Dreams and nightmares

LAURA DAVIES: Long, hot summer for a supreme golfer
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AS SHE says herself : "If it had been Nick Faldo who had won eight tournaments in a year, we'd never have stopped hearing about it." But that is the lot of women's golf generally, and of Laura Davies in particular. For Davies was the great unreco gnised achiever of British sport in 1994, bestriding her world with awesome power, while the one outside took very little notice.

Davies is that rarest of sporting breeds. She doesn't fear failure, and she doesn't fear success. As a result, success is what she enjoyed almost without interruption in 1994, when she set a record by winning on all five Tours - the United States, Europe, Asia, Japan, and Australia - and finished No 1 in the world rankings. The elegant Nancy Lopez may still be queen of the fairways, but Davies, doing things rather differently, commands no less respect.

Last week Davies was at home in Ottershaw, in Surrey, that most golfing of counties, while there was a break in the Tour. But one could imagine her drawing up outside the clubhouse in her BMW 850 on a misty morning and smashing a few balls across the practice ground. Not a bit of it. "I'm not going near any of my clubs," she said. "This is a complete break. I shan't pick one up again until I get out to America in a couple of weeks' time."

This is one of the many ways in which Davies is not like other golfers. "The thing with Laura is she is not a worrier," said her friend Karen Lunn, one of Australia's leading players but now based in England, only a few miles from Davies. "Most of the girls practise pretty regularly. But Laura's well known for not doing much practice. That's just her way, and it works for her."

Davies, aged 31, has been her own woman ever since she burst on to the scene in 1985 by coming second to Jan Stephenson in the first tournament she entered as a professional. Very much one of the gang on the social side of the Tour, she turns almost exclusively to her family when it comes to the areas that matter. Her mother Rita deals with her finances (Davies won more than $900,000 last year), her brother Tony acts as her agent, her cousin Matthew Adams caddies for her. As for coaching, there is only one person Davies listens to, and that's herself.

"I've never had a coach," she said, rather dismissively. "Most of the players can't seem to play without ringing up their coach every day. But the way I look at it, if you can't sort out problems for yourself, then what's the point. Most people make everything far too complicated, in life as well as golf. You pick up a club and just get on with it."

What would most golfers give to have an attitude like Laura Davies's? Arguably the most complex, certainly the most infuriating sport in the world reduced to a marvellous simplicity by someone blissfully unencumbered by even a shred of uncertainty. "Laura won't ever second-guess herself," Lunn said. "If a shot goes wrong, she doesn't dwell on whether she should have played it in the first place."

Davies sees it like this. "The big word in golf at the moment is 'choking'. Well, say it's 250 yards to clear some water and I'm standing on the fairway with a three-wood in my hands. If I fall a yard short, is that choking? I don't think so. You had a go and you failed, and that's all there is to it."

What is ambitious to anyone else is the norm for Davies. "I'm not afraid of that second shot," she said. "For every 10 I play, I may blow two or three. But the other seven are more than making up for it." Of course, such is Davies's power off the tee - the stuff of legend on the women's tour - that, as Lunn put it, "she's often playing a different course to the rest of us".

It was Tony Davies, two years older than his sister, who introduced her to golf when she was 12, taking her along with him and his friends to the Guildford club and realising straightaway that she had an eye for a ball. Laura never looked back, and as the big girl got bigger, so it became clear that there was a formidable player in the making.

That process came to fulfilment in 1987 when Davies became the first British performer to win the US Open, a remarkable achievement in a sport which up until then - and to a large extent it is still the case - was an American show where outsiders' names appeared in very small type.

After that, Davies went along quite nicely for a few years, a largely forgotten figure in Britain not least because the United States was where she had to ply her trade most of the time. In 1992 she had her struggles, told herself to stop getting upset when things went wrong, and in 1994 her new approach began to bear spectacular fruit.

Davies's year began with a victory in her first tournament, the Thai Open. She went on to win three times in the United States, including her second major at the LPGA championship in Delaware. Then she won the Scottish Open, the Irish Open, the Itoen Open in Japan and finally, last month, the Australian Masters. She thus won a quarter of all the tournaments she entered, and there were also five second places and three thirds.

What could be easier? Except that Davies's high-risk approach very often made life difficult for her just when she seemed to have a tournament under control. Her victory in Japan in November was a good example of this ultimate test of the true champion.

Davies started the final round with a five-shot lead, still led by four after the 12th, and then dropped shots at 13, 14 and 15. By the 17th, she only had a share of the lead. "It was a tough par three, 190 yards," Davies remembered. "Water along the left, and a howling wind coming from the right. I hit a five-iron to three feet and holed for a birdie." It was that tee-shot, the best shot she hit all year, she said, that in effect won her the tournament.

Much is made of Davies's size, and it is undoubtedly the key factor in her prodigious driving - 300 yards-plus sometimes thanks to an extraordinary, textbook-defying method by which she has both feet off the ground at the moment of impact. In Australia last month, television showed this shot repeatedly while the great Peter Thomson, now a commentator, expressed his disbelief at what he saw.

But Davies is by no means pure bulk. She has surprisingly small ankles and wrists, helping to provide her with the balance and touch which count for so much more than mere strength. Lunn points to a huge improvement in Davies's short game during the last18 months. As for her form on the green, as Davies says, "You don't end the year 150 under par without being able to putt." Lunn believes Davies can improve further, even off the tee, where if there is out of bounds down the right - Davies's pet -hate and a feature of American courses - she will play safe with a two-iron. Though she hits that as far as anyone does with a driver.

But, according to Lunn, Davies's most important attribute as a player is neither her power, not her touch, nor even her fearlessness - but her imagination. "Laura sees shots other players simply don't see," Lunn said. "We were playing in South Carolina in the summer and Laura's route to the hole was completely blocked by trees. But she said, 'Do you see that gap up there?' and there was about a four-inch gap between the trees. She hit the ball straight through it and landed it on the green."

Away from golf, a rather different Davies emerges - on the one hand rather shy, on the other straight-talking to the point of being almost painfully frank about an image which is somewhat removed from the advertiser's idea of how the perfect woman athlete should be. But among those who know her, she is generous, devil-may-care Laura who likes a bet and whose idea of how to spend the day before a tournament in New York in July was to get tickets for the Italy-Bulgaria World Cup semi-final.

Davies loves football. She has supported Liverpool ever since, as an eight-year-old, she watched them lose the 1971 FA Cup final - her earliest footballing memory. Losing isn't something one associates with Davies. "Oh no, I love an underdog," she said.

She was an underdog once herself. But those days seem a very long way off now.