OUT OF THE ROUGH

Sandra Post is a big girl now

MARCI MCDONALD June 1 1975

OUT OF THE ROUGH

Sandra Post is a big girl now

MARCI MCDONALD June 1 1975

OUT OF THE ROUGH

Sandra Post is a big girl now

MARCI MCDONALD

In the coffeeshop of a rambling Ramada Inn on Houston’s no. 59 freeway,

Sandra Post moved among the tables, chain-smoking nervously. Other women straggled in around her — big, square-jawed, rawboned women, freckled and rangy.

Not your ordinary women, it was clear at a glance. Their faces were confidently naked of makeup, skin etched in squint lines and leathered by an unrelenting sun. Their haircuts were styled with one eye to the wind, and they walked with a lope from the hip in long, easy strides. Over the red vinyl booths and morning coffee, they congregated for the week’s $100,000 tournament. They slapped each other on the back in greeting, took playful swipes at passing shoulders, traded loud twangy insults that passed for talk. “Hey Postie!” they called out, the restaurant transformed with instant locker-room fraternity, and Sandra Post hurtled across the room for some reunion heavy with its heartiness. “You know,” she says, finally lighting over a paper place mat for breakfast, “it’s always good to be back.”

It is back after a two-week layoff from the Ladies Professional Golf Association circuit, but for Sandra Post it is even more. It is the comeback of a pro career that had swept off the tee nearly seven years before full of promise and miracle putts when she set off at 19 from Oakville, Ontario, a giggling blond bubble gummer who took her hair down from its eternal rollers, dabbed Chanel No. 5 behind her ears and promptly

went out to knock off the golfing Goliath, all-time money winner Kathy Whitworth, copping the prestigious LPGA championship in a play-off by a whopping seven strokes. But three years later the girl they’d predicted as the next star of the circuit woke up in hospital one morning on the brink of collapse, a bitter broken marriage on her hands, a listless broken career on the record books, written off at 22, a golf has-been. It is a comeback that has taken two long years etched in hurt and grim determination and served as living testament to the redeeming qualities of that great North American institution, divorce — perhaps the most remarkable comeback in all of women’s golfing history. But it

has been a journey that Sandra Post has measured out as shrewdly as an alien fairway, savoring every step along the course. “I really believe that I’ve been given a second chance,” she says. “And I wasn’t going to blow it this time. I was determined 1 was gonna make it back or I was gonna die tryin’. I wanted to be a success again and I was willing to sacrifice anything, just anything. I was a desperate little girl.”

A trace of that desperation has ebbed now. In December she wrapped up a 1974 season with $50,000 in winnings, more money than all the Canadian male golfers on the more lucrative men’s tour combined. As the ’75 circuit rolled into gear, she was already in second place in earnings and was counted enough of a contender again to land a coveted Colgate commercial which showed her grinning out of a bubblebath in the raw. But the biggest change of all was that Sandra Post had finally won the second tournament of her career, the plum Colgate Far East in Melbourne, Australia, and when she stood up in the wind there to accept her $14,000 cheque before the TV cameras and the clapping, tears had suddenly blistered in her eyes and she hadn’t been able to get the words out that would say just what it all meant.

“I just couldn’t get it all together, I was so emotional,” she said. “I mean, I’d made my money over the last two years.

Marci McDonld is an associate editor and a senior writer for Maclean’s.

“After you win your first tournament you get lazy. If I’d handled it better it might not have taken me seven years to win again”

I’d played well. I was layin’ them in there. But I wanted to win, I had to win. It was a drive so strong I could taste it. And boy, when I tasted that victory it was sweet. I think I knew then that I’d finally made it again after all these years.”

Under the cold fluorescent glare of the coffeeshop, Sandra Post looks little different than the teen-ager who started out seven years ago grinning from the sports pages, the first Canadian ever to make the pro tour. The face is a little rounder maybe, the legs a little more solid in her tight patchwork jeans, the tanned cleavage spilling out from her well-unbuttoned shirt a trifle more generous. “I’m the chunky one with the straight hair,” she had warned the night before over the phone, self-conscious about the 128 pounds she was carrying on her five-foot-four frame. She doesn’t like to talk about her weight and discusses it constantly, obsessively. At the very mention, she orders cold cereal and tea for breakfast. She runs her fingers through the short bleached blond thatch now left to the vagaries of nature, the constant battle of the curlers abandoned years ago. But at 27, she is still one of the tour’s most attractive lures in a solid, spunky, cheerleader sort of way.

The real difference now is that Sandra Post ranks as a veteran. Nothing had pointed it up more than the Orange Blossom Classic a month before in St. Petersburg — the same tournament at which she’d once made her pro debut — when a pretty 19-year-old rookie named Amy Alcott with barely a month’s experience on the circuit snatched the $5,000 first-prize money from under her nose with a 20-foot putt on the eighteenth.

Later in the morning when Renee Powell, her former roommate, stops by to congratulate her on that fight, Sandra Post will shake her head philosophically. “History repeated itself,” she says. “I mean, I beat Whitworth in my rookie year, then Alcott who’s a rookie beat me. I knew how she must have felt, though she could probably cope with it better than I did. When I beat Whitworth it was like my tenth tournament. I mean, I didn’t believe it. I was just a thrilled little kid. And even though you don’t purposely do it, you don’t practise as hard after. You get a little lazy. I wouldn’t change anything now, but maybe if I’d handled it a little better it might not have taken me another seven years to win again.”

Above the practice tee at Westwood Country Club on the concrete shopping centre fringes of Houston, the day hangs

limp and dun-colored, the hint of a Texas thunderstorm thick and threatening in the air. It is an hour later and Sandra Post has pulled a loose white Vneck over her pants, pushed a white cotton porkpie hat low over her eyes and there is a squat, more solid cast to her frame as she lines up in a row beside the others, eyeing the distant yardage markers that loom like white carny shooting gallery flags out in the field. Since she began her comeback she has not let a day go by without practising.

To watch her now, all sombre concentration, in-turned and grim, you can see the solemn fascination that molded the

short sharp backswing, the quick hard down-drive, the perfect twisting arc as the driver head shocks the ball with a splitting crack and lifts it high and gentle out to the 200-yard mark. Her tour caddy Chuck, an emaciated looking wisp with a worn face like a tragic mask, stands by handing her clubs with unspoken understanding, but it is not to him that she talks but to the scarlet driver grasped in her scarlet golf glove. “Come on, Big Red,” she says. She is lost in the ritual of years of that same motion, hours of standing in one spot knocking them out, a life measured out in buckets of practice balls. In a way it is the only life she has ever known.

A skinny little kid whose fruit farmer father had never quite accustomed himself to the fact that he hadn’t had a son, she was dragged off one day on their yearly Florida winter vacation to watch the South Atlantic Ladies Open in Miami with him. “And I was captivated, just captivated,” she says. “I went right back home and told them all that I was gonna be a lady golfer.” She was five years old.

Not that Cliff Post was a man to take a five-year-old’s fantasies lightly. The next year back in Florida she turned up in the

LPGA gallery with her own little cutdown club. She took to the rhythm of standing there swinging at the tiny white pocked ball for hours as if she were born to it. She putted as if mesmerized. Years later one of the players she followed, Marilynn Smith, a gentle neatly hairsprayed lady who is still on the tour today, remembers “this wee little thing, so determined” and the letters penned in a painful childish scribble charting her playing course: at nine, winning her first tournament; shooting in the low seventies by the time she was 13; at 14, in the Ontario Junior scoring a 71.

School, friends, nothing came before golf. “In the summer everybody’d go up north to their cottages or swimming,” she says, walking the course now in a practice round. “But I’d hit golf balls all day. My mother’d drop me off at 7 a.m. and I’d come home after dark.” Then she would go to the driving range with her father and knock them out again under the eerie neon floodlights’ glow. Until the day she turned pro, he was the only coach she’d ever known, a man sometimes regarded as the stage father of the 18-hole set, and there are those who’ve seen them fighting tooth and club on a fairway over how to play the ball. But he remains probably her closest friend. She still plays with him almost every afternoon when she’s home at her Boynton Beach, Fla., condominium and he’s down at his winter vacation spot nearby, calls twice a week and after every tournament, and the first thing she did when she won the Colgate Far East was to phone him at 3 a.m. in Florida. Cliff Post was so emotional he couldn’t say a word.

“My parents did everything in their power to help me become a lady golfer,” she says. “Sure, it set me apart. But that was alright, see, ’cause this was what I was gonna do. I was workin’ toward somethin' all the time.”

Over the years she never once wavered from the dream. It was a steely determination that earned her the reputation of being cocky early. She was constantly at war with the entrenched Canadian women’s golf establishment, always shooting off her mouth. In 1964, just weeks before her sixteenth birthday, they showed what they thought by leaving her off the Ontario junior team — a slap that, she says, “kinda took the sting outa me. Unless you’re a real determined little kid, they’ll beat you down.” But Sandra Post was a real determined little kid. She talked her father into flying her out to Calgary to compete in the Canadian Junior and promptly walked

off with it, beating the entire Ontario elect by eight strokes. She won it the next two years too. “My biggest sin was they thought I thought I was too good,” she says, still resentful. “But I was 15. All I wanted to do was play golf.”

Three years later when she turned pro, the veterans marveled at that same gritty fight. She never once flinched from nerves all through the wearing extra-day play-off with Whitworth; at the end there was no tear of relief in her eye. But afterward sportswriters would make the pilgrimage to the circuit for magazine stories on Sandra Post and come back quietly caustic. “The worst part of my game?” she would crow into their tape recorders. “There really isn’t one.” She expressed boredom with the circuit, said it was a tough life, no life for a girl, and after all, as she saw it, “I proved to everybody I could do it. I won, not just anything, but a major title; I was rookie of the year; made a lot of money. How many men make $25,000 a year?”

Even today diplomacy and tact are not among Sandra Post’s strong points. At lunch that day I watch her get up in the middle of another player’s emotional anecdote about her childhood, announcing blithely, “Well, 1 gotta go practise now.” But as she says in her brisk adopted Florida twang, “I think I’ve grown up a lot. When I was waitin' for my [divorce] decree, I got thinkin’. I realized that I could do better than I'd already done. That was just a scratch on the surface. So I came back. What alternative did I have? It’s the only thing I know. It’s my life. It’s in my blood.”

The LPGA tour is a tough life. It is a heady, harried wash V wear grind, a tight 100-woman traveling road show where one day’s winner may be the next day’s loser and there’s no time in between for introspection; but it’s back into the next plane or rent-a-car for the next motel room on the edge of the next town you never get to see. It is a capsuled unreal existence played out in a searing public spotlight where each flick of the wrist can be seen under the scoreboard’s relentless scrutiny, where an unseemly swearword or betrayal of unladylike fury can cost a $50 fine and a girl’s only friends are her opponents. It is a life of such fishbowl vulnerability that those on the tour always refer to it as Out Here.

Out Here there is a camaraderie that betrays the loneliness of the long-distance golfer. Out Here, where once she didn’t mix much, Sandra Post now visits with a vengeance, running between clumps of girls for quick, bright nonconversations, playing cards late into the night and talking about it like some school-age sorority girl. Now that she has chosen this life, she clings to it tena-

“I drove down, took a look at the prize money and decided golf was gettin’ to be a better place for a woman to make a livin’ ”

ciously. Friendships are staked out with a fierceness, cliques formed — and rivalries. Out Here where the prize money has more than doubled to $1.8 million since she started out seven years ago and a player’s worth is measured as much in her press clippings as in her pars, there is a wary eye out for the newcomers such as lithe shapely 20-year-old Laura Baugh whose color-coordinated miniskirts and vital statistics are paraded all over the sports pages above her scores. The rest of the mainstream may be struggling for a sense of womanhood based on something other than curls and curves, but in ladies golf the lookers are promoted and envied, a lure for the galleries and the take at the tournament gate. “Oh, we’re not libbers,” says Sandra Post, slightly defensive. “We’re not into women’s lib at all. I’m not even sure what it’s about.”

It is late the next night after a lacklustre, sodden pro-am tournament and back in the Ramada Inn coffeeshop around a corner booth, the talk turns to what color of blond to bleach to, who’s pregnant and whose boyfriend is flying in for the weekend, who has managed to mix marriage and golf. Over a slice of lemon pie, Sandra Post suddenly grows uncharacteristically silent. The bounce of earlier that evening, when she’d rocked along the expressway in her rented Chevy with the Top 40 blaring on the car radio, is gone now. It isn’t until the following morning, when she lies back on the bed in her motel room waiting out frigid temperatures and the announcement that the tournament would be canceled, that the story comes spilling out: the disastrous two-year marriage to a good-looking Florida golf pro named John Elliott two years after she turned pro and a month after he got sent home from army service in Vietnam; her virtual three-year disappearance from golf. She still winces at the memory.

“It was awful,” she says. “I was havin’ a terrible inner struggle mixin’ a married life with golf. When I was out playin’, I felt I should be home, and when I was home, I felt I should be out playin’. I got so I didn’t hardly play at all. I was shooting bad. I lost my confidence. I’d just completely lost my will for golf.”

In the three seasons of her marriage, she played only 39 events for a total of $12,000 — less than half of what she’d made in her first year as a pro. She was constantly abandoning the LPGA circuit to fly off to his side. But the fairytale wedding of two kids who would swing down the fairways of life together was

already running into the rough. John Elliott was always better known as Sandra Post’s husband and there was no secret he resented it. “A lot of times John would be playing against Sandra’s reputation more than against the other golfers,” says a friend who played with him. When he failed to qualify for the PGA in the States and came up to join the Canadian summer circuit, he ended up in a series of tantrums with officials, ripping up his scorecard, screaming over rulings, once during the Canadian Open even chalking up a two-week suspension after a verbal set-to. It all blew up one day in Vancouver when she found herself hast-

ily invited to leave his room — and his life. “He just said, ‘Out,’ ” she says quietly. “Let’s put it this way, he had to get rid of me real fast ’cause she was cornin' in. See, you can only fight the girl friends so long. I couldn't believe this was happening to me.”

In hysterics she called a 32-year-old wealthy Bostonian law-graduateturned-entrepreneur named Leigh Kandarwho’d known them both. He put her on the next plane for Boston, saw her through the next harrowing six months and the two years since, both as business agent and the current love of her life. “I was such a mess,” she says. “I went down to 112 pounds, I got real sick — oh God, was I sick. I was hemorrhagin’ for eight days and they didn’t know what it was. I had to go into the hospital. And cornin’ up out of the anesthetic, there’s John beggin’ to be taken back.”

Leigh Kandar keeps a protective cordon around her now, invests her money, okays all interviews with a rhetorical flourish that would make Richard Nixon’s former press secretary Ron Ziegler sound like a master of straightforward English. “I have spoken to Sandra about the matter to which you alluded pertaining to an interview,” he

had told a reporter over the phone a week earlier. “Sandra would be delighted to serve you in the capacity of interviewee, per se.” He doesn’t play golf —“doesn’t know one end of a golfclub from another.” she says. But at the time it could hardly have been less of a problem. For six months Sandra Post just lay around her Florida apartment, listless, confused, never picked up a golf club.

“Then one day they called me to come play the Colgate Pro-Am in Miami,” she says. “So I drove down, took a look at the prize money and I saw golf was gettin’ to be a better place for a woman to make a livin’. I finished tenth and that night I couldn’t sleep. I got in the car and drove home at 3 a.m.” She drove straight to Leigh Kandar's Florida apartment and when she couldn’t get in, she started hammering on the door. “Leigh, Leigh,” she hollered. “I just had to tell you this. I’m going back into golf.

“I just felt so good,” she says.

She was out practising the very next day. In her first tournament back she made $600 — $20,000 by the end of that year. It has been uphill ever since, even if there have been hazards along the way. She spent the first six months back having to watch John Elliott hold hands with Marlene Hagge, the tour's 41-yearold well-preserved bombshell. “Maybe it was part spite,” she says. “But it lasted six months and I was playin’ every day in front of them, in front of everybody. I did alright Out There in the day, but boy, you shoulda seen me at night. I was a mess. I don’t know how 1 got through that time.” Ironically, she and Marlene Hagge are now inseparable. And Sandra Post looks back on it all as “a good experience. It’s made me what I am and I’m glad I went through it. I’m a much happier person now. And all that — it seems like another life.”

She lies back on the bed. estimating that she’ll stay Out Here another five years but after that, whether the future holds the marriage and kids she once said she wanted more than anything else, more than golf itself . . . she is silent. “I don’t know,” she says, staring out the window, thoughtful. “My life now is right here. To do the best I can. I'm still very determined to win. And I can’t be thinkin’ of other things five years from now. I have to take one day at a time.”

Suddenly, it seems only natural to ask Sandra Post what changed her mind that life Out Here wasn’t the life for a girl. She pauses for a moment and then she smiles. “Maybe it isn’t for a girl,” she says. “Maybe it’s for a woman.” 0