocence. She speaks in a little girl's singsong voice and has an endearing, sincere attitude. She went around smiling and wearing earrings and Indian jewelry, and kept saying things like, "I hope my daddy comes to watch me play," and "The $8,000 prize would be nice, but I'd like to have the trophy, too," and "I hate my three-wood, so I don't use it." She also kept the long-distance lines busy, talking to her parents back home, before they flew up to watch the final round.

Her sister Delma and brother-in-law Bernie Guevara followed her around, taking home movies during her practice sessions. Lopez grew up playing golf on a public course in Roswell, N.M. She was taught the game by her father, Domingo, the owner of an auto body shop. He wants her to turn professional, but she has decided to attend Tulsa University on a golf scholarship. The fans found Lopez so enchanting that they applauded whenever she entered the clubhouse.

Patterson had never played golf until eight years ago, when she was 24, and the only tournament she has ever won was a Pacific Telephone Company Women's Golf Championship. She worked at the phone company for three years while sharpening her game enough to join the pro tour. Before that, she was a college tennis player and a circus trapeze artist, and once tried rodeo bull riding. Patterson also has broken quarter horses, high-dived 70 feet from an oil derrick and ridden motorcycles.

She joined the tour in 1971, shot a lot of 80s, subsisted on cheeseburgers and gradually learned the game. This is the first year she has earned enough—$5,976—to stay ahead of the bill collectors. After shooting a 74 in the second round at the Open, she trailed by only two strokes. She finished 79-79 and fell back to 16th place, but remained happy. "It sure beats the telephone company," she said.

Patterson's shortcoming was the same one encountered by the rest of the field: an inability to keep the ball in the fairway. Following a shaky start during which she went four over par after five holes, Judy Rankin settled down and took the first-round lead. Still she was cautious. "I'm not strong enough to hit the ball out if I get in the rough," she said. Rankin was prophetic. After the opening round, she often found herself off the fairways and finished 77-79-76.

Sandra Post has become expert at hitting the ball where she wants it. When she came on the tour seven years ago and immediately defeated Kathy Whitworth in a playoff for the LPGA Championship, she was better around the greens than she was with her irons and woods. In the last few years she has improved the longer phases of her game, and it was no surprise when she shared the second day lead with a 147.

Post sometimes has been a timorous leader, and indeed she edged up to a 76 on the third round. "I played better than that," she said. "I hit the ball pretty good." Considering the distractions, she may have been right. The wind blew down a tent and a pole conked a volunteer worker on the head. Also a joyriding airplane pilot kept dive-bombing the course.

Post's 76 enabled a horde of players to jump into contention. Little and Palmer tied her for the 54-hole lead, and 14 other players were within five shots.

For Palmer, who scored a 71 in the third round, merely pulling even with Post represented quite a comeback. She had opened the tournament with a dismal 78, and even a 74 on the second day had brought her no closer to the lead than five strokes. Only Berning in 1972 had gotten off to a worse start and recovered to win an Open.

"I was really struggling," Palmer said. "When you get in the rough here you have no chance. All you can do is pray a lot. You have to try to make pars and hope every once in a while you make a birdie. Every hole is a struggle."

It was the rest of the field that struggled during another gusty round on Sunday while Palmer, who had five birdies and an equal number of bogeys, was never more than a stroke above par. She cinched her victory with a four on the 483-yard, par-5 14th, and coasted the rest of the way to her $8,044 check. That raised the LPGA's leading money-winner's 1975 total to $64,932, easily enough to buy a hotel on Boardwalk and get in out of the wind.