Taking the Kids on the Golf Circuit

Since helping to bring child-care to women's pro golf, Judy Dickinson has become the tour's top-playing mom

WITH her young twin sons as traveling companions, pro golfer Judy Dickinson says she can't afford to dwell on her missed shots and poor rounds.

Case in point: A few years ago in Chicago, Dottie Mochrie beat Dickinson in a sudden-death tournament playoff after Dickinson missed a short putt on the sixth extra hole.

``I was bummed out about it,'' Dickinson said after a practice round in Boston this summer, ``but the boys came rushing across the green yelling, `Mommy, Mommy, can we have some chocolate ice cream?' I had to laugh and said, `Yeah, let's go.' ''

Dickinson doesn't often make headlines on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, but she's definitely a dean's list shotmaker.

This year, her 17th on the circuit, has been among her best, thanks to her improved iron play. She currently is 17th-ranked on the tour, and appears a lock to finish 1994 as the LPGA's top playing mother, ahead of Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez and 26 other moms. The season ends with the Toray Japan Queens Cup Nov. 4-6.

As president of the LPGA from 1990 to 1992, Dickinson was instrumental in the creation of regular, traveling day-care program for the tour. ``We felt that as one of the leading women's sports organizations in the world we needed something that would be a model,'' she says of the program, which is sponsored by Smucker's jams and strives to create a stable atmosphere for the children, even as it moves from city to city.

In addition to using day care, Dickinson employs a nanny to help on the road. Her husband, Gardner, a former member of the men's golf tour who instructs her and other players, travels part time with Judy and the boys, Spencer and Barron. The latter name, incidentally, is one Dickinson chose after seeing it on the scoreboard during a pro-am tournament.

``Originally we had a motor home'' to travel to tournaments, she says, ``but it kept breaking down.'' Since giving up on that, the strategy has been to fly into one city, then use a rental car to hit three or four tournament stops. Average expenses, including caddie fees, food, transportation, and lodging for the Dickinson entourage, comes to about $2,500 per week, Dickinson says.

In pro golf there is no salary, which means that to break even Dickinson figures she must roughly finish among the top 50 players at any given tournament.

This element of uncertainty might be viewed as a down side, but having once worked carrying mail, she prefers being paid on a straight merit basis.

Work as a unionized mail carrier didn't appeal to her, she says, because ``no matter how hard you worked or how well you did your job, it didn't matter. It was all seniority. I wanted to be rewarded for how hard I worked, which this game does.''

Ultimately the goal is to win - to ``be the best that week. That's what gives you the charge,'' she says. Dickinson, however, has pursued the rabbit far more than she's caught it. Her first career victory didn't occur until her eighth year on the tour, at the 1985 Boston Five Classic, and she's won only three times since then.

Asked how she stays motivated with victory so elusive, laughter wells up as she replies, ``The money helps.''

``If you're any good at this game, you can make a doggone good living,'' she acknowledges. The proof is in the putting. She's won nearly $800,000 during the last three years with just one first-place finish.

This is quite an achievement for somebody who never played golf in high school or college. ``When I was in high school [in the 1960s], the only thing you did was cheerlead,'' she says. ``If girls did anything else, people thought you were a weirdo.''

Dickinson, a native of Akron, Ohio, attended Maryville College, the University of Akron, and Glassboro State College in New Jersey, where she earned a history degree. Her interest in golf, a game she'd last played recreationally in her early high school days, was rekindled while working on a golf course maintenance crew in southern New Jersey for five years.

``The superintendent used to tell me that I worked twice as hard as the men,'' she recalls, ``but he'd say, `I can't pay you as much as the men make because they'd get mad.' ''

While this was discouraging, Dickinson got to play free at night once her maintenance work was done. Her game developed to the point that she won the 1977 New Jersey amateur championship. The next year she secured a spot on the LPGA tour.

Because the competition was less intense then, she says she could ``actually learn while playing. Today, you have to play fairly well or you're going to starve.''

The difference is in the years of playing experience young women bring with them now, says Dickinson, who notes that practically everyone arrives having earned her stripes in junior programs and on high school and college teams.

Today's young players, she says, have honed their short games, and many have added power through weight training. ``Physical fitness has come to golf,'' Dickinson says. ``When I came onto the tour, it wasn't a big deal. Now the players are hitting the ball farther, and it seems like all the girls coming out are tall and strong.''

Take 5 ft., 10 in. Swede Helen Alfredsson, who averages 245 yards off the tee and isn't even the longest hitter. During July's US Open, Alfredsson erased the record of 65 for the lowest under-par round, which Dickinson had tied in 1985.

Despite the increased competition on today's tour, Dickinson still owns the record for the LPGA's lowest 36-hole total, with a 129 (64, 65) turned in at the 1985 S&H Golf Classic.

In Dickinson's estimation, the LPGA has held its own in a tough economy and with more men's professional golf than ever before. Besides the men's regular PGA Tour, there's a thriving senior circuit with players like Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, a viable satellite tour, and now a celebrity tour.

``We really haven't lost any of our sponsors to them, but it's tough because everybody has to share so much of the pie now,'' Dickinson says.

The LPGA brass, including a succession of male commissioners, has been stung by criticism over the years. More could have been done, some have felt, to develop the tour.

Dickinson, however, says she's reached the conclusion that ``it's not really management's fault so much as it's just society. You have to claw for everything you get in women's sports.''

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