How Donna Caponi Won the U.S. Women's Open - twice
“Who’s this girl making all these birdies?”
Donna Caponi was a virtual unknown in 1969. Not because we didn’t have cyberspace, but because despite being on the LPGA Tour for nearly four years and finishing runner-up or in the top ten countless times, she had yet to win a tournament.
Things changed on the back nine on Sunday at the 1969 U.S. Women’s Open at Scenic Hills Country Club in Pensacola, Fla. “I came from five shots back,” recalls Caponi, 75, a 24-time winner on the LPGA Tour and World Golf Hall of Fame member. “The gallery following my group in the final round went from a few thousand to 10,000 over the last few holes. Then, on the 18th hole, as I was preparing to hit my approach into the green, lightning flashed and we had to mark our balls and get off the course.”
Play interrupted, Caponi sequestered herself in a quiet corner of the locker room for 90 minutes, unaware exactly where she stood but certain she was in contention given the sudden interest from the crowds. “I’ve never looked at a leaderboard in my life,” says Caponi. “I’ve always just wanted to play my game and beat the golf course. I have no control over what the other players do, so I don’t look.”
After the delay, Caponi returned to her ball to find the area drenched but not enough to get a casual water ruling. Given the squishy lie, she was forced to lay up for her second shot instead of going for the green in two - her original plan. A 60-yard sand wedge into the green left her a 7-footer… but above the hole. “The kiss of death,” admitted Donna. “You never put the ball above the hole. It was going to be slick.”
Still in the dark (on purpose) about her position on the leaderboard, Caponi studied her final putt as a hush fell over the crowd. She was certain it would break from left to right. From the open air, windowless (very low-tech by today’s standards) broadcast booth positioned behind her, Caponi heard 64-time PGA Tour champion and golf commentator Byron Nelson whisper into his mic, “Donna Caponi has this birdie putt to win the U.S. Women's Open. The putt breaks right to left.”
Her concentration shaken, Caponi stepped back and looked up at the booth. She looked back at the putt. “My Dad always told me to go with your first read on any putt,” says Caponi. “Byron Nelson won 19 tournaments in one year. What was I supposed to do?”
Caponi went with her gut, played it left to right and made the putt, resulting in a one-shot victory over Peggy Wilson, her first win on the LPGA Tour and a major championship title. “As it turns out, Byron was right about the read from his perspective,” notes Caponi. “The camera was on the opposite side of the hole.”
As dramatic as her win at the 1969 U.S. Women’s Open was, Caponi followed it up with an exclamation point and underlined it in 1970 when she led wire-to-wire and claimed her second U.S. Women's Open trophy at Muskogee Country Club in Muskogee, Okla. This year’s championship, underway now at Champions Club in Houston, Texas, is the 50-year anniversary of that epic second win.
“Winning those major championships early in my career was significant,” notes Caponi. “The first one was important because I just needed any kind of win. The second one was validation.”
Donna Caponi’s Key Take-Aways as You Watch the 75th U.S. Women’s Open:
Advice to the Field: Treat it like any other event. Your game got you here; don’t change anything other than what you would normally adjust to play well on that course.
Advice to Newbies in the Field: Avoid the big number on a hole. Take your medicine. Keep the ball in play. Don’t do worse than bogey. It takes a lot of birdies to make up for one bad hole.
Winner’s Circle: So many are so good right now… but I’ve known the Korda sisters since they were 15 so I would love to see one of them win. I like Lydia Ko’s overall game, and she’s a class act. She’s nonchalant outwardly, but a tiger on the inside – methodical and strategic. I can relate.
Quick Tip for Amateurs: Good course management means thinking about playing the hole from the green backward. You should know where the pin is when you are standing on the tee and play each shot to the best possible position to get you there. (Look at the day's pin sheet on the golf cart or get one from the pro shop.)
Shared from Fore! Fridays, a weekly e-pub of stories and conversation starters designed to help you look good, play better and know more when it comes to golf.