Women's Open defender seeks consistency

Whether or not British golfer Laura Davies can successfully defend her title at this week's US Women's Open Championship, her drives at the Baltimore Country Club are sure to inspire a fair amount of awe. On average, she is about 30 yards longer off the tee than her competition. Pat Bradley, no pattycaker herself, believes Davies is probably the strongest woman she has ever seen play the game.

Susan Jackson, tournament director of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), thinks that if Davies ``can tame her game just a little, she could be almost unbeatable.''

As blond bombers go, she is reminiscent of a young Jack Nicklaus, who acquired he nickname ``Golden Bear'' before slimming down.

Davies wears her size (about 5 ft., 10 in. and 200 pounds) with a certain ease and naturalness. She is nimble enough to have a reputation as one of the better tennis players on the LPGA tour.

What she'd undoubtedly prefer is a reputation as one of its most consistent golfers.

She can obviously play exceptionally well sometimes, as when she won last year's Open in an 18-hole playoff against JoAnne Carner and Ayako Okamoto. Or as was evident this year during victories in the Circle K Tournament in Tucson, Ariz., and the Jamie Farr Classic in Toledo, Ohio.

At other times, however, she has been light-years behind the leaders, a situation alien to this LPGA rookie, who is accustomed to top finishes on the European circuit.

``Over there the standard is not nearly as high, and I can make a run like I did last year, when I was in the top three in 10 straight tournaments,'' she points out.

In the space of three recent weeks in the States, she missed the cut in Wilmington, Del., finished second in Montreal, then tied for 71st in Indianapolis.

``I went out the last day in Indianapolis tied for 67th and knew I could only get to 50th,'' she recalls. ``There's not a lot of interest in that. Playing almost becomes work then. The pleasure goes right out of it.''

Her goal when play begins today at the Open is not to become the first back-to-back winner since Hollis Stacy in 1977-78 - ``I'm not even considering that'' - but simply to make the cut and enjoy the weekend.

She is disappointed to have missed the cut in six tournaments this year, and realizes the tour's really top stars avoid such washouts.

``Players like Nancy Lopez and Jan Stephenson have their games in such a groove that they almost never miss a cut,'' she says.

Davies is especially impressed with Lopez, whose highest single-round score this year was a 75. ``I haven't gone over 80, but I've had four rounds of 79, and Nancy would never dream of shooting that,'' says the robust native of Coventry, England.

After an outstanding amateur career, Davies turned professional in 1985 and became an immediate star of the European circuit. She's getting her first extended exposure to the LPGA this year thanks to a change in the bylaws that has the effect of exempting her from the normal qualification procedures.

The tour obviously recognizes a drawing card when it sees one, and Laura hasn't disappointed too many tournament sponsors, playing in 17 of 22 LPGA events up to this point.

A reluctant flier, Davies makes her way from tournament to tournament in a recently purchased van equipped with a TV and telephone.

Sharing the driving tours with her is older brother Tony, her regular caddie, and cousin Matty, who took a turn carrying Laura's bag at last week's Boston Five Classic.

Their most striking journey took them through the desert. ``I couldn't believe there were roads through there,'' says Davies, who likes to ring up her mom and stepdad on the phone as she's driving along.

The bills are probably pretty astronomical, but she never sees them, since they go to her father, Dave, a mechanical engineer who lives near Columbia, S.C. He, in turn, sends them along to IMG, the Cleveland-based management firm that has her as a client.

After the US Open she intends to return home to play some European events. This will give her folksan opoportunity to see her in the British Women's Open, and possibly at tournaments in Denmark and Sweden, where she can demonstrate her loyalty to the Eurpean circuit and visit some of her old playing chums.

Then she will likely return to the United States, assuming she is one of 16 players to qualify for the Nestl'e World Championship Aug. 25-28 at Lake Lanier Islands, Ga. (she stands ninth on the list at the moment).

After that she will assess her scheduling strategy based on how she stands in a highly contested LPGA Rookie of the Year race which finds her battling Spain's Marta Figueras-Dotti and South Korea's Ok Hee Ku for the honor.

Davies claims she has just started to hit the ball ``as well as I've ever hit it.''

Wildness off the tee has actually not been a problem, although some might suspect it would be, considering the length of her drives, which often travel in the neighborhood of 250 yards. She even uncorked a 276-yarder in last year's Open at the Plainfield (N.J.) Country Club.

``I wish they had statistics that would show I hit fairways and greens,'' she says. ``I'll always hit the ball straight. The only thing that ever really lets me down is the putting.''

She indicates a preference for fast greens, though, and slick putting surfaces are traditionally a feature of US Open courses.

This, therefore, could be the week she has been waiting for. It is a clear opportunity to show she combines finesse and power, if not necessarily into a winning package each time, at least into one worthy of a defending champion at the world's most prestigious women's event.

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