Entertainer Dinah Shore, shown here waving to the crowd at Mission Hills… (Associated Press )
Jane Blalock won a tournament at Mission Hills Country Club out in the desert in Rancho Mirage 39 years ago.
The winner's check was for $20,000, five times more than any other event on the LPGA Tour at the time.
"It seems like yesterday," Blalock said this week. "And oh, my gosh, imagine what it was like. The next-largest check that year was for $5,000. Imagine that difference today, it would be like having a $10-million tournament."
That little tournament in the desert was launched by entertainer Dinah Shore, and her star power thrust women's golf into the mainstream. The tournament is still around, called the Kraft Nabisco, still played at Mission Hills.
"Sometimes in sports there is a defining moment," Blalock said. "That moment for us was 40 years ago. We began getting corporate-type sponsors. We had celebrities wanting to meet us and play with us. We were asked to do television commercials.
"It catapulted me into a person who was on the covers of magazines," Blalock said. "Women's golf didn't get covers. You can't imagine."
Blalock, 1977 winner Kathy Whitworth and JoAnne Carner, who won 43 times on the LPGA Tour but never at Mission Hills, reminisced about the Dinah Shore Open, which became the Colgate-Dinah Shore Open and then, after Shore died in 1994, the Nabisco Championship and now the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
This is one of the four majors of women's golf, along with the LPGA Championship, the U.S. Women's Open and the Women's British Open. Like the Masters for the men, it is the only event that remains in the same place every year. It has been at Mission Hills since 1972.
"Up until then," Carner said, "we were fighting to get some notoriety. Then Dinah took us under her wing and it was unbelievable. We had Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra and James Garner coming out to play with us. We had a chance to get on TV.
"Only one problem we ran into. Sandstorms. One girl even tried to play in goggles."
Blalock remembered the sandstorms too.
"Sometimes you'd have to walk up 18 backward," she said. "The wind would be howling and back then there was nothing out there but the course. No trees, no condos.
"We all stayed in Palm Springs at the same place, a hotel called the Spa. All the functions, all the parties were at the same place and what was funny was, right in Palm Springs you were pretty protected. You'd come outside, no wind, it looked great, and then you'd get to Rancho Mirage, the wind would be howling, sand blowing, sometimes it would be cold and you didn't have the right clothes on. Finally, we learned. We'd have someone call out to the course before we left."
With Shore and the sponsorship of Colgate-Palmolive came the opportunity for doing television commercials. Blalock said she did a commercial with "Madge the Manicurist," who was almost as famous as some of the movie stars.
"Colgate spent something like a quarter of its advertising budget on that tournament," Carner said. "Some of the girls lasted a long time doing that."
Carner, who was listed as 5 feet 7 but was nicknamed "Big Momma" because of her overall size, said, "I didn't last as long. I did one for something called Stretch and Seal, I think it was called.
"I had to pick up a glass bowl filled with stew with the Stretch and Seal over it and turn it over. My subconscious kept taking over because I didn't want to ruin my outfit and it was my only good outfit and I was afraid it was going to leak so I wouldn't do it right. I didn't last too long with the commercial stuff."
Whitworth has mostly fond memories.
"The whole thing turned into such fun," she said. "You had to have won a tournament to get in, so it was a limited field. It was also such fun to get to know Dinah Shore. She'd hang out with us and we'd never had a celebrity who wanted to be associated with us. Then all of a sudden Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Lawrence Welk, they'd all be out here wanting to play with us."
Blalock said she still remembers "a rush of emotion," when she won the first event. Back then, she said, Dinah Shore gave female golfers a sense that their sport was moving forward in a big way.
"It was, 'You go, girl,' from Dinah and it made us feel like we couldn't wait to continue playing.
"I guess in a way there was more momentum than now," Blalock said. "It's certainly challenging. It's tough in this economy, getting sponsors, getting on TV. You don't see the girls on magazine covers as much."