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Original Issue

Filling The Gap With A Flourish

With Nancy Lopez on maternity leave, some brash new-breed stars are now asserting themselves out on the LPGA tour

Nancy Lopez's obstetrician is one happy baby doc these days. He's happy because his patient is not out there on the LPGA tour, lifting those heavy checks around. She's taking it easy, trying to hit all the food groups and maybe practicing her breathing now and again.

This, in turn, has fulfilled some cravings on the tour for a few new stars who are getting fat, too, month by month, on the money Lopez isn't putting in her purse. Lopez, last season's Player of the Year with five victories and $416,472 in earnings, may have a little morning sickness when she picks up the paper and reads that somebody named Mary Beth Zimmerman already has won two tournaments and $94,612 in seven weeks. Until this year Zimmerman had never won a tournament or finished in the top 20 on the money list.

True, it's happened before. Lopez took maternity leave in 1983, and Patty Sheehan emerged. While the Lopez is away, the mice will play. But this time, Nancy, we may have a coup on our hands.

"It's not Nancy Lopez's tour anymore," says Val Skinner, the rabble's rouser. "It's a whole new world."

To prove it, Skinner hired Lopez's caddie, Dee Darden, won with him and now isn't sure she wants to give him back. Put that in your Huggies.

The new force de tour consists of dynamos like Skinner and Zimmerman and Juli Inkster—all 25 years old and 5, 1 and 2, respectively, on the Lopezless money list. JoAnne Carner knows divots older than these three.

All of them have won already this season. All are so cocksure they give anybody over 30 the yips. All drive the ball great distances, make wedge shots dance the Bulgarian Polka, paint with putters, dress nice and, most disturbing of all, are not the least bit surprised to see their names in Monday's headlines.

This is what stress is coming to on the women's tour. Tension is as fashionable as bell-bottom pants. Inner Golf is in—psychology, mind expansion, self-hypnosis, imaging. Nobody worries about her swing anymore; those are computerized. A lot of players worry about their psyches, and they pay through their money markets to get their brains grooved.

Inkster travels to London to drink in the wisdom of one of the ancients, golf instructor Leslie King. When Skinner needs a shot, she doesn't reach for the niblick, she reaches for Bob Rotella, a hired head handler who has taught her the I'm O.K. You're O.K. method. Zimmerman paid $5,000 to attend a five-day seminar at Sports Enhancement Associates, in Eugene, Ore., and tied for second in the next tournament.

"At night, when I'm lying in bed, I see myself as the winner," Zimmerman says. "I see myself holding up the trophy. I see my name on top of the leader board. I even see my name on the check. I hear my victory speech. I go to sleep that way all the time. And the more I believe it, the more it comes true."

Twice already, back-to-back, she became clairvoyant. Jan Stephenson, wearing mostly lipstick and golf balls, may have sold 200,000 calendars, but Zimmerman was Miss February, winning her first ever in Phoenix, then coming from five shots back with five holes to play in Costa Mesa, Calif. to win again.

Laura Baugh was runner-up there, and she may best represent what was wrong with the old way. Everybody's favorite bridesmaid, Baugh has been second nine times in 13 years, and never first. She led for three days and 17 holes in Costa Mesa but never quite believed it. "I don't ever think about first place," she said one day. "The IRS takes all of it anyway."

To new-age thinkers like Zimmerman, that is a mental triple bogey. Zimmerman, never knowing or caring if she was in it or out of it at Costa Mesa (she refuses to look at leader boards), merrily birdied the final three holes to win.

Watching them there on the victory stand, with Zimmerman making another speech and Baugh's mascara running, you could almost feel golf's undertow shift.

"I know everybody felt bad for Laura," Zimmerman recalls, "but what was I supposed to do? Say 'I'm sorry?'

"When I first came on the tour, I had no self-esteem," she says. "I didn't think I could play. I thought I'd be out here for a few years, learn some things and see what happened.... I remember I used to take advice from anybody. A 15-handicapper at a pro-am would say something like, 'Your backswing is kind of weird,' and I'd say, 'It is? Can you fix it?' "

When PGA Tour player D.A. Weibring suggested that Zimmerman try the Sports Enhancement course, she took the pricy plunge. "I found out I was scared to win. Scared that I couldn't handle it. The more I believed I could win, the more I did win."

Similarly, Skinner's mind-set comes straight out of Dr. Thomas A. Harris. Sixty-eight is O.K., but 88 is O.K., too. "To me, the score in golf is like grease to a hamburger," Skinner says. "It's just a by-product. Look, we all get to play golf, and we get paid for it. It's just that some weeks we get paid more than others."

Since becoming the new her, Skinner has been very much herself. She went from 79th on the money list to 14th last year. She won the last U.S. tournament of 1985 and the first of 1986, the Mazda Classic in Boca Raton. Fla. The latter win came as a particular shock. "I was walking up to the 18th green and I had about a one-foot putt for birdie, and someone is saying to me, 'Congratulations, Val, you're going to win.' And I said, 'What?' I swear, I didn't know it."

"After playing in college," says Inkster, who was the U.S. Women's Amateur champ three years running, "coming here is no big deal." She won her first year out and has won every year since.

Unfortunately, some of the vets have decided not to take the gold watch and call it a career. Pat Bradley, for instance, finished in the top 10 five out of six times going into the GNA/Glendale Federal Classic. The ever Amyable Alcott has two recent top-10 finishes, all the while moonlighting in Westwood as a short-order cook. Kathy Whitworth, golf's winningest player ever, is hungry again, having lost some $300,000 in investments in Technical Equities Corp., a firm that filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 (page 40). Carner and Bradley are within tip money of $2 million in career earnings. The top of the money list has something for all ages: Zimmerman, Inkster, Bradley, Skinner, Sheehan. This is in contrast to the current situation in men's golf, where the top 10 in any tournament reads more like a Young Executives member-guest tournament and where there is a weekly posse out looking for Tom Watson.

Nobody's wondering where Lopez is. She's in St. Petersburg with her husband, Ray Knight of the New York Mets, having the occasional bowl of pickles and ice cream and plotting a return to glory. What, you think a woman with a 2-year-old daughter, a 6-year-old stepson and another child on the way is going to be spooked by a group of skinny kids who sound like the self-help session at Bellevue? Ptooie.

"What I plan to do is come back and win," says Lopez. "I want to be No. 1 again."

The big day is May 22. "We think it's a boy," she says. The second biggest day is July 10, the start of the U.S. Women's Open, and Lopez is shooting for that day to begin her comeback.

"The great thing about taking this year off after last year is that I can sort of sit back and admire it. None of this 'O.K., Nancy, that's good, but now go do it again.' Now it's 'Can Nancy make a comeback next year?' There's no pressure in that."

Still, even Lopez might have needed a therapist to make it through Glendale. Because of rain that plagued much of Southern California, the players spent most of the week wondering who was on first. The opening round went unfinished on Thursday, so officials decided to resume the next morning, stop for two hours to change the pins and send everyone off again in the second round. That meant some groups were starting the second round at 5:34 p.m. Friday, sort of the cocktail tour of Oakmont Country Club, just enough time to get in two holes and call it a day. On the other hand, some, like Bradley, played 30 holes and staggered into the locker room spent. "I started playing at 7:15 and finished at 5:45," said Bradley, whose 119 for the day was either terrible or terrific, nobody was sure which. "It was the longest day I've ever spent on a golf course."

Rain came again on Saturday and Sunday, which meant that, for the week, they played Thursday's round on Friday, Friday's on Saturday, some of Saturday's on Monday, and Sunday's went right out the window when the tournament was shortened to 54 holes.

Reporter: How's No. 16 playing?

Laurie Rinker: Don't ask me. I haven't been there in two days.

It all ended on Monday morning with a victory by Chris Johnson, who had a four-under-par 212. Zimmerman missed the 36-hole cut, but Inkster was third and Skinner finished 13th. And all three made it through another event without developing the ulcer that used to come as part of the package.

The very notion you could do such a thing had 36-year-old Shelley Hamlin, an early leader at Glendale who had wilted in the bright lights, pondering the player of the '90s.

"These young players all think they're so much better," she said. "Good grief. Maybe they are."

Hey, Nancy, you ready to deliver?



Already seasoned when she turned pro in 1983, Inkster has been a steady winner.



Zimmerman (left) and Skinner employ different mental approaches, but both are quite positive about their abilities.



Alcott (above) has her game in order; Carner may become a $2 million Momma.