BETHESDA -- In her five years on the LPGA Tour, the most pertinent questions about Deborah McHaffie have concerned what she wore rather than what she scored. When McHaffie talked about her makeup, she usually meant her makeup.
McHaffie, a former Las Vegas schoolteacher who took up golf at age 23, didn't change her wardrobe yesterday, but might have altered her image. A fashion statement wasn't the only thing McHaffie made.
A 5-under par 66, the best round of her career, gave McHaffie the lead in the opening round of the $1 million Mazda LPGA Championship at Bethesda Country Club. McHaffie is one shot ahead of Colleen Walker, Barb Mucha and Deb Richard.
Former champion Pat Bradley, the tour's current and all-time leading money-winner, was in a group of three at 68. Among 11 players at 2-under par 69 were 1987 champion Jane Geddes, Betsy King, last year's runner-up Rosie Jones and Amy Alcott, who needs one more victory to make the LPGA Hall of Fame. Defending champion Beth Daniel, as well as two-time champion Patty Sheehan and Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner, were at even-par 71.
"I felt really in control today," saidMcHaffie, 33, who birdied her first three holes and six of the first 11. "There wasn't any time when I felt, 'Oh my God, I'm 5-under.' I'm coming off a really tough year. It's been a long haul. My attitude is that it's about time. I don't feel that surprised."
Considering the miserable year she has had, McHaffie's score was either an aberration or a revelation. Before yesterday, she had been under 70 only once in 35 rounds. She has missed the cut seven times, including the past four tournaments in which she played. She is 107th on the money list.
Then again, McHaffie's career never really has taken off. After getting as high as 43rd two years ago, McHaffie has been beset by physical and emotional problems. She underwent emergency surgery to have atumor removed from her sinus last year, and missed two months. Her mother later fell into a coma, and McHaffie took the last seven weeks of the season off as she recovered.
"Emotionally, I've been really drained," said McHaffie. "Physically, feeling better. . . . The momentum is very powerful in this game. Bad momentum is just as strong as good momentum."
McHaffie is not your typical LPGA player. She decided to take up the game seriously after playing a round while visiting her sister in Hawaii a decade ago. A year later, she was a 4-handicap. She joined the tour in 1986, promptly lost her card and sat out the next year with shoulder injuries.
From the start, McHaffie has drawn a lot of attention, nearly all of it for her funky, albeit flashy, style of dress. "People would go, 'You're not going to wear that,' " said McHaffie. "I'm not going to wear polyester with little pink butterflies."
Or as fellow pro Lori Garbacz said upon seeing McHaffie walking onto the 18th green, "Sponsorship by Victoria's Secret."
Not quite, but close. McHaffie was bedecked yesterday in your basic red shorts and tank top, with black, lace, bicycle pants and black socks. Oh, did we forget to mention the silver dangling earrings? "I like to wear stuff that's comfortable," she said. "I do it for myself. It's like the balls onmy putter."
It's easy enough to see why McHaffie wouldn't use a typical putter. Hers, designed by prominent Austin, Texas, teaching pro Dave Pelz, has three plastic balls that cross behind the blade, helping McHaffie line up her putts. She nearly didn't need it yesterday.
After making a 6-footer for birdie on No. 10, McHaffie chipped in from off the green for birdie at No. 11 and nearly holed out again at No. 12, with her pitch shot hitting the flagstick and stopping eight inches from the hole. She tapped in for birdie.
"I got to the fourth hole and I didn't have to read the greens yet," said McHaffie. "I hadn't hit a putt. I thought I was going to make birdie on every hole."
That didn't happen, of course.But she went 4-under with an 18-foot birdie at No. 16, to 5-under with a birdie at 18 and to 6-under with a 24-foot birdie at No. 2. After saving par from 10 feet at No. 5, McHaffie finally came back to reality when she hit a fat 5-wood on the seventh fairway and missed a 10-footer for par.
McHaffie credited her caddie, Tony Criscuolo, who moonlights as a yoga instructor with several players, for helping her relax. Criscuolo made sure McHaffie stayed properly aligned on several shots, and focused.
"He reminds me take deep breaths. It slows the heart rate down," she said. "When you get in that position, and you see your name on the leader board, it's really important to take in a lot of oxygen in."
Not to mention a few birdies.
The leader . . .
Deborah McHaffie 35-3166
. . . and followers
Barb Mucha 34-3367
Colleen Walker 32-3567
Deb Richard 32-3567
Meg Mallon 34-3468
Nina Foust 35-3368
Pat Bradley 33-3568
Amy Alcott 34-3569
Betsy King 36-3369
Rosie Jones 37-3269
Tina Barrett 33-3770
Beth Daniel 35-3671
Complete scores: Page 6C