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These Kids Today

Laura Baugh knows all about being a glamorous teen phenom as she watches Wie and Kim

September 16, 2006|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

When Kimberly Kim stepped to the final tee at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club's Witch Hollow course in Oregon last month, Laura Baugh was home in Orlando, Fla., watching intently on TV.

Was Baugh cheering Kim on or cringing at each shot?

"A little of both, actually," said Baugh, who 35 years ago became the youngest golfer to win the U.S. Women's Amateur tournament.

But when Kim sank a five-foot birdie putt to clinch the same title, Baugh's record was history. Baugh had been 16 when she won at the Atlanta Country Club in 1971.

Kim, from Hilo, Hawaii, is only 14.

Baugh said her record "shouldn't have lasted that long, especially with the quality of young players we have. I'm real happy Kimberly took the record over. I enjoyed having it, but it's time to give it up."

These days, Baugh, 51, is a golf analyst, primarily for the Golf Channel. In that capacity, she is charting the rise of such young stars as Kim and, more especially, another teenage Hawaiian prodigy, Michelle Wie.

The game has come full circle for Baugh, whose youth and blond good looks made her every bit the media magnet and marketing phenom in the early 1970s that Wie is today.

Baugh turned pro at 17 and was the rookie of the year on the LPGA tour in 1973. A Golf Magazine cover story from that era showed Baugh swinging a club in a short skirt and offered the breathless headline: "Sex Plus Sock, At Last, Golf Has a Glamour Girl Who Can Really Play."

Baugh's career got off to a fast start, but she never won an LPGA event, winding up with 10 second-place finishes.

Then, as now, glamour was as much the focus as golf. Except the stakes are higher now.

Wie will turn 17 next month, but when she turned pro last year she signed endorsement deals with Nike and Sony worth about $10 million annually.

Wie had a good year on the LPGA tour in 2006, with one second-place finish and three third-place showings, including at the U.S. Women's Open. But she hasn't come close in her quest to be the first woman in six decades to make the cut in a PGA Tour event. On Friday Wie missed the cut in the 84 Lumber Classic, shooting 77-81, to finish last, the sixth time she has failed to make the cut in a PGA event.

Baugh has some concerns about the headlong pace at which young golfers such as Wie are being propelled.

"She has the potential, physically, to do what Tiger Woods has done, [but] I'm not sure she has been allowed to learn to win at his level," Baugh said. "I think we've thrown her into the big arena without allowing her up the different stages. I think she's a brilliant player and I think [Wie] will be a winner ... but will she dominate? I don't know."

Another observer is LPGA Hall of Fame member Amy Alcott, who turned pro at 19. "There's an aspect to [Wie's] marketing that concerns me. She's gotten a lot of free rides and exemptions into events because of how far she hits the ball and that she's different," Alcott said.

"I think she has a brilliant future.... It's just that you can't push the envelope. You don't want somebody to lose their confidence that quickly."

Alcott, 50, who lives in Pacific Palisades and is in her 30th year on the LPGA tour, sees similarities between Baugh and Wie.

"Laura was very competitive and her mother was very involved in her career, I think both in a good way and not so good," she said. "My mother didn't play golf.... She just wanted me to be happy. Laura's upbringing was a lot different. She had a mother who had a lot of expectation of her. [Laura] also was marketed kind of like a sex symbol.

"There's been these generational things of women as sex symbols in golf. The first was Marlene Hagge. Then Laura came along. Then Jan Stephenson. Now it's kind of like Michelle Wie."

Alcott and Baugh played junior golf together in Southern California. Both were offered college scholarships -- Baugh to Stanford and Alcott to Dartmouth -- but both elected to turn pro.

"Laura always had a tremendous amount of talent," Alcott said. "She worked very hard at her golf game. I know she turned pro with every reason to be successful."

But while Alcott's career took off -- she won the third tournament she entered and won at least once every year for a record 20 consecutive years -- Baugh's took a different turn.

"I know that she did very well off the golf course as far as her marketing," Alcott said. "She had IMG behind her. They marketed her in a similar way that Michelle Wie is. The ultimate thing is that over time you have to be able to live with yourself. That's critical."

Baugh had a long career, including 66 top-10 finishes. But she ran into trouble with alcohol -- so seriously that it threatened her life -- she fought that battle and won.

"I'm a recovering alcoholic," she said. "I've been sober for more than 10 years." In 1999 Baugh wrote a book about her experiences called "Out of the Rough."

With a background such as this, Baugh was able to view Kim's victory in the 2006 Women's Amateur from a different perspective -- knowing that triumphs can be fleeting.

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