Closeup/Sports

The Golden Baugh

Winning isn’t everything. Endorsements are

Michael Posner June 13 1977
Closeup/Sports

The Golden Baugh

Winning isn’t everything. Endorsements are

Michael Posner June 13 1977

The Golden Baugh

Winning isn’t everything. Endorsements are

Closeup/Sports

Michael Posner

From the 13th-floor windows of One Erieview Plaza, the parking lots seem to stretch infinitely. Cars stand like bubbles on an ocean of concrete, shimmering in the heat of May. A desultory wind swirls and whips refuse against their hubcaps. From the 13th floor one can watch the afternoon traffic thread through city streets, a ritual exodus that will lead to Shaker Heights or Pepper Pike and other clean, quiescent suburbs. This is Cleveland, U.S.A., raw carbuncle on the lower lip of Lake Erie.

By an accident of history, Cleveland is the home of Mark H. McCormack’s International Management Group (IMG), a honeycomb of 10 companies devoted to managing and merchandising some of the world’s finest athletes. IMG is 13 floors and a million miles removed from the moribund city below. Its white, push-button telephones are more likely to ring with calls from London or Buenos Aires than from Cleveland. On the 13th floor, large, color-coded wallboards chart the weekby-week whereabouts of Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase, Rod Laver and John Newcombe, all McCormack clients. Fleets of Ivy League marketing grads are busy with calculators, tapping out the rhythm of international cash flows and plotting the strategies of deferred income. McCormack himself, lawyer turned conglomerate, is on the road two days out of three, jetting from Pebble Beach to Pago Pago, dropping in at the iMG-packaged Challenge Of The Sexes, hammering out contracts for TV series, endorsements and personal appearances that last year grossed IMG $30 million. Feared and respected as the most powerful figure in professional sport, McCormack, 46, is the man who transformed Arnold Palmer into a legend, escorted Jack Nicklaus toward his first million and alchemized Jean-Claude Killy’s Olympic gold medals into an instant two-million-dollar fortune. In slightly more than 15 years he has put together a stable of 150 thoroughbred athletes that makes any competitor’s clientele look like mares at Aunt Lucy’s farm. And somewhere along the way, in one of his routine acts of marketing genius, McCormack turned an unknown 18-yearold amateur golfer into the richest woman in professional golf history.

Laura Zonetta Baugh—the middle name derives from her great-grandmother, a full-blooded Sioux who lived to 102—is 22 now. Thanks to her association with IMG, she is also a woman of property. In four years she has grossed more than a millionxlollars—off" the pro tour—pinning

her name to everything from three-irons to mayonnaise. Were one seized by the urge, it would be possible to wake up in the morning to a Laura Baugh alarm clock, check the date on a Laura Baugh pinup calendar, brush one’s teeth with a Laura Baugh-promoted toothpaste (Ultra-Brite), apply a Laura Baugh-promoted hand lotion (Rosemilk), put on a fashionable Laura Baugh golf outfit (her David Crystal line of shorts, slacks, tops and skirts grossed almost five million dollars last year), ride to the golf course on a Laura Baugh-promoted motorbike (Suzuki) and play 18 holes.with a Laura Baugh line of golf equipment (Wilson). In Japan, where she ranksjust behind Arnold Palmer as the best-known American athlete, one could also relax by listening to Laura Baugh sing in Japanese, learn English phonetically by listening to Laura Baugh cassettes, watch The Most Beautiful Golfer, a Laura Baugh TV series in which she golfs against sumo wrestlers, and sip a Laura Baugh-promoted soft drink.

In a world run amok with celebrity endorsements. marketing manoeuvres of this kind no longer seem remarkable. On any given Sunday afternoon in America, a touchdown pass or a withering cross-court volley or a 35-foot eagle putt can turn ordinary muscle fibre into heroic tissue. Then, quicker than you can say breakfast of champions, the heroes become shills, fumble-mouthed spokespeople for aftershave and rent-a-cars, purveyors of dogfood and deodorant. As salesmen, they derive credibility from their performance on the playing field. America believes in its winners.

But all of that only makes what Mark McCormack has done for Baugh the more impressive. For after four years on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, after more than 100 golf tournaments, Laura Baugh has yet to win. She has placed second six times, and she has earned enough prize money to qualify for an American Express card, but she has never won. Not once. And at least one school of opinion believes she never will.

It hardly matters. That Laura Baugh is a good but not great golfer has almost nothing to do with her ability to sell toothpaste. Her popularity at home and abroad does not depend on the accuracy of her nineirons. It rests instead on what every woman wants and few—on the pro circuit—have: good looks. Laura Baugh has them in spades. She is the girl you'd like the girl next door to be. Her teeth are white, her hair is blond and her golden brown body is a paradigm of health. She has a dimpled smile that would have charmed Caligula. Her laugh is California—warm and sunny and willing, a genuine giggle. Her trim, five-foot-four, 110-pound figure, which a men’s magazine once offered to photograph. has more subtle curves than the greens at Augusta National. It is shown to best advantage in her own golfwear, a stylish array of pastel shades that prompts total strangers to accost her with opening lines such as: “Pink is your color.’’ To see her. a loyal throng of male groupies, a Baugh's Battalion, turn out wherever she plays to pass comment on, among other things, the way she hits a golf ball.

With her galleries—consistently the largest on the tour—she is neither moody (like Tom Weiskopf) norflippant(like Lee Trevino) nor truculent (like Jan Stephenson). She will converse, answer questions, sign autographs, verbally applaud her opponent's shots and generally behave as though tournament play were a discipline she enjoyed and not an exercise on which the future of the free world rests. Remark that she is small—compared to the elephantine shapes that commonly stalk the LPGA tour—and she will correct you: “No. actually I’m quite big. I just look small.” Laura Baugh hates smokers, drinks lightly and is in no danger of being edited for expletives. Her opinions on issues large and small are strongly held, but reasonable beyond her years. Those who resent her wealth or her looks, she ignores. “I can’t be responsible for what other people think. I’ve worked hard for my money, but I won’t judge anyone else’s life. How should 1 know why somebody doesn’t like me? Maybe they’re a vegetarian. All I really know is that 120 yards is probably an eight iron . . . Besides, money isn’t everything. Money’s only freedom, being able to choose between playing in a tournament or making a commercial—not having to do one because it pays more. I like money. I like what it’s done for me. I’ve invested in land, stocks, gold. I buy what I believe in. But money’s not happiness and it’s not health and it’s not love. All of those things are more important.”

Golf is a game best suited to obsessives. Anyone can learn to play, but not everyone can learn to play well. It requires not simply long hours of practice, but fierce, lonely concentration. There are no opponents on whom to blame defeat. Either you sink the birdie putt to win the tournament or you settle for par and second place and a memory of personal failure that will not fade. Thine enemy is thyself. The ability to direct a sphere of white plastic measuring two inches in diameter into a metal cup over wildly undulating terrain may seem insignificant set against the ravages of inflation and the war in Angola. But substantial amounts of money turn in relation to that skill. Let your mind wander for only a second from the shot to be played at the U.S. Open and all the riches that flow in its wake may slip from your grasp. “To win in professional golf,” says Laura Baugh, “you have to be thinking about golf. You can’t be thinking about the airplane you have to catch or the rented car that has to be returned or wondering what anybody else is thinking. Only golf.”

Laura Baugh has been thinking about golf for 19 of her 22 years, ever since her father. Hale, a Florida lawyer and former college golf champion, gave her a set of clubs and taught her to hit away. “Laura was just the product of golf,” recalls her mother, Sally. “It was just golf, golf, golf.” She played every day; by the time she was 12, she had won five national peewee titles and three Florida state championships.

A year later, her parents divorced. “I don’t really think the divorce hurt me,” she says now. “It taught me a lot, though. It taught me to appreciate golf because it's mine and it’s not judged and nobody can take it away.” Still, a residue of bitterness remains. “The court ordered the boys to stay with their father.” says Sally Baugh. “But I couldn’t be party to having my daughter watch any carryin’on; a mother’s got to give a child some sense of morals, doesn’t she? So she and I drove to California. Laura was the navigator. Lord, but it was fun, a great adventure, driving across the country for the first time in our Pontiac GTO, with everything we owned in the back seat. My parents lived in Long Beach so we went there. The day we arrived Laura was out hitting golf balls.”

Hale Baugh, recently remarried, opposed the move to California. “There was no reason to go out there. Here, she belonged to a club, had a home, furniture. Everybody knew her. I was saying to Bo— that’s Laura’s brother—the other day what a shame it was we couldn’t have had Laura here during those early teen-age years. 1 think her mother took her out west mainly as a punishment to me.” Whatever the motive, California didn’t do Laura Baugh’s golf game any harm. Friends arranged free access for her to a nearby course; she played every day after school. On weekends, her mother would pack a picnic lunch, a radio and some knitting and sit for hours watching her daughter practise fades and draws at a driving range. That, too, was free—an important consideration. The Baughs scarcely had money for furniture, let alone green fees. They slept on the floor.

Determined to make golf her ticket, Baugh was the best golfer—male or female—in her high school, although a rule against women members kept her off the golf team. At 16. she became the youngest girl ever to win the U.S. women’s amateur title. Inevitably, her performance captured imaginations: one did not have to be Harvard MBA to see the commercial potential of her good three-woods and. even better. her smile. A friend advised McCormack to sign her up. He did—to handshake contract that gave IMG 20% of whatever Laura Baugh earns, on and off the course. “It was really a question of who reached us first.” says Sally Baugh. “We liked Mark, but we needed the money so bad we’d have signed with anyone.”

Too young at 17 to qualify for the LPGA tour. Baugh was shipped off to Japan for the World Ladies Open. The Japanese took one look and went ga-ga. "I don’t think Mark really had any idea of what would happen,” says IMG vice-president Hughes Norton, who oversees Baugh’s personal schedule and negotiates her contracts. “We certainly didn't think she'd make a million dollars in her first four years. The critical thing was timing. Golf was booming in Japan, and here was a cute little blond who could really hit the ball and who had a name they pronounce . . Rola Baugh. I mean, you could never market Dave Eichelberger over there.”

Baugh made more money in the Far East that spring than most women pros make in one year. Separate contracts were signed for golf balls, golf clubs, golf bags and golf gloves; all paid handsome royalties. Rolex and Suzuki wanted her endorsements. “It was like a flock of birds,” remembers IMG’S Japanese connection Hidehiko Kamda. “When the lead birds turn in one direction, the whole flock follows.”

Back in America, Colgate hired Laura to hang around the annual Dinah Shore tournament. Ultra-Brite anted up five figures to have Baugh flash her perfect teeth on television. “It’s a young, upbeat product for young, upbeat people and you can’t get much younger or more upbeat than Laura Baugh,” explains young, upbeat Colgate senior product manager George Cane. Wilson outbid Spalding to have her represent them in the United States. They signed her to a six-year contract for—in Norton’s words—“amounts of money they had certainly never paid to a woman before. I remember Wilson decided to stage press conference in Chicago to announce the signing. I was meeting Laura in person for the first time. I found her at the airport, sitting in the baggage claims area, the most totally bewildered person you’ve ever seen. Later, in Atlanta, she had to rent car. She didn't know the first thing about how to do it. She was so . . . innocent.”

No more. Laura Baugh may still look 16. but she acts 32. After four years on the traveling circus known as the LPGA tour, she has become that dubious cliché: a seasoned veteran. She can rent a car or hop jet plane as fast as she can thwart an undesirable suitor. Still, it is a solitary life. Though she has friends on the circuit (among them Canada’s Sandra Post). Baugh travels, rooms and—frequently— dines alone. She telephones her mother once a week. Her closest contacts are Hughes Norton and IMG vice-president Alastair Johnston, who administers her financial ledger. Says Johnston: “She’ll call, on a pretext late at night, to discuss some minor point and end up talking for half an hour. Sometimes I just think she’s lonely.” Her Clio-award winning Ultra-Brite commercial (Chorus: How’s your love life Laura Baugh? She: Uh, what’s a love life?) may not be far off the mark. The men in her life—golfers Bobby Cole and Wayne Dent mostly court by telephone.

“Loneliness,” she says, “is the worst part, especially when you win. Imagine winning a golf tournament and then going back to the motel room to be by yourself. Ordering up dinner from room service. Tell me how bad that is. When I win. there’s going to be one heck of a party.”

The tenth annual Lady Tara Classic, once known as the Lady Pepsi Classic, is being held the first week of May at the Brookfield West Golf and Country Club, 22 miles north of Atlanta. Brookfield West is a luxury residential compound of $150.000 homes, protected from what its promoters like to call “the frustration of daily life” by a 24-hour security blanket. At Brookfield West, the literature trumpets: “Families of some means live, play and communicate with kindred spirits amid an atmosphere of gracious elegance.” Mockingbirds sing in the dogwood trees and the towering Georgia pines whisper to skies that seem perpetually blue. When Americans talk about the assault on the quality of life in the Seventies they are not talking about Brookfield West.

Laura Baugh comes to Atlanta in good spirits. She feels a certain kinship with the city; it is where she first qualified for the tour and where—on two occasions—she came close to winning. She is anticipating a visit from her father, whom friends now describe as “someone she sees every day. one week a year and never speaks to the other 51.” It is at times a strained relationship—personally because of Baugh’s stronger loyalty to her mother and professionally because she rejects her father’s view that her golf swing needs improvement and that her promotional activities are keeping her from reaching her peak. “It happened to Arnold Palmer too,” says Hale Baugh. “It’s mighty nice for a young girl to build up a fortune on her own and I’m real proud of her. But all those commercial ventures aren’t conducive to being as strong on the tour as she might be.”

In fact, Baugh has prudently curbed her exhausting schedule. She now takes a week off in every five, and won’t do promotions in a tournament week. But the results are not encouraging. After eight LPGA tournaments, she is twentieth on the list of official money winners, almost precisely where she finished in 1976. Worse, the golf world is growing restless, impatient for a victory. Her caddy. Chuck Monastero, who earns $175 a week plus 5% of her tour earnings, complains that “Laura is too nice. She lacks the killer instinct. She’ll always say ‘Nice shot’ to other golfers. She shouldn’t even be thinking of their shots.” IMG executives concede. “There may be something in that.” Hughes Norton says: “Some of the winners are pretty tough. I think the last time Sandra Palmer said ‘Nice shot' to anyone she was 11 years old.”

Baugh herself insists that “if you have to be mean to win, I don’t want to win. I want to be confident and aggressive, but 1 don’t want to beat the other girls. I want to wfin on my owm. If another girl makes a good putt. I’ll say ‘Good putt.’ That’s just the way I am.”

Still others contend Baugh is too busy selling toothpaste and conducting golf “clinics” for Ford dealers at $3.500 a day. The 10 extra pounds she could use on the golf course have been shed in the interests of the TV cameras, IMG, of course, resents the suggestion. “We’ve always believed that the confidence of the occasional oneday outings, all the income and cash flow, should help her win,” says Norton. “Laura’s playing with house money. It’s banked even before she steps on the tee. That can’t do anything but help her win.” Acutely conscious of these undercurrents, Baugh seems torn between desire to silence her detractors and a knowledge that winning just once won’t do it. “Winning once is a fluke, like a hole in one. You’ve got to win more than once. In any case I think I’m still a few years away from my prime. Look at Debby Austin—10 years on the tour before her win at Birmingham. I’m only 22. That’s still younger than most of the girls who join the tour.”

It is younger, for example, than Jan Stephenson, with whom Baugh is paired on the first day of the Lady Tara Classic. The pairing is ironic. Stephenson has recently resigned her account with IMG. complaining—as Jack Nicklaus had a decade earlier—that Mark McCormack was not doing enough for her. Last year. Stephenson won two tournaments, earned $64.827 and is generally conceded a superior golfer. But Laura earned more money off the course. It rankles. During 18 holes of play, they exchange barely a dozen words. Stephenson shoots a two-under-par 71, six strokes better than Laura. “I let my mind go,” Baugh says later. “I was two under par after nine holes and I just let it go.” Her first round 77 all but eliminates her from contention. Despite final rounds of 73 and 69. she finishes thirteenth, and wins $900. The victory party is postponed for another week.

Win or lose, Laura Baugh will generate $250.000 in extracurricular revenue in 1977. If she 10-putts every other green, it won’t make any difference. Win or lose, she will continue to travel first class between tournaments, drive her new, silver Thunderbird around the palm-dotted boulevards of Florida, relax in either of her condominium homes in Palm Springs. Calif., or Delray Beach. Fla., and accumulate exorbitant long-distance bills calling friends and relatives across the country. Win or lose, her annual excursion to Japan, which alone yields a six-figure income, will continue to elicit the kind of reaction Raquel Welch might get by strolling in a halter top through a pool room. Win or lose, she will still be able to walk into the safety deposit vaults of Cleveland’s Central Bank to examine her stock and bond certificates, hold-in-your-hand evidence of what her money has bought her. In short. Laura Baugh's economic future is assured, flowing in a cornucopia of endorsements, golf clinics and TV color commentaries that will make her a millionaire long before she turns 30.

“Laura wouldn’t like to think so,” says Hughes Norton, “but I don’t think it matters a bit if she ever wins a tournament. Her income doesn't depend on winning, any more than winning, at this stage, would add significantly to her income.”

If financial security bred indolence. Laura Baugh might be excused for never spending another hour on the practice tee. Instead, the money and renown have strengthened her resolve to win. She seems determined to j ustify her wealth. “I want to win. I’ve never hit the ball better or been in better shape. I’ll win. I don’t know when or where, but I'll win. I'll win when I’m ready to win. It’s just a matter of time.”

Could be. A great many people would certainly be happy if a very nice girl from California, a girl with a pretty face and a winning smile, could pass the only test pro golf regards as important: a tour victory. When she does, IMG account executives on the 13th floor of One Erieview Plaza will chart spin-off possibilities long into the night. Hale and Sally Baugh will share a memory or two of a 22-year marriage that went somehow awry, but produced a champion. And Laura Zonetta Baugh. 22. who in her best finish on the tour last year placed fourth and still earned $250,000, will break open a bottle of Dorn Perignon and, in a moment of reflection, contemplate the credibility that is now hers, ô