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Jane Geddes could certify superstar status with US Open victory

In women's golf, four tournaments are designated as ``major'' events, but one clearly stands apart in prestige, tradition, and public recognition - the US Open. This year's championship writes its 42nd chapter beginning today as the world's finest female players tee it up at the Plainfield (N.J.) Country Club. Capturing the coveted title does not automatically confer greatness, as recent winners Jerilyn Britz, Janet Anderson, and Kathy Baker realize, nor does failing to win it limit esteem, as still-active Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez knows.

Claiming victory in the Open, therefore, is not the be-all and end-all of a player's career - but in the case of current defending champion Jane Geddes it sure got the ball rolling.

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At this time last year, Geddes was a promising third-year professional looking for her first tournament victory. She got it in dramatic fashion, by beating Sally Little at the Open in Kettering, Ohio, in an 18-hole playoff. Then to prove this was no fluke, she captured the Boston Five Classic the very next week, a sequence she could now repeat in reverse.

On Sunday she again won the Boston event, which is now a tuneup for the Open, coming from well back with a pair of 67s in the final rounds to stake a one-shot victory.

It was her fifth win of 1987, which clearly makes her the player to beat this week and the current favorite for Player of the Year honors.

If she could repeat her US Open triumph, a feat last accomplished by Hollis Stacy in 1977 and '78, Geddes would secure her status as a certifiable superstar.

She doesn't see herself crowding anyone off center stage, however, nor attaining the marquee value of Lopez, who has captivated the public ever since bursting upon the scene as a 21-year-old rookie in 1978 with nine tour victories, including a record-setting five in a row.

``It's hard to replace somebody like Nancy,'' she says. ``It's just like the men's tour, which probably never really replaced Arnold Palmer, who brought a certain amount of charisma to the men's game.''

Geddes may not fit the Palmer/Lopez role, but she appears to have some of Jack Nicklaus's qualities, both as a strong and consistent player and as a congenial and articulate ambassador for her sport.

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She assumes the limelight graciously and modestly, much as Nicklaus does, and has rapidly warmed to the task of being a leading player.

She is No. 1 on the money list, with $346,947 in earnings so far this year, and also tops the tour's cumulative standings. Rather than call this the Jane Geddes Show, however, she prefers to speak about how she and Betsy King have added to the tour's excitement by reaching the competitive level of Lopez and Pat Bradley, last year's No. 1 player.

Geddes says the key has been to learn what it takes for her to win, which is patience. That lesson was driven home at a 1985 tournament, when she bogeyed the final hole while Bradley finished with two birdies to take a one-shot victory.

``I rushed things on the last two holes,'' Geddes says. ``I was wishing I could push the clock ahead 30 or 40 minutes.''

Now she understands and appreciates the learning process that most players go through.

``Golf is kind of a game of maturing,'' she observes. ``You have to pay your dues, which is why when you look at the ages of people who are successful they're usually in their late 20s or early 30s.''

Geddes, 27, has paid a certain amount of dues, but she's also a little bit ahead of schedule - especially when you consider she only began playing golf about a year before entering college.

A stymied tennis player, she turned to golf when her family moved from Long Island to Summerville, S.C., and bought a home that bordered a fairway.

She shot in the high 80s when she enrolled at North Carolina-Charlotte, which dropped its women's golf program, prompting Geddes to transfer to Florida State. She made the team as a walk-on and eventually helped the Lady Seminoles land a national championship.

Now, of course, the sturdily built blonde doesn't just contribute to victories, she carves them out with the confidence and poise of a champion. Maybe even a two-time US Open champion, if she can sustain her momentum.

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