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Needed: An American Beauty who can Play

By John M. Ross,
Laura Diaz
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Laura Diaz could be ready to make her move - and the LPGA would be grateful. (Courtesy of ladieseuropeantour.com)

Barely a year after the elaborate celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Ladies Professional Golf Association is wringing its hands over the future. Its growth figures are not attractive, and it continues to have problems getting favorable positioning on TV - a deadly combination.

In terms of player performance, the ladies are coming off a spectacular year. They were blessed almost from the start with a new Big 3 of golf - Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak - and they battled furiously through the season for the top rungs in the statistical ladders. It might have done for the LPGA Tour what the first Big 3 - Palmer, Nicklaus and Player - did for the PGA Tour. It didn't. It helped, sure, but it never did produce the impact three quality players in an all-out war should produce.

Analysts say it might have been better if one of the Big 3 had been an American. Yankee fans do not identify very readily with foreign players. They do appreciate good play, of course, but they seldom jump up and down with joy for a visitor's superiority. And the fact that all three are low-key players, who seldom smile or respond to the gallery, undoubtedly has contributed to the strange situation.

The Big 3 aside, it has been difficult all year for the American ladies to get into the winner's circle. Foreign-bred players won the first ten events of the year, and they have been consistently grabbing the biggest checks ever since. Indeed, there could be some concern in Washington over the effect this is having on our balance of trade.

Nevertheless, it has been an LPGA year that will be remembered and documented in the record book. Sweden's Sorenstam, who has had a long winning ride on the U. S. circuit, came up with her best season. Not only did she win eight tournaments - the most since Nancy Lopez hit that number in 1979 - but she also shot a first time ever 59. The spree brought her the four most coveted titles in the statistical competition among the ladies - most wins, top money, best scoring average and Player of the Year.

The highlight of the year, undoubtedly, was the head-to-head showdown between Sorenstam and Korea's Pak in the final of the World Ladies Match Player Championship in Japan late in October. It was pure theater - No. 1 in the world versus No. 2. It doesn't get much better than that!

But it did. The Korean, the underdog, dashed out to a 4-up lead after the first six holes, and it shaped up as an early finish to the match. Bu when Pak 3-putted on the eighth, the tide turned and Sorenstam came charging back. She won three consecutive holes to tie the match. Another missed putt by Pak put Annika in front, and she held the 1-up edge to the finish.

It was a thriller that delighted the LPGA brass, but the media gave it only a passing glance. Ever since the Battle at Bighorn, which turned out to be the Bummer at Bighorn, the press has been less than enthusiastic about the golfing ladies. That was the alternate shot, made-for-TV match between the team of Annika and Tiger Woods, and Karrie and David Duval, who had just won the British Open. The LPGA counted heavily on this first appearance of women's golf on network television in prime time to help its ratings for its own TV events.

Plain and simple - it bombed!

It could have been the stiff winds that blew across the Palm Desert course, or perhaps it was the stress of playing before a TV audience about four times the size of the ones that generally watch the girls. Take your pick, but the two LPGA superstars made it look like the annual husband-and-wife go-round at your local club. And the guys weren't that much better. At one point, a 20-foot putt by Webb wound up 60 feet past the hole, and Annika, not to be outdone, sent one of her putts off the green by 20 yards. After that, many undoubtedly started scanning the tube for a good movie.

What the LPGA needs at this point is a homegrown young lady to take charge of the scene - and it wouldn't hurt if she had a pretty face and a nifty pair of legs. Someone like Laura Diaz, for instance.

And she might be ready to do it. The Scotia, New York, beauty is finishing up the best year of her career and has dazzled her growing legion of admirers with flashes of spectacular play. She could be ready to make her move - and the LPGA would be grateful.

My pick for Comeback of the Year is John Daly, and he wins it by a country mile. I've never been a big Daly fan, and I resented the shame he brought to this respected game when he seemed to toss his promising career into the dumpster with his gambling, boozing and brawling. Even his sponsors, who had committed millions to him, zipped up their wallets and left. But with his first win in six years at the BMW International Open in Germany, in September, John showed that he might be about to score an even greater victory - over the gremlins that have taunted him.

After his win of the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews, and with the promise of a sky's-the-limit career ahead, John went into a self-destructive spin. He gambled recklessly, binged constantly and wrecked his personal life. Golf seemed to come second, and few could understand why.

Starting about a year ago, he began to show signs of wanting to retrieve the career that was slipping away. He credits the turn-around to his fourth marriage and a determination to get himself in condition for the hard task ahead. He didn't back away from gambling. Indeed, one of the hot stories out of Las Vegas early in the year was the major "hit" by Daly at one of the casinos. And he didn't stop drinking either. In fact, it amused more than a few that Daly, the renowned beer-guzzler, would take the first important steps on his comeback in the city of Munich, perhaps the beer-guzzling capital of the world.

Daly made the stop an even more significant one by scoring the first hole-in-one of his tournament career in the opening round at Munich. He used a 9-iron to ace the 153-yard 12th hole, leading to a red-hot 63. He said it was just the spark he needed to "get my juices going." In days past, juices flowing would have been a dangerous sign. But, apparently, this is the new John Daly, and we lift our glasses to him.

Another sign of changing times - and a sad one. It appears that the golf shoe industry's chiefs are preparing to the write the obituary for the all-white shoe. FootJoy, the golf footwear leader, has been steadily reducing the number of its styles in white, and is down to about half of what it once offered. A few lesser brands have already made them extinct.

I don't believe this news has reached some of the fellows at my club. And I seem to be still in step with them!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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