Okay, America, Golf's Foreign invasion is complete. It's one thing when the people who invented the accursed game come over and beat you now and then. It's quite another when a 22-year-old who learned how to play in the far reaches of Sweden comes to the U.S. Women's Open and simply blows away the best on the American tour.
So it was that fresh-faced Liselotte Neumann (pronounced NOY-mahn) glided across the fairways and greens of the Baltimore Country Club in Timonium, Md., last week, shooting a seven-under-par 67-72-69-69-277, which beat veteran Patty Sheehan by three strokes and the rest of the field by three laps. In the process, the LPGA rookie, who earned $70,000 for the win, broke the Open scoring record by two shots, became the youngest professional to win the event (Catherine LaCoste, an amateur, was two months younger than Neumann when she won in 1967) and the first player to post a wire-to-wire victory since Amy Alcott did it in 1980.
Before the Open, Neumann's level of play was what you might expect of someone from Sweden. That's a country where, for much of the year, you can ski to your ball. In 15 LPGA events this year, she had won $27,712, ranked 68th on the money list and had never finished better than 11th. But as the Open approached, Neumann's sense of destiny grew. "One day she just blurted out, 'I'm going to win the U.S. Open,' " said her boyfriend, Terry Hertzog, an assistant golf pro whom Neumann met in Hershey, Pa., during the Lady Keystone Open in June. "She just took on this tremendous confidence."
Perhaps it emanated from the Hawaiian wish bracelet Neumann has been wearing to hasten her first victory in America. Sounder reasons were Neumann's gradual adjustment to a gypsy existence thousands of miles from home and a compact, rhythmic swing and solid putting stroke. She's also possessed of an inner fire that can find vent in some choice Swedish oaths in the heat of battle. It's balanced, though, with a sense of fun that allowed Neumann to wear a black kerchief around her neck during the last two rounds of the Open; it read HELL'S BELLES BIKER.
Neumann needed all the equanimity she could muster when she lost her entire three-shot lead on the 7th green on Sunday. After Neumann ran a 30-foot birdie putt two feet past the hole, Sheehan made a 25-footer for birdie. Neumann then jerked her downhill par putt four feet past and left the bogey putt sickeningly short. Her disastrous four putts came after she had had only one three-putt green all week. Yet Neumann remained unflappable. "I knew there was a lot of golf to go," she said.
Indeed there was. Hitting the longest drives and crispest irons of her life, Neumann birdied the 10th from three feet, the 11th from eight feet and the 12th from 10 feet to regain the lead. Then she birdied the 15th with another 10-footer, and with Sheehan trailing by only two on the 17th green and looking at a 10-foot birdie putt of her own, Neumann drained a 25-footer for a clinching birdie that sent her leaping across the green. She played the back nine in 32—Liselotte in Camelot.
Neumann appears on the women's scene at a time when the shaky LPGA needs all the help it can get. On July 16, LPGA commissioner John Laupheimer announced his resignation after more than six years of heading the women's tour. Few players were saddened by the news; the LPGA has been having trouble holding on to sponsors—Mazda, one of the tour's biggest benefactors, will drastically reduce its sponsorship next year, and the LPGA has recently had to settle for lower purses just to maintain its schedule.
Neumann's Open victory was a definite plus. In Sweden she got front-page coverage equal to Stefan Edberg's when he won Wimbledon earlier in the month. "There has been a golf boom in our country for five years," said Gunnar Nordstrom of Expressen, a daily newspaper in Sweden. "But Liselotte just advanced it another 10 years."
The daughter of an optometrist in Finspang, a town about 100 miles southwest of Stockholm, Neumann used to play in the snow at the Finspang Golf Club, using an orange ball, and occasionally yielded to the elements by hitting balls indoors into a net. In 1985, Neumann turned pro and in three seasons became, along with Laura Davies of England, one of the top players on the women's European circuit, winning three times. Last October she earned her LPGA card.
After playing in 10 tournaments in the U.S., Neumann returned to Sweden in May for a few sessions with Swedish pro Pierre Karstrom and then won the German Open on May 29.
In Baltimore she found herself in a groove. Her opening 67, in which she missed only one fairway and two greens, was the lowest first-round score ever in the women's Open. That it came on the heavily forested Five Farms course was all the more impressive. The 65-year-old, 6,232-yard course, designed by master architect A.W. Tillinghast, tested the women with par 4s that often required fairway wood approaches to small greens that sloped severely from back to front.
On Friday. Neumann's 72 tied her with fellow rookie Dottie Pepper Mochrie and Juli Inkster at 139, equaling the Open's 36-hole record. Nancy Lopez, Ayako Okamoto, Amy Alcott and Jo-Anne Carner, the old guard, never challenged. While the men's Open seems to require that contenders possess battle scars, the women's event has turned into a debutantes' ball. Including Neumann, the last four champions have made the title their first wins in America.
"The more experienced players want it so bad that we can't function," said Sheehan, whose 68 put her two behind Neumann's 208—tying the 54-hole Open low—after Saturday.
Sheehan had come to Baltimore with three second-place finishes in her last five tournaments, but she sounded less than confident entering the final round. "Liselotte has nothing to lose and everything to gain," said the 31-year-old Sheehan, who has never won the Open. "I don't think she is going to falter."
Neumann concurred. Asked on Saturday if she sensed victory, she answered in a shy voice, "Yeah." She laughed at her boldness, but Neumann knew that in 54 holes she had only three bogeys and one three-putt green. "I've been playing great golf so far," she said. "Why shouldn't I do it tomorrow?"
And that's exactly what she did.