There are many ways to measure the length of a round of golf--by
yards, by holes, by hours or, in the case of Chris Johnson, by
the amount of food consumed. By that measure Sunday's final
round of the McDonald's LPGA Championship at the DuPont Country
Club in Wilmington, Del., was a 3
1/2-spelt-bread-and-almond-butter-sandwich round, or long enough
for Johnson to get through her entire supply of sandwiches but
not long enough to deplete an emergency bag of almonds.
By a more standard measure, the final round lasted 20 holes,
long enough for Johnson to hold off both Annika Sorenstam, who
made a late charge but blew a two-foot putt on the 72nd hole to
miss getting into the playoff, and Leta Lindley, who clung
tenaciously to Johnson before losing her way in a thicket of
dogwoods on the final extra hole.
For the third straight year the LPGA Championship, the second
major of the season on the women's tour, came down to the last
putt, but this was the first time it had gone into overtime
since moving to DuPont in 1994. "It was a nerve-racking day,"
said the 39-year-old Johnson, who along with Lindley finished at
three-under-par 281. "I never felt I had it in hand until that
final putt dropped."
Nothing could be counted on last week. Certainly no one expected
to see two relative unknowns such as Johnson and Lindley locked
in a head-to-head match for much of the weekend. Johnson, an
18-year veteran who was born in Arcata, Calif., and now lives in
Tucson, hadn't won in 1997 but had shown signs of a breakthrough
in recent weeks. A seven-time winner on tour--her last victory
came in the '95 Star Bank LPGA Classic in Dayton--she already
had six top-11 finishes in her 12 starts and, other than
10th-ranked Barb Mucha, was the highest player on the money list
(12th) without a win. Still, Johnson had contended in a major
only once before, in 1991, when she tied for fifth in the U.S.
Lindley, a third-year pro from Carlsbad, Calif., was even more
of a long shot. She had made just four of 11 cuts this season
and was best known for her fifth-place tie in the 1995 U.S. Open
and for rooming for a semester with Sorenstam at Arizona, where
she was a four-time All-America. "Every tournament is a major
for me," Lindley says.
The only thing that seemed familiar in Wilmington was Laura
Davies's taking the first-round lead with a four-under-par 67.
Davies has owned this event ever since it moved to the tight,
6,386-yard DuPont course and had flourished in the soggy
conditions that plagued the championship in recent years. She
won in 1994 and '96 and came in second in '95. Davies was
pleased to do so well in dry conditions last Thursday but
couldn't help hoping for an assist from the heavens. "I'm going
to be up on my roof doing a little rain dance tonight," she said
after Thursday's round.
She must have done the wrong step. It wasn't the customary rain
that arrived on Friday. It was wind--a good old-fashioned
apocalyptic blow that picked up a golf tournament in Delaware
and dumped it upside down in a fun house on the Jersey Shore.
Suddenly, certain verities, like the greens holding and long
drivers having an advantage, went out the window. Davies threw
away her lead by four-putting the 1st hole for double bogey.
"That was a shock," she said. She made three more bogeys and
only one birdie and shot 75, her worst score ever on the par-71
DuPont course and her highest in the event since 1991. Another
long hitter, Kelly Robbins, who won the championship the year
Davies didn't, in '95, tacked a 74 onto Thursday's 73 and
disappeared from contention. Karrie Webb of Australia, second on
the money list going in and always a threat, went eight over for
the first two rounds and barely made the cut, which was set at
150. Even at that number, Tammie Green (75-76) and Terry-Jo
Myers (75-78), the winners of the last two tour stops, missed it.
Any day that saw the giant inflated Ronald McDonald tethered to
the roof of the clubhouse bob and feint like a jack-in-the-box
was bound to be a bit freakish. It was a day when Sherri
Steinhauer, who would lead after two rounds by two strokes over
Johnson, Lindley and Mucha, watched her ball roll a foot and a
half as she bent down to mark it on the 14th green. It was a day
when 26 players failed to break 80. It was a day when DuPont,
normally the benefactor of the long, smiled upon the short.
Indeed, the only player with the wherewithal to withstand the
30-mph gusts and break par was the 5'4", 123-pound Lindley, who
earned her 69 with low-flying drives, solid putting and
patience. "Sometimes the wind was so bad, I was gripping with my
toes to stand still," she said. "So I'd wait for it to stop
gusting and then hurry up and putt."
Lindley, 24, is one of the LPGA's shortest hitters. Her drives
average only 220 yards, putting her 156th on tour in that
category, which is why she carries five woods--three, five,
seven and nine, in addition to a 48-inch-long driver. "They're
my scoring clubs," she says. "I've had to hit woods all my life.
It's not like I got short all of a sudden. I've been short all
Lindley's lack of length, and the lack of a major on Johnson's
resume, didn't matter on Saturday, when the wind died down and
the sun reappeared. Davies continued to struggle with her
putting and shot a frustrating 74 to fall hopelessly behind, and
none of the LPGA's other bright lights, players such as Nancy
Lopez, Robbins, Sorenstam and Webb, made any kind of move.
Lindley, meanwhile, put up another tidy 69 to tie for the lead
at 210 with Johnson, who also shot 69. Heading into the final
round, the top five players on the leader board--Johnson,
Lindley, Kim Saiki, Steinhauer and Mucha--had only 13 victories
among them, one less than Davies.
Of those players Johnson was the most formidable. Tall (5'11")
and strong--Johnson adheres to a diet that excludes white flour
and sugar and includes things like tofu, beet greens and dense
spelt bread--she had won more than the others and has improved
steadily since she retooled her game six years ago. Johnson has
added length to her drives (she averages 250.7 yards, 17th best
on tour) and consistency to her putting (she has improved from
151st last year to 83rd in '97). Also, winning a Grand Slam
event, said her caddie, Rob Caliolo, was "a major goal."
By the time Johnson and Lindley teed off, a brief shower had
softened the course and the clouds had teased apart. Both
players appeared relaxed as they parred the first four holes,
the hypermetabolic Johnson noshing discreetly while Lindley,
Lopez-like, smiled graciously and hummed the Des'ree song You
Gotta Be. Lindley broke through with a birdie at the par-3 5th
and remained in front until Johnson birdied the par-5 9th. Two
holes later CBS turned on its cameras and things got
interesting. Lindley bogeyed the 11th while Johnson birdied, a
two-shot swing that Johnson nearly threw away on the next hole
by yanking her drive under a tree. She saved par by getting up
and down from the fairway. "Chris had been very calm," said
Caliolo, "but I began to sense nerves when she started missing
Leaving the 13th green, Johnson and Lindley heard a roar up
ahead, at the 15th. Sorenstam, on her way to a 68, had birdied
to pull within two strokes of Johnson. Then Lindley birdied the
14th to move within one. Johnson fought to hold on. "I was
struggling out there," she said. "On the 14th, 15th and 16th I
went back for different clubs. It was hard to stay focused.
Maybe it was nerves, but I was making it more difficult than it
needed to be."
The championship turned on the 399-yard 18th, an uphill par-4
that doglegs left and was the most difficult hole on the course,
averaging 4.39 strokes. All Sorenstam needed was a par to get to
three under, which would have put her into the playoff, but her
chip ran long and she missed the putt coming back. Fifteen
minutes later Johnson drove into the right rough, left her
approach short, then failed to get up and down. Lindley's par
forced the playoff.
The crowd, 10 deep in spots, stayed put as Johnson and Lindley
went back to the 18th tee. This time Johnson hit her approach
into a bunker and again failed to save par. Four feet stood
between Lindley and her first LPGA victory. Matt Plagmann, her
husband and caddie, read the putt inside left. "I thought it was
on the edge," said Lindley. "I had to go with what I felt. I
made a good stroke, kept my head down. I thought I had made it,
but it went right over the edge."
So everyone trudged to the 10th tee. Lindley drove her ball into
the thicket of stubby dogwoods right of the fairway. "Where is
it?" she asked the gallery as she approached. "You're not going
to like it, Leta," a spectator replied. Lindley could only laugh
when she saw the ball under belly-high branches, hiding in a
fluff of thick grass like an Easter egg. Taking out a
nine-wood--"I needed a long shaft to even get to the ball," she
said--Lindley punched back to the fairway and wound up making a
bogey. Johnson flew her second shot over the green but chipped
to within eight feet and sank the par putt to win, quietly
celebrating with a smile and a raised fist.
Eighteen years, whether you count them by rounds, holes or
sandwiches, is a long time to wait for a major.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND [Chris Johnson playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Sorenstam (above) barely missed the playoff, while Lindley came within a whisker of her first win. [Annika Sorenstam playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL EPPRIDGE[See caption above--Leta Lindley playing golf]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Steinhauer (left) coped with Friday's wind, but Davies skied to her worst score in Wilmington. [Sherri Steinhauer playing golf; Laura Davies playing golf]