AUSTIN, Tex. — A veteran caddy known only as Jeremiah, a man wise in the ways of women's golf, stood on the 10th hole at the Onion Creek golf course here. It was three days before he was scheduled to carry Mickey Wright's bag, but he squinted intently at the tall woman on the tee.
"Nah, I don't have to work until Tuesday," he said. "But I want to see this."
Mickey Wright, who quit the women's pro tour while she was still the tour's ranking star, is 50 now. She is still trim, but her hair is darker and there are a few tiny flecks of gray.
On this type of hole she swings a 3-wood, for control. The ball explodes from the club face with a startling crack. Unlike the looping, bounding drives of today's female big hitters, Wright's ball takes off like a shot, rises slightly, then drops straight to the fairway. It's a 240-yard drive. No roll.
"It's like seeing Ben Hogan come out of retirement," Jeremiah said, and loped off in pursuit.
Kathy Whitworth, Wright's playing companion this week, marveled at the shot.
"Time dulls it a little, and you have to come back for a fix," she whispered.
Wright will team with Whitworth in the Legends of Golf tournament starting today. They will be the first women to play in the showcase tournament for senior men, going off against Al Balding, twice the Canadian PGA champion, and Harvie Ward, twice winner of the U.S. Amateur.
The Legends began in 1978 with a field of 20 professionals and two amateurs. The tournament was conceived by television producer Fred Raphael and Jimmy Demaret. They chose a best-ball format and invited lots of Demaret's old friends, such as Sam Snead, Tommy Bolt and Gene Sarazen. In fact, Sarazen's casual reference to himself 15 years earlier as an old legend had stayed with Raphael and provided the name for the event.
The tournament remains a popular event for the over-50 set. The prize money is high, and players who no longer compete on the regular PGA tour often show up just to see old friends.
"This is the best one," said Chick Harbert, former PGA champion. "It's the only senior tournament I play in."
The 1985 field includes lots of strong golfers, Arnold Palmer among them, but Whitworth and Wright must face them on even terms. The women will play the 6,584-yard, par-70 Onion Creek course from the men's tee, a drawback that gives them, Miller Barber says, "not a cuttin' dog's chance."
Freddie Haas, former PGA senior champion, favors a compromise.
"They're taking the worst of it, but if they played from the ladies' tee, we'd be taking the worst of it," he said.
Although there has been some hostility to the women's presence, most of the contestants welcome them.
"They belong here," Haas said. "They're legends, too, and we're very proud of them. They've both contributed so much to the game, and I think it's super that they're here."
Whitworth is excited but apprehensive. She is 45, the youngest player in the field.
"I feel like a rookie," she said. "But if there's any controversy about us playing, I'm a goner. I just can't play under controversy. Maybe there won't be any. They invited us."
Wright and Whitworth did not move in the same circles on the LPGA tour, but they are friends and have the mutual respect that great athletes reserve for each other. Still, they have not been together for five years and they are tense as they prepare to play.
To ease that tension, a friend of Wright rolls an old ball across the tee. Wright picks it up. It is an ancient, lumpy, yellowing one of the brand that Wright used to play. She tees it up.
"Well, things have been a little tough, Kathy," Wright says, and they laugh.
Later, Wright said she was so nervous she could hardly take the club back.
"I looked down and I was gripping the club so tightly that my knuckles were white," she said.
There is some question about Wright's stamina. On Feb. 14, her 50th birthday, she played 18 holes for the first time since 1979. Troubled by a lingering foot injury, she is wearing golf shoes for the first time in 13 years. Wright, who lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., has been in Austin for six days now, practicing and playing.
But after the first tee shot, there is no question about the durability of Wright's talent. During her almost mythical career she won 82 tournaments. She won the women's U.S. Open and the national LPGA tournament four times each, and twice shot 62. The gift is intact.
On the 440-yard 14th hole, Wright booms the drive, then smashes a 5-iron over the green.
"I guess my adrenaline is up," she says.
Answers Whitworth: "I knew you were getting that look in your eye."
Wright was a star when Whitworth joined the tour in 1959, and today remains Whitworth's one true heroine.
"I remember when I was starting to play a little better," Whitworth said. "I was paired with Mickey. On one hole I really hit a big tee shot. You know how cocky you are when you are young, so I thought, 'Catch that, Mickey!'