After Falling Off Course, Blalock Gets Back Into the Swing of Things : She Finds New Style, Confidence Add Up to Low Scores

Times Staff Writer

Only four active LPGA players have won more tournaments than Jane Blalock's 27.

Oh, really? you say. Is she still playing?

Playing yes, winning no, at least not in the last five years.

So when Blalock shot a five-under-par 67 Friday to share a four-way tie for first place after 36 holes of the $330,000 Uniden Invitational at Costa Mesa, there was talk of a comeback in the air.

Blalock sighed. "We'll see," she said, laughing nervously. "We'll look at the results at the end of the year and I'll tell you if it was a comeback or not. I've put enough pressure on myself the last few years, and I'm not looking to put any more on me now."

Her round Friday equalled the tournament best, with Patti Rizzo. She had six birdies before her lone bogey.

"It's been really four years that I hadn't played well," Blalock said. "In 1981 I finished third here (in the Women's Kemper Open) and I didn't win a tournament that year. I was trying so hard, trying to improve, trying to score, and the harder you try the worse the results seem to get."

The following year her career chart looked like the Crash of '29. Her winnings were cut in half to $45,000 and her scoring average jumped a stroke, all the result, she said, of a back injury.

"It was at Miami," she said. "I went to address the ball and couldn't bend over. I had to have somebody else pick up the ball, and I went home.

"Then I started making compensations in my swing, and my swing deteriorated, and then I lost confidence. I started to lose confidence in myself as a person. We let this game get into our personal lives too much. If you have a bad round, it's because you're a bad person, right? It snowballs. I should have just taken time off."

Finally, as her scores climbed and her confidence sank, Blalock retreated to her native New Hampshire and rented a house on the beach for four months.

"It gave me time to think and pursue a few other interests and decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I didn't know if I was ever gonna play again. I thought there must be something I can do well. I decided I wanted to play golf."

A doctor in Dallas diagnosed her injury as a herniated disc.

"I was checked into a hospital and they were ready to operate on me to do a fusion," Blalock said. "That would have been the end of my career.

"I said, 'OK, I want to go home for a week before we do this.' I went home, talked to my parents, came back to Dallas. It was a Monday, I was scheduled for surgery on Wednesday.

"But when I'd left the hospital the first time he gave me some injections in my back to relieve the pain so I could fly. When I came back I told him, 'I don't need any operation. I don't have any more pain.' And he said, 'Let's talk about this.'

"What happened was, the injections I'd had seemed to work temporarily and buy me time to do exercises, to get rest and to build up my stomach and back muscles again."

Without surgery, by the end of last season Blalock was playing well again, and after four tournaments this year she was the sixth-leading money winner with a tie for second in one event and a tie for third in another.

"This is best start I've had in a long time," she said.

"I changed teachers, too. I went to Ed Oldfield about a year ago. He made a lot of swing changes.

"What I've really had to concentrate on is focusing totally on my swing and forget where the ball goes and forget what I shoot. If I make enough good swings, pretty soon the scores are going to be there."

Blalock, who will turn 40 in September, has a new style of game to go with her new confidence. Her old short-hitting, scrambling game wouldn't have worked well on the demanding Mesa Verde course.

"I always played by feel," she said. "My whole philosophy was to get the ball in the hole, any way you can do it.

"But as the players out here get longer and stronger and we start playing better golf courses, tougher golf courses, I've had to adapt and become a better striker of the ball.

"As you get older you get stronger. My swing has improved. I've never been a great driver of the golf ball. I'm becoming a good one now, and it's a whole different game. I have more extension and hit the ball farther. I also have more confidence so I'm able to go after it a little faster and harder.

"I guess I've had two careers: one where I've tried to score and one where I hit the ball low to the right, and now I'm hitting the ball high with a draw. I have a much better golf swing now than I've ever had in my life. I'll have to do less scrambling, so if I can apply the first part of my career to the mental side I have now, I can be dangerous.

"Improving my swing has taken a lot of pressure off my back, too. I'm in better positions and I don't put as much pressure on my body. I'm through the ball more aggressively. I used to hang back on my right side and that put a lot of twisting on my back."

"Now I have to just keep swinging well so I don't hurt my back."

If this is indeed a comeback, Blalock will have survived another crisis in her career. Once she was accused of cheating by misplacing her ball on the greens after marking it. A few years ago she protested the use of Jan Stephenson's provocative poses to promote the LPGA.

Now she can laugh about it.

"Jan and I were good friends, and we are good friends," Blalock said. "We had a little tension between us because of what we were reading that the other one was saying."

The tensions seem to have faded into friendly rivalry.

"Even in tournaments I've won, my competitors used to make fun of me for the way I hit the tee shots, just scraping it around," Blalock said.

"Now they're teasing me because I'm hitting it in the air and hitting it longer. But I'm having the last laugh."

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