2003: LPGA - American beauty

By Jay A. Coffin

Odessa, Fla.

For years the LPGA has been searching in vain for the next transcendent American superstar, the player with the smooth swing of Beth Daniel, the fortitude of Juli Inkster, the fire of Dottie Pepper, the endless charisma of Nancy Lopez. But in the past decade, the tour’s dominant rising stars have been imports from Sweden, Australia and South Korea.

In Beth Bauer, who turns 23 March 15, the LPGA finally may have found its quintessential American-born star. Bauer appears to be the complete blend, mixing abundant talent with the drive and hunger to excel, all wrapped in a nice bow atop flowing blond hair and cover-girl looks.

When Bauer and fellow American Natalie Gulbis battled for Rookie of the Year honors in 2002, people took notice. And both players welcomed the attention.

“I think people coming out wanted to see some young, blond Americans play some golf,” said Bauer, who will begin her sophomore LPGA season March 13-16 at the Welch’s/Fry’s Championship.

At the LPGA’s season-ending ADT Championship last November, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, asked to identify a star of tomorrow, both pointed to Bauer. (“As far as American players go, she’s probably the most talented that I’ve seen come out in the years I’ve been out here,” Webb said.)

The more you think about it, why wouldn’t it be Bauer? To this point, her career has been a steady, plotted ascension through golf’s layers and tiers. At each level she has checked off goals like items on a shopping list, establishing herself, in sequence, as the No. 1 junior, amateur and Futures Tour player.

After winning LPGA Rookie of the Year honors, finishing 18th on the money list with more than $480,000 and becoming the only rookie to earn her way to the season-ending ADT Championship, there remains one more logical step.

“My first goal this year is to win,” Bauer said. “I was in a situation last year where I had a couple of chances on Sunday and didn’t get it done. I believe I can this year. I want to win once, then twice. I just want to win and keep winning.”

Bauer is determined to be a more complete player, combining lessons learned as a rookie with a rigorous offseason fitness and practice regimen.

At one point last year, Bauer had played eight consecutive tournaments and was planning to play two more when she noticed her 10th consecutive event was going to be the U.S. Women’s Open. Bauer took a week off, recharged her batteries, and – beginning with the Open – flourished during the last half of the season, playing 14 times with 12 top-20 finishes, including a runner-up showing at the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic. She will not play more than six consecutive weeks in 2003.

The offseason hardly can be considered down time for Bauer. In November, she closed on a modest four-bedroom house outside Tampa. Her home overlooks the first hole of the Eagles Golf Club, which sponsors Bauer and has its logo on her golf bag. She also sought the assistance of a fitness trainer and a swing instructor.

For fitness, she turned to Paul Tringali, a trainer at a nearby center. Bauer spent two hours per day, three to four days per week at the gym, sculpting her body to endure the rigors of a long LPGA career.

For instruction, Bauer selected Mike McGetrick, the 1999 PGA Teacher of the Year who works with Inkster and Meg Mallon, among others, and runs the McGetrick Golf Academy in Denver. McGetrick is not looking to rebuild Bauer’s swing, but seeks to improve technique and consistency. This should help provide Bauer more power and distance, elements she knows she must add to become a perennial contender.

“It’s amazing what a couple of centimeters at the top of your swing can do,” Bauer said. “But when I get it going, it feels a lot more solid and a lot more powerful.”

Added McGetrick: “She really enjoys what she’s doing, she loves to practice, loves to play, loves to compete. We’re taking where she is now and trying to make everything a little bit better.”

For Bauer, soliciting the help of an instructor was not an easy step. She had not had a golf instructor since 1994, when her father, John, a club professional in the Tampa area, died from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare disease that attacks the nervous system. Beth was 14. John Bauer, who was 41, had introduced his daughter to the game when she was 3 and they shared the dream of one day seeing her reach the LPGA. They called themselves “Team Bauer.” Beth still has vivid memories of her father and wishes he was here to see her success. She may be a grown woman, living on her own, but she always will be daddy’s little girl. She refers to her dad as “my forever golf idol.”

Many of John Bauer’s teaching techniques and concepts remain in his daughter’s mind. He always had taught Beth to shoot for the front of every green and try to two-putt for par, a helpful concept for a junior golfer when par is a good score. But outside of the U.S. Women’s Open, par doesn’t win tournaments on the LPGA. Midway through last season, Beth and her caddie, Doug Matteson, began to work meticulously on improving her greens in regulation percentage (she finished at 65.8 percent, which tied for 35th; Annika Sorenstam ranked No. 1 at 79.7 percent).

“It seemed like when we missed the green 85 percent of the time we were short,” Bauer said. “When you’re on tour you have to have birdie opportunities on every hole. I’m still learning to take a few more risks than I ever have before.”

For Bauer, the operative word is learning. The new house she moved into this winter may seem modest for someone making the on- and off-course money Bauer is reeling in – she has deals with Cleveland Golf, Callaway, Tommy Hilfiger, Dasani and Rolex, among others – but it’s significant because it marks the first time she has been totally on her own. She and her mother, Chris Bauer, remain very close (they live only a mile apart), but last summer, Chris stopped traveling to every event. She’ll still attend a handful, and says she’ll be there if Beth has a chance to win on Sunday, which could be often.

“She got comfortable and realized she wasn’t a little kid anymore,” Chris Bauer said. “It was just time.”

If Bauer breaks through to win this season, her second goal would take care of itself. Bauer wants to be on the U.S. Solheim Cup team that will defend in Sweden in September. She is ranked seventh in Solheim points. The top 10 qualify and captain Patty Sheehan will add two wild-card selections.

Odds are Bauer will make the Solheim Cup squad, if her past record is any indication. Bauer has been named a season-ending Player of the Year for six consecutive years. In 1997 and 1998, she was the American Junior Golf Association’s Junior of the Year; in 1999, she was the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and NCAA Freshman of the Year; in 2000, she again was ACC Player of the Year; in 2001, she was Futures Tour Player of the Year; and she added LPGA Rookie honors last season.

The only time she has dealt with a major setback on the course was when she failed to earn her LPGA card on her first attempt in 2000. With high expectations, she had just left Duke University after two years and turned professional.

The reality of that failure, she said, was the lowest point of her golfing career.

“It’s like you pass or fail, and I failed in that event. That’s how you’re judged,” Bauer said.

She regrouped, won four times and set a Futures Tour earnings record with $81,529 to earn her LPGA card.

As impressive as her rookie season was – she had six top-10 finishes – Bauer believes she can be better in 2003.

“I feel like I can always do more,” Bauer said. “I don’t think I ever feel like I’ve done too much, and I hope I don’t ever feel like that. I’m ready to play again. I’ve really got the itch.”

Bauer opened 2003 by tying for 25th at the ANZ Ladies Masters and tying for seventh at last week’s Australian Women’s Open.

“She’s very talented, and has the game to be a very good player out here,” Webb said. “She has a very good head on her shoulders. She’s very humble and very respectful. She knows how good she is, but she doesn’t have to let everyone know how good she is.”

In all likelihood, they’ll find out soon enough.

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