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Relocating Place Where Putts Fall : After Bout With Yips Causes Gaston to Quit Competitive Golf for 14 Years, She Regains Her Touch by Using an Unorthodox Grip

December 26, 1993|STEVE ELLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years ago, Gaston began using a cross-handed technique and the putts started to fall more consistently. Twisted as it seems, as a left-hander who plays golf right-handed, perhaps the cross-handed method was Gaston's best solution all along.

More than a decade of maturity and added perspective didn't hurt, either.

"Standing over a putt wasn't do or die anymore," she said. "Whether I made it or missed it was no reflection on me as a person.

"In the earlier days, how you played defined who you were."

A friend began pestering Gaston to enter amateur tournaments. Gaston reluctantly agreed, yet picked her spots with care. In the summer of 1992, Gaston entered an 18-hole regional qualifier for the Women's U.S. Public Links championship. Twenty-five players were seeking three berths in the Publinks field.

"I figured that if I had a bad day, it was no big deal, since it was just one round of golf," she said. "But if I had a good day. . . . I still had a sleepless night preparing for it."

Yawn. She earned medalist honors. From there, the comeback--commensurate with her confidence--picked up speed.

Three months ago, Gaston jumped squarely into the national spotlight when she knocked off former U.S. Amateur champion Carol Semple Thompson in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur in Rochester, Minn.

Gaston said she putted "lights out" all week, which made the victory even more gratifying. It was a noteworthy upset--Thompson is considered one of the best amateurs in the nation.

At the State Amateur, another potential Waterloo became a watershed moment. In the second round of match play, Gaston was 1-down with one hole remaining. Appropriately enough, she needed to drain a four-foot knee-knocker on No. 18 to force sudden death. Otherwise, Highway 101 beckoned, and it was not the road to putting salvation.

Kerplunk. Gaston then won the match on the second extra hole. With a wave of a hand--not to mention the putter-- angst became anticipation, just like that.

"I will definitely look forward to the next four-footer for the match," Gaston said. "Now I can stand over those putts with confidence and think, 'I'm gonna make it.' "

Her showdown with Duclos in the final marked a reunion. They hadn't seen each other since, oh, around breakfast.

The pair caravaned to Monterey, shared a motel room to cut down on expenses and had their fathers serve as caddies. The players joked all week about how they might meet in the final, then set about proving it was no laughing matter.

After the stroke-play portion was complete and the roommates qualified for match play, the two were placed in opposite brackets. The days rolled by, the opposition body count mounted and the final pairing became a reality.

"We never thought it would actually happen," said Duclos, 34.

The two had more in common than just their room key. Duclos was a college standout at UCLA in the late 1970s, but married and had three children in six years. There weren't enough hours in the day to play golf at a competitive level.

In short, Duclos' game also was mothballed, though not by choice.

"I've always had that itch," Duclos said. "I started having kids, but I was always wondering when I could get back into golf.

"It seemed like whenever I got back in shape and my game started coming around, I got pregnant again."

The pair met on the practice range at Westlake Village Golf Course 2 1/2 years ago. Gaston recalls noticing that Duclos was wearing a pair of spikes that weren't exactly on the cutting edge of golf fashion. Duclos' set of Ben Hogan clubs wasn't state of the art, either.

"She comes from my time," thought Gaston, who struck up a conversation.

Their time, obviously, hadn't come and gone. Telling time, though, remains a problem.

On the morning of the championship match, Duclos woke up in the dark motel room and stared at the ceiling. She was too excited to sleep and was positive that Gaston's alarm clock was going to sound at any moment.

Duclos, who politely left off the lights so Gaston could sleep, showered and dressed for the showdown.

Gaston, half awake by this point, took a peek at her night stand. The alarm clock, which malfunctioned earlier in the week and almost caused Gaston's disqualification for being late, must have broken down again.

Gaston grabbed her watch.

It was 4 a.m.

Their tee time, not to mention daybreak, was several hours down the road.

"I'd already been up for an hour," Duclos said, laughing.

It broke the tension. Both went back to bed, actually got some quality shut-eye, and set out for the championship match.

Neither played well on the front nine, and neither forged more than a one-hole lead until Duclos three-putted the 14th hole to hand Gaston a 2-up lead. Gaston closed out the match, 2 and 1, by knocking in a 20-foot putt to save par at No. 17.

Gaston had made another pivotal putt. Then again, she'd had practice. Duclos admitted with a grin that she made Gaston putt out in situations where she would have conceded the tap-ins to another player.

Duclos, of course, knew better than anyone that the short game wasn't Gaston's long suit. Heck, it wasn't a suit at all, it was a straitjacket.

"I knew Andrea had a little problem with the short ones sometimes," Duclos said.

Gaston laughed, perhaps because Duclos had used the past tense. Of course, now that those white-knuckle yips seem long gone, Gaston is past being tense.

"If I was (her)," Gaston said, "I'd have done the same thing."

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