King ascends to her 17-under-par throne

PHIL JACKMAN

May 18, 1992|By Phil Jackman

BETHESDA -- King. A rather appropriate name for a coronation wouldn't you say?

That's what the Mazda LPGA Championship turned out to be over 72 holes and the last four days, the crowning of Betsy King, possessor of superlative strength or efficacy on the women's tour.

It was on the ninth hole yesterday and after bringing the tight and picturesque Bethesda Country Club and the field to their knees that King pushed her second shot into the rough siding the green.

"When I got up and down [for par] out of a divot lie, I said to myself, 'This is my tournament,' " she admitted.

She had to be the last to know. It had become readily apparent to everyone else after Betsy opened with a 68, then kept on charging to a 66, then a 67 and, finally, another 67.

Her total of 267, 17-under-par, constituted her fifth major championship title among 26 tour victories and a series of LPGA records almost too numerous to list.

Perhaps the two most impressive marks, targets the women may be shooting for for decades, are (1) lowest all-time 72-hole tourney score, and (2) four rounds in the 60s at a major championship.

Even after having sufficient time to sit down and think about her accomplishment, a touch of wonder remained in King's voice when she exclaimed, "I never envisioned anyone shooting 17-under-par on this course. How can you have only two bogeys here in 72 holes?"

Despite her years on the tour (since 1977) and her success (26 wins and well over $3.5 million in prize money), King has always seemed to be a lesser light, perhaps by design.

"She's always been one of the most outstanding players," said tour historian JoAnne Carner, who finished in a three-way tie for second at 278, "but she's so quiet. She has never gotten the publicity she should, because she doesn't have a lot to say. She just goes out and, pardon the expression,whips our butt . . . quite often."

Betsy was in the spotlight almost immediately, however, when she was the first to card an opening-round-leading 68 last Thursday. She was tied with many others approaching the last hole and was in danger of slipping back a shot or two when her second shot found a bunker. She chipped it onto the green and into the hole and was long gone.

From that moment on, she said, "I did not miss a crucial putt." There weren't that many of them as she missed only a dozen greens in regulation and, amazingly, never had a tree blocking her progress to the green throughout.

Bethesda is one of those old courses, not very long but with scores of doglegs and bends around hundreds of trees that have been there for decades. Positioning is everything.

When all hands testified the tight and tricky course was playing tougher because precipitation was stretching it out, listeners believed. That is, believed until the red numbers (under par) beside King's name on the scoreboard went from 3 to 8 to 12 to 17.

Obviously, it was tough, though. The four days saw about 440 rounds shot to a score of more than 1,000-over-par. Only 14 players finished under par while three matched it. The average score over the par-71 layout each day exceeded 73.5 strokes.

But when you're holing 19 birdie putts of between 6 and 30 feet, as King was, the joint is your oyster.

Since showing up on the grounds a week ago, Betsy said, "it's time for an older player to win," not only citing the law of averages, but the fact "the course and [major] tournament require a lot of experience and patience."

It was after her strong start that she stepped out of character and predicted, "I think we'll have an over-30 winner this week . . . maybe over 35." Betsy is 36.

Now only four victories away from the magic 30 and automatic inclusion into the ridiculously exclusive LPGA Hall of Fame, King can look forward to even more questions about achieving the goal.

"It will not be uppermost in my mind until I get to 29," she promised. And for the first several years she was on tour, it didn't even enter into her wildest dreams.

"The way I started out, no wins for nearly seven years," she recalled, and she left listeners to fill in the blanks. Between 1984 and last year, King's victory totals read 3-2-2-4-3-6-3-2. Steady as a rock and getting better if her average score per round is any indication.

As Betsy approached the home hole yesterday, she said, "I felt I had to do something to celebrate." She took off high-fiving the scores of people surrounding the green: "I didn't want to be just like Hale Irwin [U.S. Open two years ago], so I took a longer run."

Sure, it was out of character. But when you shoot 68-66-67-66, which well might be the best four tourney scores ever shot by a woman golfer, it's time for celebrating.

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