JoAnne Carner, shooting for her fourth consecutive victory on the LPGA tour in Las Vegas this week, has the unlikely pair of cool Sam Snead and fiery Billy Martin to thank for her recent successes.
"I don't understand what I'm doing right. I just hope I don't wake up," Carner joked over the telephone from Las Vegas Thursday before teeing off in the LPGA National Pro-Am.
Carner has won four tournaments this year, the last three in a row, and golf fans are already speculating on whether she can beat Nancy Lopez-Melton's LPGA record of five consecutive wins in 1978.
"That's three tournaments away. I can't think that far ahead," said Carner, who credits the change in her "mental attitude" toward the game largely to Martin, who has gained a reputation in baseball as an expert on the subject.
At a 1974 dinner party, Carner recalled, her game was in a slump so she and the now-manager of the Oakland A's "sat down and talked about my mental attitude. I said, "I can't get aggressive,' and he just really got on me. He chewed me up one side and down the other.
"That's what it took. He made me just face the fact that I was more frightened than anything. When somebody pinpoints you, you finally have to admit that you're afraid to shoot 80 and things like that.
"But the main thing I got out of that lesson was that my practice was wrong. I was spending an hour practicing and analyzing every shot while I was doing it, and then going to the first tee and expecting to stop any analyzing from that point on."
Martin told her to just play, to stop overanalyzing. "So now I use the warmup strictly to loosen the muscles," Carner said. "The basic problem of all rookies and players who get in trouble is that they analyze every shot, every swing."
Carner won 20 tournaments from 1974 until 1979, when an injury forced her off the circuit for most of the year.
While vacationing with her husband, Don, at their Tennessee home in the Great Smoky Mountains, a trail bike she was riding skidded on a rain-drenched clay road. She jammed both wrists, forcing her off the tour.
In the process of recovering, she said, she gained 45 pounds and her game suffered as much as her waistline. "I decided I had to get back playing and even dieted in the first tournament," she said, now 17 pounds trimmer.
"I had to take naps because I'd get so tired carrying all that weight around."
While Carner worked on her diet, Snead began working on her swing in January.
She turned to Snead "in desperation," she said. "I was getting to where I was slugging the ball all the time and I knew you just can't do that and continue to play golf for a long period of time.
"And, of course, the smoothest swinger I know is Sam Snead. I've known him for quite a while and my husband has known him a long period of time. They used to hunt and fish together. So Don called Sam up and said, 'She's desperate. She needs help. She's all screwed up.'
"And he very nicely helped me. Normally, he doesn't teach anybody. I think he did it as a favor, but also because one golfer hates to see another go haywire.
"Basically, my flaw is that I break too quickly on the backswing so I lose a lot of distance and accuracy.
"But I worked real hard before the tour started in January and it's all sort of falling into place now. I've got a lot of confidence and am basically doing everything fairly well, but not really excelling in any one thing . . .
"I can play the shots when I need to. When the pressure's on, I seem to be able to produce now. In previous years, I'd tend to make it (a shot) every once in a while but I seem to get it more often now."
Or at least enough to have won the Whirlpool tourney in Deerfield Beach, Fla., the Bent Tree in Sarasota, Fla., the Sunstar Classic in Los Angeles, and, last week, the Honda Civic Classic at Rancho Bernardo, Calif. If Carner wins this week, she will need to win the Kemper Open in Costa Mesa, Calif., next week to tie Lopez-Melton's record.
Of press accounts that there is hostility between her and Lopez, Carner said, "There is no feud. We enjoy playing with each other and against one another."
Carner, 41 on April 4, has another goal. With her $72,886 in winnings this year, she is almost at the $723,000 mark for career earnings and is aiming for $1 million.