Unless you're her husband or live in West Sunbury, Pa., you probably hadn't even heard of Janet Alex before she won the U.S. Women's Open golf championship Sunday. So here's the curriculum vitae: She's 26, has a Gay Brewer loop in her swing and has been on the wrong side of par most of her four-and-a half years as a pro. Also, her last victory of any kind came in 1977, in an amateur event in Wheeling, W. Va. called the Home's Classic.
This does not sound like the stuff of which Open champions are made. But last week at the Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento, Calif., Alex played her way out of obscurity with a ferocious final-round 68 that left the tour's rich and famous gasping.
Her late charge enabled her to overtake such luminaries as Beth Daniel and JoAnne Carner. She started Sunday two strokes behind Daniel and one in back of Carner, and everyone assumed the tournament belonged to one of the two idols. But they both bogeyed their way home, falling apart on the last holes, and Alex won by six shots. This is not a misprint.
Daniel and Carner wound up in a four-way tie for second place with Sandra Haynie and Donna White at one-over-par 289. The result was especially bitter for Carner, who led the tournament most of the way and was trying to win her third Open and her ninth USGA title, which would have tied her with Bobby Jones. She also needed one more victory to enter the LPGA Hall of Fame. "It's like you fight so long, and then you can't fight any longer," said Carner, explaining her bogeys on the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th holes.
Alex' victory ranks with such classic Open surprises as Jack Fleck's upset of Ben Hogan in the 1955 men's tournament and French amateur Catherine LaCoste's winning of the women's title in '67. Walking down the 18th fairway, knowing that she could five-putt and still quaff the champagne, Alex was almost faint as she took in the applause. She turned to her caddie, Bill Buskey, and said, "Will you putt out for me?" Said Buskey afterward, "The dark horse had become light."
While Alex was performing her heroics, Daniel was demonstrating she's a firm believer in golf's code of ethics by calling a penalty on herself. She was leading the tournament at four-under and addressing a 10-foot birdie putt on the 8th hole when, almost imperceptibly, the ball moved.
"The ball moved," Daniel called out immediately. USGA President William Campbell walked over and assessed a one-stroke penalty. "It shook me up for a couple of holes," Daniel said later. The sting lasted a good deal longer than that. She didn't have a birdie the rest of the way, and after Alex birdied 13 and 15, Daniel slipped back with bogeys on the 13th, 15th, 16th and 17th.
Alex' final-round 68 was one of the best finishes in Open history, though it didn't quite match the 66 Pat Bradley had in winning last year. Alex had six birdies on Sunday against two bogeys and ran on confidence all day long. "This was no fluke," said her playing companion, Carole Jo Callison. "She could have shot 62 with no sweat."
The big turnaround came on the par-5 13th, where Alex rolled in a five-foot birdie putt. A few minutes later, Carner three-putted the same hole from 18 feet for her bogey, while Daniel also missed a short one for par. With that, Alex had the lead—for good.
This may have been the first major title won by long distance. Alex' husband, Chuck, is a driving-range pro back in Butler, Pa. and also the guy who straightens out the kinks in his wife's game. Each night Alex would call home from Sacramento, get some advice and put it to use the next day. Her driving in the tournament was especially precise, a plus at any Open. And whenever she appeared to be on the verge of cracking, she would roll in a big putt. Not once did she make two bogeys in a row, a key to low scoring. "People kept saying, 'Who is she? She's a nobody,' " Alex said. "I liked being in that position."
Alex' victory, which brought her $27,315, was in character with what will be remembered as a different sort of U.S. Open. On Thursday the name of Vicki Tabor went up on the leader board. Tabor, a former anti-shoplifting detective, was playing in her first Open, although she has been a pro for four years. She led the first round until a couple of late bogeys. "Trying to prove something to myself," she said. Then Carner took over. Big Momma was in front for virtually the next three days, despite spraying shots all over the lot and causing all sorts of consternation for her husband, Don, who at one point walked off the course rather
than watch any more. "Why persecute yourself?" he asked.
Which is more or less what some players thought they were doing even by appearing at Del Paso. The course lies directly in the takeoff pattern of jets from nearby McClellan Air Force Base. In addition, it's shoehorned in among several major thoroughfares. Aside from the difficulty of trying to putt amid the resultant din, a number of the players felt that many of the Del Paso holes were simply too short—the par-4 9th, for instance, was only 294 yards—and complained that the 6,342-yard layout was bland and uninteresting: no ocean lapping at the fairways, no railroad ties to shore up the greens, and not a pot bunker anywhere on the premises. "It's boring," said two-time Open champion Hollis Stacy before play began. "I can't even get excited."
Stacy probably wished she could have bitten her tongue on Thursday when she shot a 78 that was followed by a 73 on Friday, all of which prompted her to write on the back of her scorecard, "I hate this [bleeping] course. Why the [bleep] did I ever play here?" Well, at least she got excited.
As was the temperamental Lori Garbacz, the LPGA's answer to Tom Weiskopf. Garbacz got into the trees on the 2nd hole Friday, and by the time she finally managed to get done with the hole, she had used up 10 strokes. After finishing her round of 84, she marched into the press room, handed her LPGA card to an official and announced she was quitting the tour. "I expect this to be a short retirement," the official said.
That same official may also have expected that Sunday would turn out to be a simple last-round race—with no real chance for anybody except a pair of someday Hall of Famers, Carner and Daniel. Then Alex stepped in, whoever she was. At the end of the day, everyone knew.
Big Momma was in the hunt until she lost her grip on Sunday.