Lightly regarded Baker strokes her way to US Open golf victory

All the talk leading up to the 1985 US Women's Open centered on people like Hollis Stacy, JoAnne Carner, and most of all Nancy Lopez. But as so often happens in these big events, it was the unknowns who stole the spotlight. Among the top names, only Lopez made any real challenge. Meanwhile, four lightly regarded golfers who apparently forgot they were supposed to crack under all that pressure kept hanging in there. And eventually it came down to a duel between Kathy Baker and Judy Clark -- two relatively anonymous players whose combined totals consisted of 10 years on the pro tour with not a single victory between them.

In the end Baker, a tall, striking blonde who is frequently mistaken for popular 1983 champion Jan Stephenson, emerged victorious with an 8-under-par 280, while Clark easily held second place at 283. Vicki Alvarez, the only other player to break par for 72 holes on the Baltusrol Golf Club's famous Upper Course, finished third with 287, while Lopez and Janet Coles were one stroke back at even par 288.

Improbable stuff? Not really. For while it is understandable that pre-tournament attention tends to focus on the big names, the chances are probably at least 50-50 that the eventual winner will emerge from ``out of the pack.'' Baker's victory, in fact, marked the 10th time in the 40 years the Open has been held that the champion was scoring her first pro victory. And over the years there have been many other winners who, while not first-timers, were not exactly household names, either.

Furthermore, while Baker had not yet won on the tour, her collegiate and amateur career, plus her play since turning pro in 1983, had certainly marked her as a comer in the eyes of the aficionados. Kathy, a native of Albany, N.Y., who moved to Clover, S.C. when she was 10, was a two-time All-American at Tulsa University, won the 1982 NCAA women's championship, and was a member of the US Curtis Cup team.

Those close to the game knew it was only a matter of time before she started winning. And last weekend at Baltusrol, her time arrived. Baker served notice of things to come Thursday, shooting a 2-under-par 70 to share the lead with Lopez and 1982 champion Janet Anderson. Kathy was pretty much ignored, however, overshadowed as she was by her more famous co-leaders as well as the other big names still in contention.

Lopez took center stage Friday, firing her second straight 70 to assume the lead. And since Nancy was (a) clearly the best golfer out there, with 32 wins in her eight-year pro career, (b) the hottest one at the moment with three victories in her last six tournaments, and (c) determined finally to add an Open title to her other laurels, few doubted that she would be the eventual winner.

Nancy, it will be recalled, first burst upon the scene by tying for second in the 1975 Open as a teen-age amateur, then took clear second in 1977. Those have been her closest tries to date, however, and although she is still at her peak, every missed opportunity now conjures up the specter of such other greats as Sam Snead and Kathy Whitworth, who also never captured this big one.

Here at Baltusrol, though, there seemed a sense that this was Nancy's year. And now when she led at the halfway point, and when all of the others in contention were players without her experience under pressure or her record of success, it seemed almost inevitable.

Lopez herself was swept up in the enthusiasm. ``I feel this is really my chance,'' she said after her opening round. ``I'm more confident now than ever before.'' And again at the midway point she exuded optimism, exclaiming that ``This is the best chance I've ever had.''

There were signs even then, however, that Nancy wasn't really at the top of her game. She had problems with her driving all through that second round. She herself called her round a ``lucky'' one, noting that ``my putter kept me in there.''

Overnight rains softened the course Saturday, and Baker fired a 68 to end the day a stroke ahead of her closest pursuers. But even now, most of the excitement focused on the two golfers tied for second -- Clark, who had zoomed into the picture with a 65, and Lopez.

Surprisingly, however, it was Lopez who looked shaky at the start of the last round -- the main culprit being the very same putter that had bailed her out in Round 2. She missed a 5-footer to take a bogey on the relatively easy first hole, missed an even shorter one for a bogey on the second, and never threatened thereafter.

Meanwhile Baker, the least experienced of the leaders, played as though this sort of thing was old hat to her.

On Sunday, she and Clark kept the pressure on from the start. Clark pulled into a tie on the 2nd hole, but Baker regained the lead -- for good as it turned out -- with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 7th.

By then, with Lopez struggling toward an eventual 77 and with the other top contenders also losing ground, it was already obviously a two-way race. With the tension mounting as they came to the closing holes, Baker sank a 10-foot putt on 15 to go up by two strokes, then on the very next hole while her rival was scrambling to a bogey, Kathy hit a 7-iron three feet from the pin and sank the putt for another birdie. And that, as Clark said afterwards, was the ball game.

Now it's ``Wait till next year'' for all of the big names -- and especially for Lopez. But Nancy, for one, took it in stride. ``Of course I'm disappointed,'' she said, ``but I always feel there are more US Opens to be won.''

So there are, but she'd better not wait too long. Just ask Sam Snead or Kathy Whitworth.

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