If golf is one of the few sports left whose best players don't look as if they've been receiving hormone injections since birth, it is because golf's specific geometry values strength and finesse equally. The beguiling arc of a well-struck nine-iron counts just as much as the more majestic parabola of a 250-yard drive. Vicki Goetze began learning to play the short game when she was three years old, hacking at a Whiffle ball with plastic clubs. She won her first tournament at five, using short irons and putter to crush the field. Her game has always been long on short, and now that she has turned 18 and is perhaps the top amateur prospect in the country, it is even more so.
For two years now, Goetze, a high school senior from Hull, Ga., has been one of our best women amateurs. Last year, while still 16, she was the third-youngest winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur, and she was low amateur in the Women's Open. This year she repeated as low amateur in the Open; lost in a quarterfinal match of the Amateur; won three of the four matches she played in her first Curtis Cup; and won the PGA Junior Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The only important amateur title that has eluded her is the U.S. Girls Junior. In August, she was beaten in the final of the junior championship, 3 and 2, by Sandrine Mendiburu of France.
Duck-walking down the fairway, Goetze keeps her stance open and her mind closed to everything but business. During the stroke-play qualifying rounds of this year's Amateur, at Canoe Brook Country Club, in Summit, N.J., she was consistently outdriven by her playing companion, 20-year-old Stephanie Davis, who finished runner-up to eventual winner Pat Hurst. But even the extra 15 yards Davis got on most drives were not enough to overcome Goetze's brutally efficient short game. "She gets up and down from just about anywhere," Davis said later, "and she never three-putts. Ever."
It was Goetze's putting that won her the U.S. Amateur last year. In the final at Pinehurst No. 2, her drives were falling as much as 20 to 30 yards behind those of her longtime rival, 17-year-old Brandie Burton, but Goetze won the match, 4 and 3, by nailing six birdie putts. Most improbable of all, despite Burton's walloping drives, Goetze won five of the nine par-5 holes they played, then closed out the match with back-to-back birdies. She wouldn't have made it to the final at all had she not strung together three consecutive birdies in her quarterfinal match—the last one coming on a 30-foot putt from off the 18th green to win the match—when she was two holes down with three to play against Terri Thompson. "It doesn't bother me if people outdrive me," Goetze says. "That's the way it's been for a while now."
And that's the way it's likely to remain, for Goetze is 5'4½" and at 110 pounds, slight of frame. She lifts weights to add a few yards to her tee shots, but she has been doing that since childhood, so it seems unlikely she'll be bulking up anytime soon. When her height appeared to have leveled off at 5'2" in the sixth grade, her parents took her to a doctor for tests to determine whether she would grow any more. "But they found out that was about it," says Leslie Shannon, captain of the winning 1990 U.S. Curtis Cup team, of which Goetze was the youngest—and smallest—member.
It wasn't long ago that Goetze frequently found herself hitting woods when everybody else was hitting irons, but it rarely mattered. "I think she's picked up some yardage in the past year," says Shannon. "She's got a new driver that's bigger than she is—I think it comes up to her shoulders—and a lot of the time when the rest of us are using a three- or four-wood on the fairway, she'll pull out that driver and just blast away."
When Goetze showed up for the Open this year on the 6,298-yard Riverside Course of the Atlanta Athletic Club, ABC's Dave Marr, one of the commentators for the network's coverage of the tournament, pulled out a popgun of his own and blasted away at her game.
"Dave Marr made a statement to the effect that Vicki Goetze was not going to be able to play that course, that it was too long for her," recalls Shannon. Goetze was set to play the first two rounds with Jane Geddes, the 1986 Open winner who was ninth on this year's LPGA money list at the time, and Betsy King, the 1989 Open champion who went on to win this year's championship. "So Vicki went out and tied Betsy on Thursday," says Shannon, with some satisfaction, "and beat Jane on Friday."
Goetze's delicate chip shots and feathery touch on the greens make her the equal of the game's heaviest hitters, and far more interesting to watch. Her putting stroke seems naturally rhythmic and smooth, but at age 14 she became frustrated by her lack of consistency. "I knew I could play, but when I lost, it was usually because of my putting," she says. "I always either shot lights out with my putter, or I missed one-footers."
So she began practicing her putting for as much as six hours a day during the summer. "Vicki has probably the best putting stroke I've ever seen," Shannon says. "But she also spends more time practicing than anyone I've ever seen. She works very hard at it." Goetze is a familiar sight on the practice green at any tournament, her Walkman hanging from her belt as she goes about her work, usually finishing each day with 100 putts.
"If I don't wear my Walkman I talk to too many people and never get anything done," Goetze says. "I can practice a lot longer if I listen to music. I just like to tune out."
The person she stays tuned in to more than anyone else is her father, Gregg, the architect of her short game and the person who taught her always to be competitive. "He works on her head a lot," Shannon says. "But she's got a strong mind of her own. That's obvious because she plays just as well when her father's not caddying for her as when he is."
It may be damning Gregg Goetze with faint praise to say that he is not of the tennis-father persuasion, but that is not to say he hasn't taken a strong hand in making his daughter a champion. By his own account, he has tried to make sure that anything she hears in competition will pale in comparison to what she heard from him while she was growing up.
"There are times I say things I possibly shouldn't," Gregg says. "But our family has a strong enough relationship that I think we can handle it."
Vicki's earliest golf was played on family outings. Her brother, Nicky, older by two years, was expected to be the family prodigy, but even as a toddler she showed signs that she knew what she was doing. "Nicky showed a greater interest and an ability to concentrate on the game," Gregg says. "Vicki just went along. Sometimes she'd skip a hole if she didn't feel like playing. But as she got older her interest level began to catch up with her skills."
Eventually the competition within the family got so cutthroat that Vicki's mother, Irene, gave up golf entirely. "When your seven-year-old beats you, it's time to quit," Irene Goetze says diplomatically.
"It was rough," Vicki says, recalling the serious competitive training that her father engineered between Vicki and her brother. "Mom was always in the middle, and she never said too much.... There were a lot of mind games. It could get pretty vicious. I grew up in a house where the attitude was, if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. There were times...it wasn't meant to be, but it got a little sticky. Now I can say pretty much whatever I want and he pretty much accepts it. It didn't used to be that way, but we've worked on it. I think my dad just wanted me to know that everything in life is not going to be a Cakewalk."
It wasn't that her father didn't want to be helpful. He started Vicki playing golf when she was three, and entered her at age five in the Little People's tournament in Quincy, Ill., a national age-group event. She won it. In 1981 he moved the family from Mishicot, Wis., to Georgia, so Vicki and Nicky could play as much golf as they wanted. "I realized when the kids were starting to get good at golf that I had to give them a chance to get out," says Gregg. "Wisconsin is a nice place to raise kids, and the people are neat, but golf-wise, it's death."
Gregg took a job as a school psychologist, and began using cognitive tests on his children that were similar to the tests he administered to students, trying to break down each kid's putting game into its psychological and physical components. "I have two children who are neurologically distinct," he says. "One is adopted and one is not. Yet they're both very good golfers." Nicky, who was adopted two years before Vicki was born, is now on the golf team at Clemson.
Vicki hasn't decided yet what college she will attend, but Furman, Georgia and Arizona arc high on her list. As for the decision on turning pro, that will have to wait. If and when she docs join the LPGA tour, it may take her a while to learn all the names and faces. "I've never liked watching golf," she concedes. "It seems like it takes so long for one person to hit a shot, then walk up the fairway and hit it again. It's a lot different when you play because there's so much to think about." Goetze may simply have an aversion to anything that isn't short, which is why she may go a long way.
Fierce family competition helped Goetze prepare for the pressures of tournament golf.