U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Bradley's 1981 Win Spurs Her Toward 2018 U.S. Senior Women's Open
July 9, 2016 | San Martin, Calif.
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
Thirty-five years later, the excitement is still evident in Pat Bradley’s voice.
“I look at the picture of me holding my USGA trophy, and it’s something that every young American girl who gets into the game dreams of winning,” said Bradley, 65. “I wasn’t really sure it would happen to me, but it did, and it’s still very emotional for me.”
Bradley wasn’t even sure that it would happen for her on Sunday morning of that week in July 1981, as she prepared to begin the final round of the 36th U.S. Women’s Open at La Grange (Ill.) Country Club, southwest of Chicago. But on her first hole, Bradley got a premonition that it might be her time to win.
“I hit a good drive, and I hit a 7-iron into the green, and it lipped out, almost going in for eagle,” said Bradley from her home on Cape Cod, Mass. A veteran of seven LPGA Tour seasons, Bradley had started her day three strokes behind 54-hole leader Kathy Whitworth, an eventual Hall-of-Fame player who was seeking her first Women’s Open title in her 23rd start.
Bradley, 30, also trailed Bonnie Lauer by two strokes and Beth Daniel by one. Daniel, 24, was one of the Tour’s rising stars, having won two U.S. Women’s Amateurs and collecting six victories in two-plus seasons on the LPGA Tour.
“Kathy was the sentimental favorite, and I was paired with Beth, who had a terrific résumé in USGA events,” said Bradley. “And then there was little me from Westford, Mass. I did not have the credentials that they did, growing up in New England. I was more of an unknown.”
Bradley followed up her birdie on No. 1 with two more on Nos. 5 and 6, and by the time she and Daniel made the turn, it was clearly a two-player battle. Whitworth, who finished her career with a record 88 LPGA Tour victories, struggled out of the gate and finished third after a final-round 74 in her best chance to win a Women’s Open.
Bradley was, perhaps, less of an underdog than she allows, since she had already won eight times on Tour, including the Peter Jackson Classic, then a major event. But she contends that her style of play did not particularly lend itself to the Women’s Open.
“I didn’t hit a high ball, my irons had more of a low, penetrating flight,” said Bradley. “With the hard and fast greens of U.S. Opens, just holding the greens was a difficult task for me.”
What that approach shot on the first hole told Bradley was that Sunday was going to be different. A powerful storm had swept through the Chicago area late Saturday night, waking Bradley up, and the result was a softened course and more receptive greens.
“Fortunately for me, it all came together that week, including Mother Nature,” said Bradley. “That storm was a huge aspect in my favor. Before it, the course setup played into Beth’s hands, because she was a high-ball hitter. It helped my ball to maintain itself on the greens.”
Bradley and Daniel turned to the incoming nine in a dead heat, setting up what the USGA’s Robert Sommers would call “a stirring duel between two superb players.”
On the 12th hole, Daniel saved par from 12 feet to keep the two tied. On No. 13, Daniel was bunkered off the tee, and Bradley was just off the green in two. Daniel hit a superb approach to 16 feet, and after Bradley holed a delicate 20-foot pitch with her sand wedge, Daniel drained her birdie putt to match her.
At the 15th, Daniel again bunkered her approach shot, but blasted out to within a foot of the hole. Bradley had hit her approach shot on the front of the green, some 70 feet away from the hole. She rolled it in to take a lead she would not relinquish.
“It was much more likely that I would have three-putted it,” said Bradley. “You wouldn’t have imagined making that putt in your wildest dreams. I know that I took a little bit of the wind out of Beth’s sails.”
Daniel bogeyed the next hole, No. 16, to fall two strokes behind, but rebounded with an 8-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th. Although she trailed by one as the pair arrived on the tee of the 455-yard, par-5 18th hole, the long-hitting Daniel held an advantage.
“I hit my drive, nothing spectacular, and Beth hit a great drive, giving her the opportunity to reach the green in two,” said Bradley. “I put my second shot about 70 yards from the green, and she went for it. If she had hit it straight, she would have been putting for eagle for sure, but she hooked it into the left rough. I hit an excellent sand wedge for my third shot, about 3 feet from the hole, and then she almost chipped in for eagle, just barely missing it.
“I remember putting my ball down, and it was a little side-hiller, right to left,” Bradley recalled of her final putt. “A little voice told me, Pat, do not overanalyze this – don’t overthink it. Just get over it and stroke it.”
Bradley knocked the ball in for a closing round of 6-under-par 66, one stroke better than Daniel, who finished with a 68.
“It was one of the most exciting rounds of golf I’ve ever experienced,” Daniel said later. “I kept watching Pat and thinking, she can’t keep this up.”
Bradley’s 66 broke the record for the lowest final round by a Women’s Open champion, and the mark stood for 23 years, until fellow Bay State native Meg Mallon shot 65 to win the second of her two Women’s Opens in 2004 in Massachusetts at the Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley.
Bradley went on to capture 31 LPGA Tour titles, including her signature season of 1986 when she captured three of her career six major championships. She overcame a bout with Graves’ disease, an overactive thyroid condition that almost ended her career in the late 1980s, and earned her second LPGA Player of the Year honor in 1991. Interestingly, Whitworth became the first female player to earn $1 million with her third-place finish in that 1981 Women’s Open, and Bradley went on to become the first to eclipse $2 million, $3 million and $4 million in earnings.
As fellow Tour player Val Skinner once remarked, “It’s death, taxes and Bradley on the leader board.”
Bradley finished second to Mallon in the 1991 Women’s Open, among eight top-five finishes in her Women’s Open career. Bradley is tied for third all-time with Mallon and Patty Sheehan with 21 career under-par rounds in the championship, behind Daniel and two-time champion Betsy King, who had 24 each. Daniel tied for second in 1982, but never won the Women’s Open in her Hall-of-Fame career.
“As we all know through its tradition, any championship put on by the USGA tests every ounce of us as players – physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Bradley. “To be a member of the USGA family of champions is an amazing accomplishment, and still thrilling to me.”
Bradley’s 31 Tour victories were heralded by her mother’s tradition of ringing a cowbell at her childhood home in Westford. That bell now sits in the World Golf Hall of Fame, but Bradley revived the tradition when her nephew, Keegan Bradley, the son of her brother Mark, captured the 2011 PGA Championship in his rookie season on the PGA Tour. She is intensely proud of him, and although she retired from the LPGA Tour in 2004, she is not ready to sit on the sidelines.
“What I’m focusing on now is the [inaugural] 2018 U.S. Senior Women’s Open,” said Bradley. “It will be nice to reconnect with the Chicago area at Chicago Golf Club [in Wheaton]. We are all looking forward to being part of that history-making moment and another chance at a USGA national title.
“It’s so important to establish this Women’s Senior Open for future generations, players like Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa, hopefully Karrie Webb when her time comes. Our counterparts on the Champions Tour have had that opportunity and we’re about to start our legacy. It’s very exciting.”
That excitement has Bradley and her contemporaries trying to hone her games in anticipation.
“I have moments of brilliance, and some days not so much,” said Bradley. “But we’re all out there beating balls, getting ready.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.