Laura Davies: A Dame who still has game

Laura Davies plays a practice round on Tuesday at Pinehurst No. 2, two days ahead of the start of the U.S. Women's Open.
Laura Davies plays a practice round on Tuesday at Pinehurst No. 2, two days ahead of the start of the U.S. Women's Open. ( USGA )

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Editor's note: Laura Davies, 51, a four-time major champion with 20 LPGA victories and the all-time leading winner (45 victories) on the Ladies European Tour, was named to the World Golf Hall of Fame's 2015 class on Wednesday. She will be inducted at the University of St. Andrews, just blocks from the Old Course, on July 13. Here's a column on Davies our Jeff Babineau wrote during the U.S. Women's Open in June.

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PINEHURST, N.C. – The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire may sound like some skit straight out of “Wayne’s World,” but it’s much higher brow than that. In the British Commonwealth, it’s a noble hierarchy of great honor, stature and distinction.

Admittedly, it would seem a topic of conversation more befitting a stodgy parlor filled by the sound of clinking tea cups than the biggest women’s golf tournament in the land, but here at the 69th U.S. Women’s Open, there are 155 mortals and only one, ahem, Dame.

This was evident at Pinehurst No. 2 in a Tuesday practice round as England’s Laura Davies played from a bunker at the third hole. Competitors Karrie Webb, Stacy Lewis and Alison Walshe joined caddie Mardi Lunn, who used to compete against Davies, in walking to the back of the tee at the nearby par-3 sixth in a chorus line to show Davies their best royal curtsies. Davies, still one of the more popular players on the LPGA, made a gentle, looping gesture with her hand to acknowledge her lowly “subjects” across the way, and they all enjoyed a hearty laugh.

Stick around long enough, as Davies has, and exhibit the excellence she has for so many years (four major titles, 84 worldwide victories), and some pretty cool accolades are bound to flow in.

Funny, but when the official letter showed up to her home in Coventry stamped from “The Palace” – Buckingham, we presume – she figured she was being invited to sit in the Royal Box at Wimbledon to watch a little tennis. Well enough. Instead, as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours, the British Empire was writing to inform Davies, a beloved sports figure across England, that it wished to elevate her from her designation as Commander of the British Empire (CBE) to Dame Commander (DBE), one of the commonwealth’s two highest distinctions. Sir Nick Faldo, meet Dame Laura Davies.

“It’s a great honor … lovely,” she said.

Oh, and by the way, she was not allowed to tell anyone. Would she accept?

“Obviously people do say ‘No’ to it, God only knows why, but they do,” Davis said at Pinehurst, where she will compete in her 26th U.S. Women’s Open. “But I had it signed and back in the letter box within about three minutes, I think.

“I ran up the road with my dog, we posted the letter and we went back and then started – I phoned my brother, because like I said, you can't tell anyone, but I told my brother, my mom and my stepdad, so they knew straight away. And then I've been trying to resist telling people for the last five weeks. It was difficult.”

These days, nothing appears to be all that easy for Davies, who will be 51 in October. She captured a U.S. Women’s Open title in a three-way playoff at Plainfield Country Club in New Jersey back in 1987, well before many of this week’s competitors were even born. And it was back in New Jersey last month that Davies tried her hand at qualifying for this week’s Open after unsuccessful attempts the previous two years. In her first attempt at qualifying, she didn’t even make it through the full 36 holes.

“I had a plane to catch, and I was about 16 over, and I said ‘to hell with this’ and went home,” she said. “And then I did really poorly the second time. But this time I was at a course (Rumson CC) that really suited my game. I had about eight 3-putts over the two rounds, but just managed to hold on for a spot.”

There were no scoreboards to see how others were doing, and Davies staggered to the finish, making bogeys at three of her last four for a two-round total of 147. She thought she might be resigned to watching yet another Women’s Open at home on the telly.

“I was very disappointed walking off the 18th,” she said, “ and an official said came up and said, ‘Congratulations.’ I nearly fell over.”

And so here she is, competing at her 26th Open. In this field, only Juli Inkster (35 appearances, a championship record) has played in more. Davies said her long game is fine, but she struggles with the putter. At Pinehurst, she has been working with “probably my seventh” putter of the season, a campaign in which she missed five consecutive cuts (or “five on the trot,” as she says), tying a career low set in 1990, when she was playing awful.

You’d think a recent 45th-place finish, her showing at the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic in Canada, would seem pretty insignificant to one who has spent a lifetime winning tournaments. But Davies said making the cut and playing well on the weekend (67-69) gave her a boost heading into Pinehurst No. 2, a course she likes. She still believes if she can get off to a good start with the putter, and can get her pace right, the rest of her game will carry her through.

“It’s not like I’m yipping them,” said Davies, who this week has gone to a putter with more weight in the grip and in the head. “They’re just not going in. Maybe I’ve made my fair share over the years, and the golfing gods have said, ‘No more.’ ”

So many of her contemporaries have moved on, having surrendered or been pushed out by the incredible depth of talent and youth prevalent on today’s tour. A favorite to make the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2015 now that the process has been tweaked (“There’s no reason she shouldn’t be in,” Inkster said), Davies still sits two points shy of the criteria to enter the LPGA Hall of Fame. Win a major, and she’d be in. But Davies has not won an LPGA event since 2001 (Wegmans) and has not won in Europe since a blockbuster 2010 season in which she won five titles.

Davies has said if she still thinks she can contend at age 60, "then I'll still play when I'm 60." So, what fuels her desire to still be out here still playing after all these years?

“I still think I can win," she said. "A lot of people don’t think I can win, but I’m here this week thinking I can win the U.S. Open. There’s probably not more than a half-dozen people around the world that think that’s possible. But as long as you think you can win it, then maybe you actually can.

“That’s my driving force, to win more trophies and keep going. I love competing. If you don’t win, then try to finish second, or 10th. Do the best you can do. That’s what keeps me going.” readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.