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Golfing glory comes at last for a perennial runner-up

Until Pat Bradley won this year's US Open, perhaps no golfer ever received so little recognition for playing consistently well. Before the Open, being called the area's least publicized top-flight athlete by a Boston columnist was the sort of backhanded compliment she'd come to expect.

The old saying about runners-up being forgotten certainly applied.Her name seldom made headlines, but it appeared right underneath the winner's at more tournaments than she'd like to remember -- 24 in eight years.

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Her most frustrating year was probably 1979, when she set a record of sorts by earning more money ($132,428) without winning a tournament than anyone in Ladies Professional Golf Association history.

Quiet, steady excellence became her trademark, the memory of victories that got away her burden.

That was until late last month, when she outdueled Beth Daniel during the final round of the 1981 women's Open in La Grange, III.

"I think winning the Open broke a barrier for me, she says. "It told me, yes , I can win the big one and make the big shots when the pressure is on. It gave me some feelings that I can now remember and work on. Each week is different, but hopefully, when I'm in that situation again, I will rise to the test."

Winning the Open under any circumstances is special. Winning it the way, and against the backdrop, that Pat did made the victory more so.

Several weeks earlier she had finished second (what else?) in Rochester, N.Y. , then tied for second in the Peter Jackson Classic, where Jan Stephenson spoiled Pat's attempt to defend her title with a birdie on the final hole.

At the Open, Kathy Whitworth drew heavy media attention through the first three rounds, as she bid to win this elusive title and become the LPGA's first millionaire. But in the last round Whitworth faded, leaving Bradley and Daniel, the 1980 Player of the Year, to take up the gauntlet, which they did in classic fashion.

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A national TV audience watched those two match heroics, Pat sinking a 70-foot putt at 15 only to see Beth close to within a stroke at 17 with a "must" birdie. When both players birdied 18, Bradley not only won her first US Open, she did so with the lowest finishing rounds in tournament history (68-66).

In addition to first-prize money of $22,000, she earned two bonuses, one of $ 25,000 for breaking the Open record with a 279 total, and another of $5,000 for the best cumulative finishes in the three major championships -- the Open, Peter Jackson, and LPGA Championship.

Not surprisingly, the win -- her ninth overall on the tour -- ranks as her greatest golfing thrill. "When I won my first tournament [the Colgate Far East Open in 1975] I was very excited," she says, recalling a clinching 50-foot putt on the last hole. "But with this Open being televised and me going head to head with Beth Daniel, it has to be the best. Growing up, the Open was always the tournament every junior dreamed of winning. Now I've done it and it's unbelievable."

Normally an unanimated player whose sun visor shades her poker player's countenance, Pat exhibited a new, more emotional side during the Open's dramatic final round.

She also displayed a more deliberate playing style, a change she feels contributed to her victory. "At times I get very anxious," she observes. "I come off the green and go quickly to the next tee without collecting my thoughts. When I get too fast, my swing gets the same way. So I worked hard on that at the Open. I took a couple of practice swings before addressing the ball and discussed things with my caddie before hitting."

Throughout her pro career, Bradley has stuck to a swing that produces long, low shots. She's altered her putting stroke, however, going to a flatter setup similar to the rather odd-looking style used by Japan's Isao Aoki.

The results speak for themselves. She was the best putter on the tour last year, a distinction earned, along with $25,000, by winning the Gold Putter award in a competition against other top players.

An excellent skier whose parents own a sports shop in Westford, Mass., Pat decided to forgo a bright future on the slopes to concentrate on golf. She was an All-America at Florida International University, turning pro in 1974. Two years she later was named the LPGA's Most Improved Player. By 1978 she was No. 2 on the money list, but her three tour victories were pretty much forgotten when rookie Nancy Lopez won five events in a row.

One of her goals this year is to win $200,000. She has already pocketed $165 ,527, which places her first on the current money list.

"After eight years, I'm right about where I should be," she says of her uninterrupted progress. Perhaps the most accurate gauge of this is her scoring average, which has dropped every year but one, when it held steady.

In 1980 it was 71.95, lower than Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth, the circuit's all-time leading money winner, has ever recorded on the tour. Bradley, incidentally, is sixth on the career list behind Whitworth, JoAnne Carner, Donna Caponi, Jane Blalock, and Judy Rankin.

That Bradley, Carner, and Blalock are all New Englanders indicates a geographical strength not paralleled on the men's circuit. Asked what may account for the strong showing by the region's women, Pat replies, "I'm not really sure, but it is tougher on the men's tour.

"The difference between No. 1 and No. 100 on their tour is a fine line, because all the men strike the ball so well. It's not quite that way on our tour yet, but it's getting tougher. You can see the quality of the game changing as players like Beth Daniel, Nancy Lopez-Melton, and Amy Alcott come out of college. Their amateur experience is helping them make a rapid adjustment."

Through Pat long ago settled into pro golf's nomadic existence, she wants to cut back on the number of tournaments she plays. "I'd love to pick and choose rather than go six weeks in a row with a week off," says one of the LPGA's most untiring regulars.

"I'm a strong player," she adds. "Physically I can withstand long stretches. I'm a horse; get me to the gate and I'll run."

Sometimes, as the Open proved, she beats everybody to the tape, a reminder that, yes, Pat Bradley is a winner.

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