It was tempting to view the final round of the Nabisco Dinah Shore—as Cliffs Notes to the season's first three months. Hanging near the top of the leader board were those sizzling Swedes, Liselotte Neumann and Helen Alfredsson, one and two on the money list, respectively, with three victories between them. Lurking nearby was countrywoman Annika Sorenstam, 0 for '98 despite playing some of the steadiest golf of her career. There was Laura Davies, feuding with her putter as always but nevertheless still in contention, as well as Karrie Webb, typically dour despite playing in the final threesome.
By the end of the day, though, something unexpected had happened. Pat Hurst, an up-and-coming 28-year-old from San Leandro, Calif., had held off her more celebrated rivals to win her first major championship. Although the brassy, wire-to-wire performance doubled Hurst's career victory total, it was not a fluke. In fact, Sunday may be remembered as the day the next American force in women's golf was unveiled.
"She's going to be a great player for a long time," said Neumann, who was paired with Hurst on Sunday and held a share of the lead at the turn before stumbling home to tie for fifth. "I would be surprised if this is the last major she wins. She hits it a mile, and her game is really aggressive and precise. She amazed me with her poise out there. Look who was chasing her."
No kidding. While England's Helen Dobson closed with a flawless 67 to sneak into second, Alfredsson and Davies tied for third, two back of Hurst. Sorenstam and Webb split seventh. The fast company hardly rattled Hurst. "I just treated them like numbers on a scoreboard," she said after her closing 71, which followed rounds of 68-72-70 for a seven-under-par 281. Hurst's $150,000 winner's check wasn't secured until she nailed a five-foot par putt on the 72nd hole. "It looked like a mile," said her drained caddie, Gary Lukash. "It looked like five feet," said Hurst.
Hurst is of Japanese and German descent but her mellow attitude is pure California. About the only anxiety she displayed throughout the week was over the prospect of having to take the traditional winner's dip in the sludge that passes for a lake next to the 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club. Hurst has a phobia about water that goes beyond red stakes-she can't swim a lick. Saturday evening Hurst gave a Namath-like guarantee that she wouldn't allow herself to get wet, but she was knee-deep in the water by the next afternoon, tournament cochairman John Manfredi dragging her in by the hand. It was the only time in four days that Hurst wasn't in control.
She had grabbed the tournament by the throat on Thursday with an eagle at the 2nd hole and a birdie at the 3rd. After putting the finishing touches on her 68, Hurst said, "I'm not surprised to be leading. If you're out here on tour, you've got to believe in yourself. You've got to be confident enough to hit the shots. If you're not, you're just defeating yourself." Hurst knows of what she speaks, for it was the mental game that almost drove her to give up golf before her career had even begun.
Hurst first took a fancy to the links at age 11 because she liked to chauffeur her stepfather around in his cart, but within a matter of years she was tearing through the amateur ranks. In 1986, at 17, she won the U.S. Junior. Three years later, as a sophomore at San Jose State, she was the medalist at the NCAAs and led the Spartans to the national championship. When Hurst followed that with a triumph at the U.S. Amateur in 1990, there seemed to be no slowing her ascent.
But following college she twice flunked Q school, with the result that she slogged around mini-tours for three seasons. Dogged by expectations and fed up with the financial uncertainty and small-time feel of the minor leagues, Hurst burned out on the game. The end came when she was leading a podunk tournament in Visalia, Calif., by nine shots—and was miserable. "Life's too short to do something you don't enjoy," she says.
In short order she took a job at swanky La Quinta Country Club in the Palm Springs area, not far from Mission Hills. Hurst gave lessons ($40 for a half hour, plus tips) and hawked polo shirts in the pro shop during downtime. Once in a while she would get in on the bustling money games played by the boys in the shop. The easy camaraderie and lack of pressure rekindled Hurst's joy in playing, and it showed. "Every time I played with Pat it seemed like she would birdie the 18th to take all the money," says Eric Hildreth, an assistant pro at La Quinta. "Every time."
Soon enough Hurst was again haunting the mini-tours, and not only was she winning again but she was also having a blast doing it. In the fall of '94 she got her card at Q school and, staked by a group of La Quinta members, lit out on the LPGA tour with Jeff Heitt, then her fiancé, now her husband, as her caddie. Hurst had a solid rookie year, earning $124,989 to finish 49th on the money list, and in the last two seasons has improved to 24th and 19th, respectively. Last June she won her first tournament, nipping Juli Inkster by a shot at the Oldsmobile Classic in East Lansing, Mich.