Golf is one of those disconcerting games where an inch is the difference between glory and despair, a sport where you scrimmage with the elements and luck and, worst of all, your mind. For Debbie Austin, a shrill, nagging voice kept saying she couldn't win. Now it whispers yes, she can.
Last Sunday, for the fifth time this season, Debbie Austin did what she once thought she could never do—win a tournament. For nine years she had failed. But her one-stroke victory in the $50,000 Wheeling Classic was her third in the last four weeks. She is off those mean streets forever.
Even though she had been among the top 20 money-winners each year since 1973, a few months ago Austin was ready to quit. She had traveled a lot of miles to earn a decent wage and was exasperated by her failure to finish first. Going into this season, her main claim to immortality was that she was the leading career money-winner among players without a victory, with $154,702; just someone to beat. "It's more fun now," she says, laughing.
The competitive urge can keep athletes going for a long while, but Austin's persistence began to flag after she finished a doleful 51st at the Colgate-Dinah Shore tournament in Palm Springs last April. Her driver might have had a skull and crossbones painted on it. She had two shots: a whistling duck hook and a slice that looked the way a mountaintop yodel sounds. Her nerves were shot; she had hives. In desperation she got in touch with Sherry Wilder, an old friend and former LPGA competitor who is now head professional at Palm Desert's Shadow Mountain Golf Club.
In six years on the tour, Wilder had never won a tournament either, but her patience did not match Austin's. "I had to quit," she says. "I never could make it on Sunday, the money day. It's absolutely frustrating, the depression and the ebbing of self-confidence because you can't win against people you beat in practice." But Wilder proved to be an excellent teacher.
The two went to the practice tee, worked 12 hours a day in temperatures up to 112° and did not stop for 10 days. The lessons began with fundamentals. Wilder recalls that Austin did not even know where to tee up on a hole to avoid the hazards. And they discussed mental attitude.
When Austin left Palm Desert, her spirit was renewed and her game renovated. Two tournaments later she tied for third. The following week she won the $60,000 Birmingham Classic and was on her way. She shot a 70 to win that tournament, establishing a pattern of fine closing rounds. She had a 67 to take the Hoosier Classic, a 69 at Pocono, a 71 at the Long Island Charity Classic and a 70 last weekend at the Speidel course in Wheeling's Oglebay Park. She has lost the fear she shared with Wilder of Sundays, and her season's earnings are $72,644, sixth on the LPGA list.
Austin went into last Sunday with a two-stroke lead after rounds of 67-72—139. Coincidentally, three of her five closest challengers—Laura Baugh, at 141; Kathy Farrer, at 142; and Joyce Kazmierski, who was tied at 143 with U.S. Open champion Hollis Stacy and Jan Stephenson—never have won pro tournaments. Equally odd was the fact that Farrer, Kazmierski and Austin joined the tour the same year, 1968.
Baugh is another budding talent that never seems to bloom. "I've got a tough competitor on my hands tomorrow in Laura," Austin said Saturday evening after birdieing the 450-yard par-5 18th hole. "She's in sort of the same position I was in. If I can't win, I'd like her to, but I'm not going to break a leg either."
On Sunday, the only thing she broke was a lot of hearts. Baugh shot a 72 to end up in third place, but Farrer had 78 and Kazmierski stumbled to an 80. Austin led the entire day but bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes and came to the 18th tied with Hollis Stacy at six under par. She drove in the fairway, knocked a two-iron second shot onto the green and two-putted from 35 feet for a birdie and the victory. It used to be so difficult. Now it sounds so easy, but no one ever has figured out what it is that transforms an also-ran into a champion.
It took Sandra Palmer eight years to win a tournament. Judy Rankin needed seven. Kathy Whitworth and Carol Mann were on the tour four years before they made their first acceptance speeches. Sharron Moran has played since 1967 and has yet to finish higher than fourth. And Beth Stone, despite twice being second in the U.S. Open, has never won in almost 17 seasons.
"Breaks are so important in this game," says Austin, about her turnaround. "And lately I've been getting them. I've made a few putts I never thought I'd make." And more important, the spooks have been exorcised from her golf bag. Since working with Wilder, she has not hit a ball out of bounds, where once the neighboring cows were in danger. In previous years, Debbie figures she had chances to win 10 tournaments, but usually the only times she saw her picture in the papers were when she posed with her dogs, Teddy and Putter. She had a set of excuses that fit her like tailored clothes. At 5'4" and 140 pounds, she tired at the end of tournaments. Her putting was bad, as was her luck. Last year in Plymouth, Ind. she came down to the final holes tied with JoAnne Carner. A succession of putts hit the cup and danced away. At the 18th, Austin parred while Carner came out of the woods to make a miracle birdie and win by a stroke.
Austin became adept at hiding behind a big smile, accepting condolences and being gracious about congratulating her friends. Her roommate for the last seven years, Sue Roberts, won four times. Now Roberts is in a slump.
The two superstitious players act out a strange charade now that Austin is winning. It began in Birmingham, where Roberts did not play and so missed her friend's victory. The next time Austin won, Roberts had left the course early. The third time, Roberts stayed out of sight, although she stuck a congratulatory note in Austin's purse in the locker room, predicting the victory. Two weeks ago on Long Island, Roberts dutifully fled after she completed her round, and Austin promptly birdied the next hole and went on to win by two. On Sunday at Wheeling, Roberts again was under strict instructions to disappear.
Austin long has had a fascination for numbers. When she contemplated quitting the tour, she considered going back to school to become an accountant. Now she charts each round, stroke by stroke. Afterward, she studies the figures and consults Wilder by telephone if they show something is wrong with her game. Her confidence has soared and she is swinging so freely that her tee shots are going 10 to 30 yards farther, and much straighten
Only a handful of players ever have won five tournaments in a season. Austin is not certain she deserves to be in their company. "I'm still hesitant to think that I belong up there with the Whitworths and the Rankins," she says.
Wilder shakes her head at such talk. "Debbie is such a nice person that it may have held her back," she says. "With her ability, there's no end to what the kid can do. I say 'kid,' but she's 29. Still, she probably has 12 good years left."
Twelve good years after nine lukewarm ones. That is better than an even trade. But best of all, the inner voice is not nagging anymore.