Joan Joyce leaves softball glory behind; turns to pro golf

Joan Joyce might be the finest athlete in women's pro golf, only her record doesn't prove it.

She's never won a tournament or even finished higher than sixth, and her earnings during 4 1/2 years on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour amount to less than $40,000.

What sets Joan apart is her life before golf, which was spent in fast-pitch softball. Using a slingshot delivery, she pitched the ball with such blinding speed that few batters ever laid a trademark on it. She doesn't know exactly what her record was, but says 700 wins and 45 losses sounds about right. Besides compiling more than 30 perfect games and 100 no-hitters, she also carried a .300 batting average.

Few athletes are inclined, much less have the talent, to switch sports the way Joan has. Babe Didrikson Zaharias once did it, forging a successful golf career after winning three track and field medals at the 1932 Olympics.

Women's pro golf has grown tremendously since Babe's era, though, making it that much harder to join the tour, particulary at age 37, as Joyce did. Former Wimbledon tennis champion Althea Gibson tried it a few years ago, for instance, but had little success.

Though Joyce played her way onto the circuit in 1977, by earning the requisite tour card, she says she's just beginning to pull her game together. ''It's probably only been in the last year and a half that I've known what I want to do out there,'' she says of her swing.

But knowing and doing are two different things, and the aggressiveness softball taught her sometimes gets in the way. ''I get to the top of my backswing and want to go after the ball. In golf, though, it helps to be a little passive,'' she explains.

Even so, she's no pattycaker on the tee, and considers her driving yardage the most visible strength of her game. While most players hit the ball about 210 yards in the air, she belts it 230 to 240.

Besides her obvious power, she has what she considers a big edge in the intangibles department. Pressure doesn't bother her, as her performances in world softball championships attest. In fact, she's used it as a healthy stimulus on many occasions, and believes this ability is really what separates those who win from those who don't in golf.

In softball, Joan was under constant pressure. ''Because of my success as a pitcher, people were out to beat Joan Joyce, not the Raybestos Brakettes,'' she says. ''When I lost it was me that lost, but when I won, the Brakettes got the credit.

''In the national tournament the pressure was really incredible. You'd play an 80-game season and maybe enter the tournament with a 78-2 record. But suddenly, if you lost two games you went home.''

Joyce credits Jane Blalock, one of the LPGA's all-time leading money winners, with identifying her golf potential. The two owned a women's pro softball team, the Connecticut Falcons, along with tennis players Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova during the mid 1970s. Joan played and managed as well.

At the time, she only dabbled in golf, shooting in the low 90s or high 80s on the infrequent occasions she played. But Blalock recognized her raw talent and encouraged her to refine it. Lessons from a pro, and a good bit of frustration, followed.

''When I started, I might shoot 115 because I was trying to do everything correctly,'' she recalls. ''That just blew me away.''

Eventually she whittled her scores down to size and qualified to become an LPGA regular. In 1978, her first complete year on the tour, she averaged 77.84 strokes per round. Despite lowering this average every year since then, Joan lost her LPGA playing card in 1979 by failing to earn a prescribed minimum, then regained it the next summer.

Little by little the pieces are falling in place. Less concerned with bogeys , she's shooting fewer bad rounds, and her short game has been improved. The days of hitting over the green one time, then chipping short the next seem to be over. In fact, at one tournament this year she chipped in from off the green four times, helping her to set an LPGA record with only 17 putts for the round.

She still generally winds up off the leader board, but is encouraged by several breakthroughs, having matched her career-best finish three times in 1982 . ''That makes four times I've finished sixth; I think I'm stuck on that number ,'' she remarks. It's probably only a matter of time, though, until she topples this barrier. Yet Joan doesn't appear in any hurry.

She has a sponsor, so there's no need to worry about her skimpy earnings. And because she could always return to college coaching, she doesn't feel pressured to make giant strides in golf.

''I don't really have any objectives, but I never really had any objective when I played softball, either,'' she says. ''I just go out and work at my game. I have so much fun, I can't wait to get out there.''

In this regard, Joyce may have an advantage over her contemporaries on the tour. ''The constant struggle could catch up to them, but I'm just starting,'' she observes. Her fresh, enthusiastic approach, in fact, has led other LPGA members to call her ''The 24-Year-Old.''

Joyce is an athletic dynamo and has been for years. An all-around athlete, she played five-on-five women's basketball long before its current popularity, and grew up watching her father's industrial league softball games in Waterbury, Ct.

She later would earn a softball scholarship to Chapman College in California and become so overpowering with her 116 m.p.h. fastballs that a women's pro league increased the pitching distance from 40 to 44 feet.

Since hanging up the cleats, she seldom finds time for softball. Not long ago, however, the LPGA's tour caddies talked her into throwing a few in a slow-pitch game. They only had four gloves and Joan insisted on wearing the best one. ''I didn't want a line shot coming back at me,'' she explained.She seldom saw such missles during her previous career, and would just as soon see them sail off the tee in her present pursuits.

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