Peabody, Mass. — Before winning this year's US Women's Open golf championship, Hollis Stacy had tried to avoid reading the inevitable accounts of her demise. ''I didn't want to see stories about how I was over the hill, losing interest in the game, and had all these young Turks passing me by,'' she related after a dramatic finish at the Salem Country Club left her ''shocked and a little numb.'' The triumph, which came on the same course where the legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias won her third Open title 30 years earlier, made the Savannah, Ga. native only the fifth play to capture three US crowns.
By Hollis's own admission, she had been having a lousy year leading up to the women's 39th national championship. In fact, the week before arriving at the rolling fairways situated in Peabody, she had bumbled her way through a forgettable performance in Ohio.
''I finished 62nd, dead last,'' she said in a slight exaggeration (actually eight players had worse scores). ''But this time I was dead first, and that's really gratifying because I worked hard the last few months. That's what so great about golf, you can create your own momentum by working hard.''
To win a major golf tournament, of course, requires making big shots at crucial moments. Hollis produced a handful down the stretch. The most pivotal, and the one that pulled her within a shot of the leaders, was an eagle from 120 yards out on the 13th hole.
With her ball nestled in the rough, the main objective was simply to hit under a limb, get the ball to skitter onto the green, and salvage a par four. ''I just kept telling the ball to roll and get up there,'' she recounted. ''It was a funny feeling, though, when I kept looking and didn't see it anymore. I wondered where it went.''
An explosive cheer went up from the gallery, signaling the ball's resting place at the bottom of the cup. The shot vaulted Stacy into prime contention with surprising third-year pro Rosie Jones and Amy Alcott, an old rival who had been at or near the head of the field throughout the tournament.
Alcott and Stacy had battled one another as hot-shot, teen-age golfers in the early 1970s, their clash in the 1971 national girls' junior championship still remembered as a classic. Frank Hannigan of the US Golf Association called their shootout, won by Stacy on the 19th hole, ''the most sensational, incredible match I have ever refereed. It wasn't simply the quality of the play, which was quite good, but the extraordinary poise and composure they displayed.''
The two titans of the teen fairways moved on to the pro circuit in the mid ' 70s, and wasted no time in proving their mettle at the top rung of competition. Stacy became one of just four players to win back-to-back US Opens in 1977 and ' 78, and Alcott followed soon after with an Open title of her own in 1980, when she took a nine-shot victory over Hollis in the searing heat of Nashville.
Both players came to this north-of-Boston suburb eager for the challenge a top-flight course presents. They grew up playing on tough layouts, the kind the US Golf Association chooses for major championships. And the Salem course, with its carved-out fairways, slick, tilted greens, and swirling winds, made birdies exceedingly difficult to come by and bogeys plentiful. For the first time this year, no one finished in below-par red numbers for 72 holes. Stacy came the closest, of course, with a two-over-par 290 total.
She played steady, but unspectacular golf until Sunday, when she broke through a logjam of contenders with a three-under 69. Besides the eagle, other big shots heading for home came on the 16th hole, where she knocked in a 15-foot birdie putt, and on the 18th, when she hit a gutsy approach out of the rough and over the course's only water hazard in scrambling for a par 4.
Hollis signed her scorecard and waited for the final twosomes, with Alcott and Jones, to finish. An extra 18-hole round seemed a strong possibility with the other co-leaders needing only to par in to force a playoff. But Jones bogeyed the last hole, and Alcott double bogeyed it to fall into a third-place tie with Lori Garbacz.
Stacy's come-from-behind victory stood in contrast to her previous Open triumphs, when she set the pace or was vying for the lead all the way. This time she snuck up on the field.
Early on, however, she had indications that the pieces were finally fitting together again, even if not completely. ''On the very first hole of the tournament, I hit the pin with my approach shot, then missed a four-foot putt.'' She felt she was hitting the ball as well as ever during the first three rounds. Only her putting let her down. But then, on the eve of the final round a friend suggested she widen her stance.
''She told me to 'grow from the green,' '' Hollis said, laughing at the odd imagery. ''But it worked. I felt more comfortable and solid, and that was the difference.''