Golf with apocalyptic overtones—that's what the U.S. Women's Open gave us in Texas. Ii began last Thursday with a partial eclipse of the sun and ended on Sunday with a near-total eclipse of the field: Par was a mirage. Playing on parched earth in searing heat, golfers panicked or lost heart, and some of those falling by the wayside had to be led to the weekend by Pat Bradley, a modern-day Moses. The course itself, Fort Worth's fabled Colonial Country Club, spent the week on life-support systems. That's how close to the edge this tournament came.
Put another way, this Open was what an Open is supposed to be: a tense, harrowing four-day test of skill, nerve and resourcefulness. "I just hung in there," said the winner, 28-year-old Meg Mallon, of her third victory this year—and the third of her 4½-year pro career. "No one was taking off with it." That's how Opens should be won: by someone too stubborn to pack it in.
Two weeks earlier the freckle-faced Mallon had sunk a birdie putt on the final hole to win the LPGA Championship, the year's second major. The golf world had smiled indulgently: How nice that a really sweet person won, a player who's popular with fans as well as with players. Now we owe Mallon a second look.
You don't win consecutive majors on congeniality alone, and Mallon won her second one in the blast furnace of Open pressure. Trailing Bradley and Joan Pitcock by two strokes after three rounds, Mallon took the lead for the first time in the tournament on Sunday with an 18-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole. She then sank a 20-footer for birdie on the next hole to go one under for the tournament and two shots up on tour greats Bradley and Amy Alcott. On a day when most players walked the fairways carrying thermal-shield umbrellas, Mallon's closing 67 was more heat than the field could stand.
July 21, 1991
"I was ready to buy everybody champagne," said Alcott after shooting par 71 on Sunday to finish third, putting on hold her 30th career victory and thereby automatic entry into the LPGA Hall of Fame.
"At most Opens, par is usually worth something," said a weary Bradley, whose 71 left her second at 285, one over for the tournament and two shots behind Mallon. "Today, it wasn't."
But then, most Opens aren't played on fast-running fairways and tarmac-hard greens. At Colonial, birdies were as rare as hatless spectators, and marquee names such as Beth Daniel, Laura Davies, Patty Sheehan and hometown favorite Jan Stephenson shot themselves out of contention in the early going.
Few wanted to blame the golf course, as such. Colonial is the world's best flat inland course next to a brown-water river and a rail yard. Still, if it's good enough for Ben Hogan, it ought to be good enough for the Women's Open. It's easier to criticize the USGA, which clings to the notion that a national championship can be played in the Sun Belt in July. Colonial's bent-grass greens, more suited to cooler climes, could not withstand the close mowing needed to sustain Open-speed putting and had to be "syringed" (lightly sprayed with water) every 30 minutes or so to keep the few green blades from expiring in the 100°-plus heat. At some holes powerful fans were set up to keep air circulating. The four fans whining at the third green sounded like the twin-engine plane that carried Ilsa away from Rick in Casablanca.
Oddly enough, the most outspoken critic of the track was the usually diplomatic Betsy King, the two-time defending champion. After shooting a first-round 74, King blamed "the slowest Open greens ever played," pin positions that were too tough, inconsistency of roll caused by the syringing, and slow play. "Some people were taking a lot of shots," she said, in a thinly veiled dig at French amateur Sandrine Mendiburu, the U.S. Girls Junior champion, who had an 86 as a member of King's threesome.
After shooting a second-round 78 that barely wormed her past the cut, King tried to mend fences but wound up teary-eyed. "It's a funny thing to me," she said. "When we complain about conditions, we're bitching. When the men do it, it [the course] must have really been hard."
For the record, Colonial was very hard—possibly the hardest Women's Open venue since Cedar Ridge, where Stephenson won in 1983 with a six-over-par 290. Only four players broke par at Colonial in the first round, led by Bradley's 69, and when she bogeyed the 17th hole on Friday, the entire field was in black numbers. King and nine other players made it to the weekend thanks to Bradley's bogey, which kept them within the required 10 strokes of the lead, which at the time was shared by Bradley and Pitcock at 142.
"The doors opened up," said Bradley jokingly. "Moses walked through the water and let another group in."
On Sunday, Bradley looked more like somebody about to slam the door. She birdied the first and third holes to stretch her lead to two over Pitcock but hit wandering tee shots on 9 and 10 and gave both strokes back to the field. Pitcock, 24, a Sally Field look-alike who has yet to win in 3½ years on the tour, couldn't take advantage of Bradley's bogeys—Pitcock went without a birdie until the 17th hole and shot a 75 to wind up seventh, six shots behind Mallon—but Alcott seemed poised for victory. The 1980 Open champion chipped in for birdie on the sixth and holed a bunker shot for another birdie on eight.
"I didn't have to look at the leader board," Alcott said later. "You can tell from the way the crowd acts whether you're in contention or not."
But that's when Mallon began her surge, which culminated with those birdies at the 14th and 15th holes. Playing two groups ahead of Alcott and three ahead of Bradley, Mallon, the LPGA's newest crowd pleaser, hit nothing but fairways and greens the rest of the way, sealing her victory with a solid five-iron to the middle of the 18th green. Said Mallon afterward, "I was aiming for the TV tower on the back of every green."
Whence Mallon? That's the question that now preoccupies followers of women's golf. Pressed on Sunday to account for her sudden ability to stare down the game's biggest stars in the game's biggest tournaments under some of the game's toughest conditions, Mallon offered the theory that she had been too busy to get scared—busy working her umbrella and pressing wet towels to her face. "I think when I have to concentrate on my health, I forget about my golf game," she said.
Alcott had a better explanation: "Maybe Meg doesn't know why she's winning, but she's in that period of life where you make the transition from being a contender to winning. You can't be scared to win. When you win, you let yourself win."
Even that, however, doesn't explain how a relatively untested young pro like Mallon could make this golf tournament play like A Star Is Born when the very grass beneath her feet was dying.