In her day, the set they traveled with was called "smart." The air carried a cloud of cigarette smoke -- Luckies -- and a lot of laughs and they played golf for a couple of bucks. Or for the hell of it.

This week at the LPGA Championship at Bethesda Country Club, the jet set has converged to play for the heady sum of $1 million. So the air is thick with something besides smoke and the laughs are strained.

But, at age 51, JoAnne Carner has played through. And no one speculating on who might pocket the $150,000 first-place check on Sunday is fool enough to thank her for the memories.

"My chances {this week}? Excellent," said Carner, drawing a pack of low-nicotine Carlton 100 menthols from her pocket. "I've worked hard this year. For a long while, I was spinning my wheels. Then it all came together at the {U.S.} Open {two weeks ago in Atlanta} until the wheels came off."

As with all athletes, the spin on Carner's wheels has slowed with age. Physically she's not the person who won the U.S. Women's Amateur a record five times before she turned professional at age 30. Not the same as when she won her second Women's Open in 1976. Not the same as when she exceeded $200,000 for the third straight year in 1983, the third and last time she led the LPGA seasonal money list.

So when rain forced the field to play 36 holes the final day of this year's U.S. Open, Carner's chances to win her first tournament in five years evaporated. "I was operating on no sleep. . . . It's hard enough to {play 36 holes} when you're young, with eight hours' {sleep}.

"I got to 3 under and knew that was when I had to make my move, and I couldn't do it."

Time is not Carner's ally, but in the near term it is her willing employee. The smart set has something not available to the jet set -- experience. Carner has gone back to school on her swing -- "I got rid of the move {through the ball} I had for a long time; my back just couldn't take it anymore" -- and spent 20 minutes yesterday on the practice green discussing changing the density of the grips on her clubs with Mickey Novak, a club repairman who travels the tour.

"I'm starting to know my flaws and compensate while I'm playing," she said. "That's the sign of a good pro."

It is the sign of a great pro that more than $2 million in career winnings (fifth all-time) and 42 victories (tied for fifth with Nancy Lopez) have done little but whet her appetite for more.

Jack Nicklaus, her timeless counterpart on the men's tour, was on the fringe of contention for three rounds at the Masters and two at the U.S. Open in his well-publicized bid to become the first player beyond 50 to win either of those events.

But if a player of that age is to win a major, Carner seems the more likely candidate. She has finished second twice this season, most recently at the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic the first weekend in July. She has played in fewer events than anyone in the top 60 on the LPGA money list, but ranks 22nd. Her confidence and enthusiasm have not waned. And she likes this venue. "It's a good driving golf course. It's shorter than the Open course, but it's tighter. So you can work the driver, gamble with it. I don't think it favors anybody."

So, all things being equal, she looks for a little edge, such as changing her grips, or even quitting smoking -- though that didn't last. "I make a lot of money when I smoke," she said.