Lauer's Wait for Respect May Be Ending : Veteran Has 4-Shot Lead in Bid for Second Victory in Nearly a Decade

Times Staff Writer

Two spectators stood and stared at the leaders board adjacent to the ninth hole on the Mesa Verde Country Club golf course in Costa Mesa Saturday, watching some uncommonly low numbers being placed alongside an unfamiliar name.

Bonnie Lauer had just parred No. 9 to remain at two under par for the day--five under for the tournament--while expanding her lead in the $330,000 Uniden LPGA Invitational to two strokes.

"Lauer?" said one fan, wondering aloud. "Who's that?"

"Ah," replied the other with a wave of her hand, "she's nothing."

For Lauer, that's been precisely the problem with her professional golf career for much too long. Respect comes grudgingly for a 10-year tour veteran who starts out with Rookie of the Year honors, wins her first tournament in her second year and then cards a big zero for nearly a decade.

"It's been almost 10 years," Lauer says. "I got off to a good start and I've been a respectable player in between, but I haven't lived up to my potential, at least not in my mind. . . . I'm more than overdue."

The wait for victory No. 2 could soon be over for Lauer. Her name, once again, could soon wind up in bold print.

Today, if she can just protect the piece of work she produced at Mesa Verde Saturday--a four-under-par 68 in the third round, leaving her seven under for the tournament--Lauer will be able to turn nothing into something special.

Lauer's lead entering the final day is four strokes. She had shared the midway lead with Alice Miller, Patty Sheehan and Jane Blalock, but her third round came close to blowing the tournament apart.

Miller shot a round that pleased her, an even-par 72. "Anytime you can get even-par on this course, it's not that bad," Miller said. "Unfortunately, with Bonnie shooting 68, even-par will leave you in the dust."

Miller is four strokes back and one in front of Sheehan, who struggled uncharacteristically on the fairways through a round of 73. And dropping back to par, seven strokes back, was Blalock, whose putting touch vanished on the front nine, as she bogeyed the last four holes.

By the end of the afternoon, they and the rest of the field were resorting to wishful thinking, saying such things as "it's not over till it's over" and "a comeback is always possible on this course."

Lauer, for her part, tried to fight overconfidence.

"Four strokes is not a big lead on this course," she said. "You can lose that on one hole here."

But then again, Lauer had to admit: "It's the type of course that's difficult to shoot six under on. The odds might be in my favor that way."

Miller thinks so.

"Nobody will roll over and play dead," she said. "But, I'd sure like to have a four-stroke lead and have the others try to catch me."

To catch Lauer, somebody may have to threaten the course record today, for a collapse by the leader seems unlikely. Lauer reached this position through her consistency, shooting a first round of 70 and a second round of 71.

She has not ended a round out of the lead. Lauer was in a three-way tie for first after Thursday and in a four-way tie following Friday's play.

Saturday, she simply accelerated the pace. Lauer drove with strength and steadiness--missing only two fairways all day--and didn't have to chip once the entire round.

"I didn't get in any trouble," Lauer said. "If I didn't hit the green, I'd land on the fringe where I could putt it. I had a lot of chances (for birdies)."

Lauer went through 18 holes without a bogey. She birdied four holes--including Nos. 12 and 13, with putts of 20 and 15 feet.

It was a most impressive round during a most impressive week for Lauer. Lauer stepped onto tour in 1976 with considerable promise. She was a runner-up in her fourth pro event, and won first championship within a matter of months in the 1977 Patty Berg tournament.

However, it's been all drought ever since.

"Maybe I was just waiting for it to happen on its own," Lauer said. "Maybe I got too complacent. More talented players started coming out on the tour, and I started spinning my wheels."

Hand problems that eventually necessitated surgery complicated Lauer's problems. She developed a condition called "carpal tunnel syndrome" ("It sounds a lot worse than it is," Lauer says)--pinched nerves in both wrists that leave the hands numb.

"I had to grip the club tightly just to hold onto it," she said. "It really hurt my putting. You have to have some touch and feel on the greens."

For a while, Lauer tried tinkering with her swing, but the so-so results kept coming. Finally, in February, 1983, she had surgery on both hands.

"They cut my wrists," she said, laughing.

Her career hadn't actually reached so desperate a situation, but Lauer was starting to think of trying her hand at something else. "I made up my mind," she said, "to do well this year or to do something else."

At Mesa Verde, Lauer has appeared to have put thoughts of retirement on the back burner. She says her hands feel better than ever and, right now, they have their grip on a long-awaited second tournament title.

They only have to hold on for 18 more holes.

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