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Queen of El Cab

June 27, 2003|Michael Arkush | Special to The Times

Helen Knight had no chance this year, and she knew it. Another woman, younger, stronger, more athletic, had joined the club.

"That's just progress," said Knight, 78. "You have to be realistic. You can't beat progress."

Perhaps not, but, for 39 of the last 46 years, Knight, who finished fifth Sunday in the women's club championship at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, has beaten just about everything else.

Starting in 1958, the year after El Caballero opened, Knight won the women's golf title 32 years in a row. She prevailed again in 1991, from 1996 through 2000, and in 2002. America went through 10 presidents during her reign.

The 5-foot-6, 110-pound Knight, who grew up in the Chicago area, was not a fan of golf at first. She got tired of hearing her parents and two uncles talk at the dinner table about their latest experiences.

"I thought that, for smart people," Knight recalled, "how could they spend three months out of the year talking about this ridiculous game?"

But when she decided to give it a try during the summer of 1943 after her freshman year of college, "all my friends were busy," she explained. Knight made the most startling discovery. This game wasn't so ridiculous, after all.

The next summer, she had the great fortune to take lessons at nearby Medinah Country Club from Tommy Armour, the 1927 U.S. Open champion and one of the game's top instructors.

"His contention was that he could teach a gorilla to hit the ball," Knight said, "but he could never teach a gorilla to play golf. Every lesson was a problem, which you had to solve."

After Armour left the state, Knight worked with another prominent teacher, former PGA winner Johnny Revolta, at Evanston Country Club.

In the early 1950s, Knight and her husband, Irving, a surgeon, moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, they joined El Caballero.

For Knight, last year's championship was especially dramatic. Leading by one shot going into the last hole, she holed a bunker shot from about 50 feet for par on the 18th. They still talk about it at El Cab.

"I was trying to get up and down," Knight recalled. "I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it."

Knight, who plays three times a week, has recorded 10 holes in one at El Cab, including one in April. A former 3-handicapper, her low round is 76, which she has posted numerous times. Yet, like any die-hard, she is still looking for ways to get better. Her focus these days is on widening her stance and coming up with a flatter swing. This year's club championship betrayed her swing problems.

"My timing is terrible," she said, after shanking her approach into the greenside bunker at 17. "I never shank it. I don't know where that comes from."

After a particularly poor shot, Knight will take a few practice swings.

She never takes them before a shot.

"Then you know what to correct," she said. "Johnny Revolta taught me that."

This year, over a two-week period in the championship flight, Knight, who now plays to a 13 handicap, finished far behind the new champion, Louella Kanew.

Kanew, 41, who played professional tennis in the early 1980s, joined El Caballero last October. She can drive it about 250 yards, well past Knight.

"I said to [her caddie] I feel like crying because I know I'm taking this club championship away from this great lady," said Kanew, who was in the same threesome Sunday.

Lynn Edelson, 50, didn't feel quite the same way when she dethroned Knight two years ago.

"Because I knew Helen wouldn't feel guilty about it," she said.

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