By Travis Puterbaugh, Curator
In 1996, Laura Davies enjoyed her best year ever on the LPGA Tour. Davies won four tournaments on the Tour, including two Major Championships, and earned Female Player of the Year honors from the Golf Writers’ Association of America and Rolex Player of the Year honors from the LPGA Tour. Davies, who became only the second player ever to cross $900,000 in season earnings (reaching $927,302 for the year), just missed out on winning the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average (70.32) having fallen short of the 70 round minimum by a mere two rounds.
At the McDonald’s LPGA Championship 25 years ago this month, Davies burgeoned her legend with the third Major Championship win of her career, and her second win in three years in the tournament held at the Du Pont Country Club in Wilmington, Delaware. Davies obviously enjoyed great success at Du Pont, even having won the McDonald’s Championship for her sixth career LPGA win on that very course in 1993.
Unlike in 1994 when Davies rolled to her first McDonald’s LPGA Championship title with a three-stroke victory, her triumph in 1996 would – thanks to the conditions – literally be a slog to the finish line. The course at Du Pont had been saturated with rain for a week heading into the tournament, so an additional 2 ½ inches of precipitation on Thursday rendered the course unplayable.
With the first round wiped out, for the first time in the history of the LPGA a Major Championship went from a 72-hole to a 54-hole event, without serious consideration of the tournament being extended to a Monday finish. In addition, the golf course – originally set up at 6,386 yards – was shortened considerably, in theory negating the advantage Davies held due to her prodigious length. In 1996, Davies led the LPGA with a driving average of 262.26 yards.
“In my eyes, she always had a huge advantage because she hit the ball so far,” recalls Penny Hammel, a four-time winner on the LPGA Tour who finished T3 for the tournament. “She hit her 2-iron farther than most of us hit our drivers.”
The shortened course did little to throw Davies off her game, as she compared it to “pitch and putt.” Davies shot a one-over par 72 on Friday which had her looking up at 27 other golfers including stalwarts such as Juli Inkster, Nancy Lopez, Meg Mallon, Dottie Pepper, and up-and-comers such as Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb.
While the weather on Saturday turned sunny, warm, and humid, the seemingly better playing conditions produced only four sub-70 rounds, and just 22 total scores of par or lower in a field of 79 including an even-par 71 from Davies. She would need to overcome a three-stroke deficit in the final round to Kelly Robbins, who held the lead at -2 (140).
On Sunday, winds gusted at 35 MPH and chilly weather throughout the day emulated conditions Davies grew up with in her native England.
“It was wet on Sunday,” Hammel recalls, “and I knew if I could shoot around par or better, I might have a chance at winning.”
Might. But Davies had her own plans.
She opened the final round with 15-consecutive pars, many of which featured critical saves to avoid bogeys. Robbins faltered on her way to a disastrous 79, and on a day when nine golfers had or shared a lead in the final round, at the 16th hole Davies grabbed her first lead of the tournament with an 18-foot putt for birdie.
She saved par with another clutch putt on the 18th, following a terrific bunker shot which left an eight-footer. Just four golfers broke par that afternoon – with Davies being one of them at 70 – and that turned out to be just enough to capture the tournament by one stroke.
Afterwards, Davies called her one-under par round of 70 the “best round of golf I’ve ever played in the last round of a Major.”
Her even-par total of 213 also represented the first time a Major Championship had been won with a score of even or above par since Hollis Stacy at the 1984 U.S. Women’s Open.
“I don’t think anybody had dominated a tournament like this,” second-place finisher Julie Piers said. “She’s got great memories of this course. She has finished first, first, second, and first. How good is that?”
It got better for Davies in August, when she added her second Major Championship of the year, the du Maurier Classic, a two-stroke win over Nancy Lopez and Karrie Webb at the Edmonton Country Club. By the end of the year, Davies had also surpassed the $3 million mark in career earnings.
As a truly global golfer who enjoyed a schedule of tournaments around the world on multiple tours, Davies entered only 20 of the LPGA’s 34 scheduled events in 1996. By not playing a full LPGA schedule during the prime years of her career in the 1990s, many in the sport believe Davies cost herself certain induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame, which she remains short of qualifying for by a mere two points. The 1996 Vare Trophy, which eluded Davies by two rounds, would have been worth one additional point.
Induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame – acknowledged as the hardest Hall of Fame to earn entry to in any sport – remains tantalizingly close for Davies, who won 87 times as a professional and is one of the most accomplished golfers in the history of the women’s game.
Kris Tschetter, a mainstay of the LPGA during the 1990s who finished T18 at the 1996 McDonald’s LPGA Championship, describes Davies as an all-around golfer whose length off the tee perhaps overshadowed a great short game, and a positive approach to the game which surely contributed to her sustained excellence and Hall of Fame credentials.
“(Laura) just had that extra gear,” Tschetter says. “She stayed very much the same whether she was playing good or bad. She was fun to play with, but when she was on… she was very hard to beat.”