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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Farr's first champion quit golf when it became a job

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Lauri Peterson -- now Lauri Merten -- celebrated her 24th birthday in Toledo, then won the tournament two days later. Lauri Peterson -- now Lauri Merten -- celebrated her 24th birthday in Toledo, then won the tournament two days later.
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It was July 6, 1984, and the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic was literally one day old.

Lauri Peterson, who shared the lead after a first-round 68, walked to the first tee to begin her second round and was welcomed with a hearty rendition of "Happy Birthday" from members of the gallery surrounding the tee box.

She turned 24 years old that day. The previous summer, as an LPGA Tour rookie, Peterson had won the State Farm Rail Classic in Springfield, Ill. Two days later, she would stare down no less a talent than Nancy Lopez and win the inaugural Farr Classic. She was pretty in that girl-next-door type of way and reeked of personality. She made friends with the mere flash of a smile. The world was her oyster.

"I figured I was pretty hot stuff," Lauri Merten, the maiden name she reverted to several years later, said recently.

This week, when the Farr goes to the starting gate for the 20th time and sings "Happy Birthday" to itself, Merten will be nowhere around Highland Meadows Golf Club, just as she has been nowhere around the LPGA Tour since teeing it up for the last time in late May of 1997 at the Michelob Light Classic in St. Louis.

In what should, or at least could, have been the prime of her career, Merten discovered that the game had become less joy and more job, and she simply walked away.

It might not have happened had every tournament been played in Toledo because few, if any, Farr champions have enjoyed greater popularity here than did Merten.

"Being the first champion, the Farr people and the fans always made me feel like I was their most important person," Merten said. "I made so many friends in Toledo. It was always such a special place for me."

Her 24th birthday turned out to be not so special. Merten shot even par. But she set a course record at the old Glengarry Country Club the next day with a 65 to open a three-stroke lead over Lopez. It grew to as many as six strokes during Sunday's final round before a bogey-double bogey-bogey stretch at the turn made it a dogfight.

Merten recalls the crowd being "very kind" to her despite its enthusiasm for Lopez's title bid.

"There's no question they were cheering for her and I remember wondering at one point if they didn't like me," Merten said. "But I liked Nancy, too. She was a role model, the epitome of a golfer on and off the course. So when I say that everybody loves Nancy, I'm including myself. I could understand it. That made it a really cool day. To eye her up and beat her was something special. And when I won, I sensed the crowd wasn't disappointed.

"I think they accepted it because I was a little like a young Nancy, personality-wise. She was bubbly and cute and always made the game fun. I tried to play the same way. Maybe the fans saw it that way and I was able to get away with beating her."

After falling into a tie with Lopez with five holes to play, Merten got a key birdie at the 14th hole and clinched the win with a par to Lopez's bogey on the final hole.

The victory paid $26,250 - pocket change compared to today's purses - but it was a big step to Merten cracking the $100,000 mark in earnings that season and gave Merten two titles and more than $150,000 in prize money during her first two years on tour.

"Two years, two wins," she said, chuckling. "Definitely hot

stuff. Then a little dry spell, like nine year's worth."

Who knows why such things happen? From 1985-92, Merten had a smattering of top-10 finishes, including a tie for fifth at the '89 Farr, but never returned to the winner's circle. Meanwhile, her game deteriorated over time to the point where, in 1991, her stroke average crept above 74 and she failed to post a top-10 for the first time in her career.

"It wasn't a whole lot of fun," she said. "There were a lot of missed cuts and a lot of tears."

In 1992, Merten took on a new swing coach, Colorado-based Mike McGetrick.

"In our first meeting, he asked me if I thought I'd ever win again," Merten recalled. "I broke into tears and said that I didn't think so. He said, 'I don't believe that.'

"So he worked my butt off for two years. He really focused on my short game and had me looking at golf in a different way."

The overhaul produced results, with a couple decent paydays early in 1993. Without a top-10 finish to her credit in 34 previous career major championships, Merten suddenly finished second to Patty Sheehan at the LPGA Championship.

Six weeks later, the absolute darndest thing happened.

More than eight years after capturing the Farr Classic, after more than 200 events without a victory, Lauri Merten won the U.S. Open at Crooked Stick Golf Club near Indianapolis.

"In my wildest dreams I would not have expected anything like that," Merten said. "I got it when I least expected it. I would have been happy with another Jamie Farr. I would have been happy to win anything. But talk about your storybook ending, to have a nine-year dry spell and then win the U.S. Open. It was incredible."

Merten had eight top-10 finishes that year and won a career-best $394,744. She had five top-10s the next year, including a career-low round of 64 en route to one of two runner-up finishes, and earned more than $200,000.

But in one regard, the Open victory was indeed a storybook ending. She would not win again. By 1995, she was down to 92nd on the money list. She played in only 13 tournaments the next year and, in early '97, simply walked away.

The timing coincided with the early stages of a highly-publicized Delaware murder investigation involving Merten's brother-in-law, Thomas Capano. He was subsequently tried and convicted. Merten resents any implication that one had anything to do with the other and refuses to discuss it.

"I really quit mainly because I was burned out," she said. "I don't know if I loved golf as much as a lot of people. In a lot of ways, leaving the game was a relief. It was like, what can I do now?"

For the past five years, she has loosed her creative juices through decorative painting. She doesn't sell her wares, but does give some things away as gifts.

"Not enough, though," she quipped. "My husband will tell you things are a little cluttered."

Merten and her husband, Louis Capano, have homes in Delaware and Florida and it was on a hot, steamy day down south in mid-June that the Farr's first champion may have begun traveling what she calls "a full circle" back to golf.

"I didn't miss golf at all," she said. "I've played maybe three times a year and it isn't really even for fun because I'll hit a rotten shot and I'll go, 'Ooooh, that's not good.' But I went out with a friend to hit balls on the range. I guess I had to see if it would make me throw up.

"You know what? I enjoyed it. Maybe it's a seven-year itch or something, but I think I kind of like it again. I don't think I would ever go back to playing competitively, but maybe I could do some corporate outings or something. I guess I should never say never.

"I had a job that I loved, but then something happened and it just became a job. I hope I can come full circle and love it as a game again."

The way she did in 1984 when a fairly new pro came to a spanking new tournament, stared down the game's best player and etched her name forever in the annals of the Jamie Farr Classic.



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