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Slick Greens May Leave 'Em Red : LPGA Players Take Aim at Tough Mesa Verde Layout

February 27, 1986|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

Reputations die hard at Mesa Verde Country Club, home of this week's Uniden LPGA Invitational and, on occasion, the most unforgiving greens this side of concrete.

In years past, Mesa Verde greens have been accused of everything except manslaughter. Too hard. Too fast. Too fill-in-the-blank. To hear some of the LPGA players, you'd think they had spent their Mesa Verde rounds putting on freshly waxed kitchen floors.

"With this golf course it was not so much the speed (of the greens), the speed has always been excellent," Jan Stephenson said. "It's too hard underneath. When they're this elevated, you have to be a high-ball hitter."

Nothing wrong with that, except some players, Stephenson included, have golf swings that thrive on nerve, not loft. "I like to kind of go for it," Stephenson said. Do that at Mesa Verde and you usually need a search committee to find your ball.

But that was before the February rains came and turned Mesa Verde's greens into kittens. Compared to past visits, Stephenson said the course has never looked better. Mind you, it's not like hitting onto a pillow, but at least no one is accusing the maintenance people of using asphalt on the greens.

"The rain has helped the golf course," Stephenson said. "It's much greener than it's ever been and the greens are holding and they're at great speed."

Stephenson just had completed her first practice round. Her opinion may change after today's opening round, where a week's worth of sun and heat should make the greens drier, slicker and more challenging.

"Some of the fastest we play all year," said Bonnie Lauer, last year's Uniden champion.

"It will be a lot faster toward the weekend," Patty Sheehan said.

And this from Pat Bradley: "They're pretty much running true to form. They're not holding as well as you might think."

If so, Stephenson will find herself in a familiar position: trying to make peace with her putter.

For whatever reason--and for the moment, she tends to blame a fickle putting machine that apparently altered her stroke--Stephenson has suffered from three years' worth of yips. A four-foot putt became heart surgery. Learning Russian was easier than a downhill three-footer. It wasn't that she never practiced. Stephenson and the putting machine became best pals, but then a battery burned out, or something like that, she said, and before you could say, three-putt, everything was going right of the cup.

During a tournament in England, one newspaper was kind enough to keep track of her three-putts--and remind her of the misses daily. Several television stations joined in the Jan Stephenson Putt Watch. The official total: 13 three-putts in four rounds. Not exactly a confidence builder.

Following the 1984 LPGA season, Stephenson received 23 putters from well-wishers and enough instructional and motivational books to start her own Dewey Decimal system. The mail ranged from, "Don't lose your confidence," ("Easy for them to say," she said) to a tape entitled, "Golf and Twitching."

"I always open them up and read," she said.

Slowly her putting improved, to the point where a missed gimme didn't cause a collapse. Nowadays, Stephenson's apprehension meter is tested less each tournament. Still, when she misses a makeable putt, "I tend to get a little paranoid that I may have lost it."

Not to worry, said Bradley, who must be considered a favorite for the Uniden after four Top-10 finishes in as many tournaments. Asked to provide her own list of potential winners, Bradley mentioned the possibility of some young unknown walking away with the $49,500 first prize. But if she had bet the house, names such as Sheehan and JoAnne Carner come to mind.

"And I would never count Jan Stephenson out on this golf course," she said. "Because the greens are so good and if she builds any kind of confidence today, tomorrow, or during the week with these greens, she's going to be off and running with the way she can putt."

Stephenson said her putting is better, finally.

"The first two rounds are so important to me," she said. "If I can get off to a good start (the chances of winning) are excellent."

Mesa Verde hasn't been kind to Stephenson. She was 7-over-par last year and 9-over in 1984. Then again, the 6,105-yard, par-72 layout hasn't been too hospitable to many LPGA players.

At the Uniden, you earn every bit of the $330,000 worth of prize money. The fairways, for the most part, are tight and favor a long, straight hitter. Since there aren't an abundance of those kind of players on any tour, problems arise.

According to LPGA statistics, the par-4, 377-yard 17th was the ninth-toughest scoring hole on the tour last year. The eighth hole at Mesa Verde, a 380-yard par 4, was rated the 15th most difficult. There were almost as many bogeys and double bogeys on No. 17 as there were pars. The same is true with No. 8.

"And I think No. 14 (367-yard par 4) is a sleeper hole," Bradley said. "It doesn't look very far, but it's a very demanding driving hole. There's not a lot of room on the drive.

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