Last Call

Back when she was 18 and breaking into pro golf, Gainesville, Fla., native Laura Baugh, the women’s tour’s Rookie of the Year in 1973, had the game and the looks to become the sport’s golden girl. But things didn’t work out that way. After marrying PGA Tour pro Bobby Cole in 1980, Baugh gave birth to daughter Chelsea in 1982, divorced her husband three years later, then remarried him in 1988. Although the couple would go on to have six more children together, Baugh, who continued to compete during her pregnancies, developed an addiction to alcohol that accelerated as their relationship deteriorated. By 1996 it almost killed her—twice. Says John Tolson, a counselor at Orlando’s First Presbyterian Church who visited her in the hospital in May of that year: “Here, obviously, was a beautiful woman who had really gone through hell.”

Today, Baugh, 43, appears well on the road to recovery. Sober for 2½ years, she competed this season in 16 tournaments, several of them in front of her personal gallery: daughters Chelsea, 16, Haley, 8, Evita, 3, and Jamie Lee, 14 months, and sons Eric James, 10, Robby, 6, and Michael, 4. Awaiting her second divorce from Cole, Baugh lives with her kids and their nanny in a casually comfortable home in an Orlando suburb, where she discussed her harrowing journey with special correspondent Don Sider.

I never drank until I was 24. Then I’d have a glass of wine when I’d go out dancing. I loved alcohol from the get-go. It made me feel sexy and pretty. I tried to stick to the good champagne, and then I wouldn’t be a drunk. If you drink the nice stuff, you can’t possibly have a problem.

I never drank when I was pregnant, never drank when I nursed. I believed I couldn’t be an alcoholic if I stopped like that. Then when I stopped nursing, I’d start with a glass of wine. I had five babies in seven years, so there wasn’t a lot of time for it to progress. But I’m an obsessive person—I did it real quick.

I am by far a happier person pregnant. I love having children; I’d have 15 if I could. But I don’t have a mate now, so I guess this is going to be it. After I had my daughter Evita in April 1995,I started drinking a lot. I knew my marriage was over. Bobby didn’t work very often—he’s been injured for the last eight years, off and on—and I didn’t handle the responsibility as well as I might have. I didn’t really want to get mad or yell, so my theory was I’d just be happy. So I drank whenever I wanted to. Then I wanted to all the time.

It didn’t really affect my golf for a while. But in 1995, when I’d try to stop drinking, I’d have seizures, and I couldn’t quit. My blood pressure was real high. My doctor put me in the emergency ward immediately, then dried me out for a couple of days at Sand Lake Hospital near my home.

I thought, “Okay, I won’t do that anymore.” But when the holidays started, Thanksgiving and Christmas of ’95, that didn’t last. It’s a good excuse for alcoholics to drink because everybody else does. I went back in to dry out again for two days because I couldn’t control it.

Then your mind thinks, “You’re sober, you can have Caesar salad with a glass of wine, Laura.” But my disease had progressed to such a level that drinking one glass lasted for about a week, then maybe a couple of glasses a day, then champagne in the morning, so if you see Bobby sitting on the couch, maybe you won’t yell. Then it was champagne all day long.

I still worked out, still did everything. If I drank too much, I’d throw up and get myself a bunch of coffee and be sober enough. I tried not to drive and never to do the drinking with the kids. Bobby was unemployed, so he was home, and the kids were never in jeopardy. I thought, “Well, if he’s not going to work, I’ll just drink.” So then he couldn’t work because I was drinking. It was just terrible. Still, I don’t believe alcohol broke up my marriage. I drank, basically, to solve the problems I had in my marriage.

At one point I drank a minimum of every two hours. If I didn’t, I just went into convulsions. I drank on the floor of the garage. I had these little pocket-size bottles I hid everywhere, and then I’d forget where-they were. I’d scream around the house, asking Bobby where I’d put them. I know that scared the kids. I don’t remember drinking on the golf course, but I remember taking vodka with orange juice out with me in case I got the shakes. A lot of people thought that I got nervous when I played. But that was the shakes.

I dried out three or four times, here at Sand Lake and one time at the Charter rehab out in California. I was in a hotel there and I decided I’d have something to drink from the minibar. “When the lady came in to clean the room, I was on the bed. My heart had stopped. She called 911, and they jump-started my heart on the way to the hospital. They tell me I drank everything alcoholic in the minibar, got it restocked—and then drank that too.

When I came home, I promised Chelsea I wasn’t going to drink anymore. And I meant it. I ran, I exercised—all this stuff. But six weeks later I had another drinking episode, on May 17, 1996.I got beaten up. It’s something I really don’t want to talk about—someone I dearly love. It wasn’t my husband. I got hit a few times. My jaw was shattered. Within an hour there was blood everywhere. My nose wouldn’t stop bleeding.

Alcohol had destroyed my platelets, which clot your blood. A normal platelet count is 140-400. I went into Sand Lake at 50 and dropped to 40 within a few hours. The doctor told me I could die. They gave me a couple of platelet transfusions, but they didn’t take for four days. I bled from my eyes, my fingernails, my ears—any opening just poured out blood. I asked that the kids be brought in—I wanted to see them before I died. They didn’t recognize me. I scared the hoo out of them.

It took four days of being conscious of dying to scare me. I think being scared is what will keep me sober forever, God willing. Later that week at the Betty Ford Clinic in California, people were afraid to come near me. I had a mushy head, my face was black and blue, my eyes were swollen shut. And the exterior was much better than the interior, which was totally rotten at that point. I went in under a fake name because I was so embarrassed. I thought I had this great secret that was so dirty and ugly that I didn’t want anybody to know. Meanwhile everybody knew.

The scary thing about being an alcoholic is you feel weak. You feel like you should be able to stop drinking, to use your willpower and your strength. I pride myself on my willpower, arid I’ll tell you what—alcoholism slapped me around like I was an infant. It was only when I could admit to not being in control that I could, with God’s help, become strong enough to stay sober.

When you hit bottom, you can stay sober. What I feel sorry about is that some people’s bottom is death. Some people never get scared enough. For whatever reason I have a very special life, because when my heart stopped, the maid came in to clean the room. And though platelet transfusions don’t always take, they did in my case. So it’s obvious that I was put here to try to help somebody else.

I tell my children everything I can about alcohol, trying not to lecture too much. I’m not really sure what their reaction to my drinking has been—children tend to be open about some things and closed about others. But they also tend to be resilient. After going through what I have, I hope I’ll be able to raise my children even better.

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