PENSACOLA, Fla. – Scenic Hills Country Club sits in a rolling, nondescript neighborhood that probably looks very much like it did 40 years ago. Modest, low-slung brick homes line winding two-lane streets with names honoring far more famous clubs – Burning Tree, Colonial, Greenbrier, Tam-O-Shanter and Mid Pines.
But 40 years ago, Scenic Hills was the course in the national spotlight, hosting the U.S. Women’s Open won by voluble Californian Donna Caponi. Of all of the great clubs scattered across Florida’s golf-rich landscape, only tiny Scenic Hills has hosted a U.S. Open, men’s or women’s.
To tell the story of the 1969 Women’s Open and how it came to be played at an upstart, little-known club in the Florida Panhandle, you have to begin with one dynamic dealmaker.
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J.B. Hopkins was a man who got things done. With his bow tie, suspenders and million-dollar vocabulary, “he was certainly the guy in charge,” recalls Champions Tour player Jerry Pate, who grew up playing at Scenic Hills.
“In the same five minutes, you could love him . . . then you’d like to kill the bastard,” recalls Sam Kirkland, a longtime Scenic Hills member.
A Pensacola lawyer and state legislator, Hopkins largely was responsible for securing the funds to launch the University of West Florida and helped bring a Shriners Temple to Pensacola.
“He was a quadruple-A personality,” says his widow, Stella.
When Hopkins was turned down for membership at old-money Pensacola Country Club, he hatched the idea of starting his own club and recruiting Jews who also couldn’t get into PCC. He hoped to finance the club through real-estate sales, but a soft market foiled that idea. So Hopkins called a meeting of prospective members and asked them to sign notes guaranteeing between $5,000 and $10,000 to secure a construction loan.
“I thought they would hang him, but he ended up getting them to sign,” recalls his brother, E.W. “That’s how good a salesman he was.”
It was an eclectic club – “a bastard country club,” says Leonard Swartz, an early member – where Jews and good ol’ Southern boys mixed freely. Opinions varied on the quality of the golf course, but inside the clubhouse, the revelry rarely stopped.
“We had the absolute best parties of anyplace,” Swartz says. One year, he recalls, waitresses dressed up as cats and danced in cages while men fed them.
Scenic Hills opened in 1959, and in 1966 the Pensacola Ladies’ Invitational, an LPGA event, was held there, with Sandra Haynie defeating Kathy Whitworth in a playoff.
There are varying accounts of what initially attracted the LPGA to Scenic Hills. Kirkland gives credit to Pat Horner, wife of the former head pro, for landing the event. It’s likely that club president Crawford Rainwater, a Southern Golf Association and U.S. Golf Association official, also had a hand in recruiting the LPGA.
The tournament returned in 1967-68, with Mickey Wright and Whitworth claiming the titles. Caponi, who goes by Caponi-Byrnes after her 2006 marriage, posted top 10s each year while establishing lasting ties to Pensacola. Scenic Hills member George White and his family hosted her at their home near the second tee, and she sometimes would return during off weeks to visit. Jeff White, George’s son, recalls Caponi sending the family a gingerbread house at Christmas, and to this day, she still can rattle off the names of the White children.
“It was like having a favorite relative come and stay with you,” Jeff White says.
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Everyone knew the ’69 Open would be a hot one – this was, after all, Florida’s western panhandle in late June – but no one anticipated the furnace that Scenic Hills would become. Temperatures in Round 1 hit 97, with comparable humidity, and just kept rising. At one point temperatures were reported as high as 108 degrees.
Players employed a secret weapon to fight the stifling conditions. Gatorade, developed at the University of Florida, recently had come on the market, and “that probably kept us
all alive,” Caponi-Byrnes says.
Scores threatened to match the mercury. With its narrow, tree-lined fairways – “You had to walk single file down the fairway,” Caponi-Byrnes recalls – and its small, elevated greens that repelled approaches, Scenic Hills had earned the nickname “Screaming Hills.”
Caponi, who now works for Golf Channel as a commentator, was an effusive young woman who wore a brace on her right ankle, which she had injured dancing the Electric Slide. Her golf bag was emblazoned with the popular phrase of the time, “Sock it to me!” from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In,” which she always reminded people was filmed in “beautiful downtown Burbank,” where her father, Harry, a teaching pro, had a celebrity-heavy clientele.
On Thursday, Caponi hit her opening drive out of bounds, but drove the ball beautifully thereafter. Still, scoring was difficult; only five players had broken par at Scenic Hills in the three previous LPGA tournaments held there, and none would come close at the Open.
Caponi opened 74-76-75 on the par-73 layout, five shots behind leader Ruth Jessen, but she could feel a good round coming.
“I remember calling home and telling my mom and dad, ‘I’m playing so good, I’m just knocking at the door to have a really good day,’ ” she says.
As Jessen wilted in the Sunday heat, shooting 78, Caponi, winless to that point in her career, was making a charge.
At No. 15, a notorious par 5 with a sloped fairway that fed balls into a stream that bordered the hole (the nines have since been flipped and several holes reworked), Caponi’s tee shot rolled into the second cut, “but it was sitting up like it was on a tee,” she remembers. From a downhill lie to an elevated green, she rifled a 6-iron “quail high” to 5 feet for eagle and a two-shot lead.
“I couldn’t have diagrammed it any better,” she says now. “I can still see that shot.”
After bogeying 17, she came to the par-5 18th leading by one. Lightning flashed all around, even striking an ABC tower, but Caponi split the fairway as rain began to fall. Pate recalls sitting under the 18th-hole tower when Byron Nelson, then an ABC analyst, walked by and said, “Son, you better get in the clubhouse.”
As Caponi walked to her ball, the siren blew, ordering players off the course. She retreated to a dark corner of the clubhouse, wrapped herself in towels, and tried to visualize her second shot.
“That’s probably as nervous as I’ve ever been,” she recalls. “I didn’t even think about it being a major. I just wanted to finally win a golf tournament.”
She returned 15 minutes later and smoked a 5-wood up near the green and chipped 5 feet above the hole.
ABC’s 18th-hole tower was not enclosed, and as she lined up her putt, she heard Nelson whisper to anchor Jim McKay, “Donna Caponi has this birdie putt to win the U.S. Open,” she recalls. “He says, ‘We’ve been watching this putt all day, and it goes right to left.’ I went, ‘What?’ I back up and I look at the putt and I look at the tower, and I’m going, ‘There’s no way, it goes the other way.’ ”
Turns out the camera angle made it appear to television viewers that the putt broke right to left. Caponi stuck to her plan and drained it.
An easy quote, Caponi later told reporters, “I’ve never been drunk in my life, and it would probably take only about two drinks, but I’m going to get ripped tonight!”
Actually, it took just one drink for the teetotaler, who recalls being “higher than a kite” after mixing her drink of choice: champagne and Gatorade.