Last Friday, after three rounds of the NCAA women's golf championships, the leader board looked like the standings at the Stockholm Ladies' Plate. It was tough to find a local name among the Petras, Ninnis and Ulrikas in red numbers. Purists were grumbling about all the Swedish golfers on U.S. scholarships, as if they were cut-rate camcorders driving up the U.S. trade deficit. Then Vicki Goetze, made in America and playing for the University of Georgia, put a muzzle on that protectionist drivel.
Goetze had to shoot the best 18 holes in the 11-year history of the tournament to do it. She made seven birdies and zero bogeys en route to a 65 in last Saturday's final round at Arizona State's Karsten Golf Course. Her score was three better than the previous low for this championship, and it transformed the event's Swedish accent into a Southern drawl.
For the 19-year-old Goetze, the 1989 U.S. Amateur champ and the undisputed queen of junior golf since she won her first tournament at the age of five, it was a memorable climax to a mostly forgettable season. In erasing the three-stroke lead held by Arizona's sophomore Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and cruise-controlling to a three-shot victory, Goetze became the first freshman to win the NCAAs since, uh, last year, when Sorenstam did it. "I thought I had to shoot low today, and if I got hot and the rumor leaked out that I was going way under, I might have a chance to catch up to Annika," said Goetze.
Until Goetze got the gallery buzzing, the talk all week had been about keeping up with the Johanssons. Swedes have long been aces in tennis, not golf, but Sorenstam was joined by five of her countrywomen in the NCAA field. Three of the Swedes eventually placed in the top seven, including Ninni Sterner, who finished fourth and carried San Jose State to the team title. Said Sterner. "The Swedish girls are making a good impression, ja?"
Ja. Not too shabby for a country with a population smaller than Ohio's and temperatures lower than the meat lockers at the A&P. In fact, before Sorenstam discovered the Painted Desert she had been known to pull out an orange golf ball and tee it up in the snow at Stockholm's Bro-Balsta Golf Club, where a good lie is in the cross-country ski tracks.
Much of the credit for the emergence of women's golf in Sweden can be traced to Pia Nilsson, who played for Arizona State from 1977 to '81. After an undistinguished five-year flirtation with the LPGA tour, Nilsson returned to her homeland in '88 to become the director of the women's program for the Swedish Golf Federation. She was ecstatic to discover that although there were only about 15,000 female junior golfers in her country, the talent pool was deep, the result of some excellent organization and teaching on the club level and two Bolletieriesque high schools that specialize in the game. The catch was that there were no golf programs at Sweden's six universities, a fact that pushed young talent to either turn pro or head for colleges in the U.S. So Nilsson played social worker, arranging places for many of the dozen or so Swedish women currently on golf scholarships at Division I schools. The Swedish program is now so successful that groups in Italy, Spain and France, among other countries, have written to Nilsson inquiring about Annika Sorenstam starter kits.
"Pia was born for that job," says Sorenstam. "She was one of the first to come to America, and when she tells us her stories about adjusting to a new country, it makes us feel better knowing she was even stupider than we are."
It should be noted that life in America hasn't been easy for this latest generation of Swedes, all of whom speak excellent English but whose knowledge of American humor is still in the embryonic stage. "Whenever I tell Annika a joke, I always have to explain it to her," says Arizona junior Debbie Parks. "Then 20 minutes later I'll look at her, and she'll be laughing her head off."
The Swedes definitely had the best laughs during the first three days at Karsten. Actually, Swedish was the language of choice for Ulrika Johansson of Sweden and her Arizona teammates, who chanted "bra" ("good") after Sorenstam holed out in each round. Nothing like four young women yelling "bra" to turn heads in the gallery.
However, the bras turned to gurgles on Saturday when Goetze finally awoke from her somnambulant freshman season. Goetze, a resident of Watkinsville, Ga., who had been anointed a preseason All-America before her daddy had even finished unloading the station wagon last August, suddenly found herself shooting 80s for the first time in three years. She bottomed out in an amateur appearance at the Dinah Shore in March, when she shot 78 and 77 in the final two rounds. "I was caddying for her, and I remember she kept giving me what we call the cretin look, as if to say, 'Don't talk to me, I don't want to hear it,' " says Georgia coach Beans Kelly. "The frustration was eating away at her. I've known Vicki for 11 years, and I've never seen her lower than that."
But late this spring Goetze, a 5'5", 117-pound jackhammer in a golf visor, finally kicked her habit of trying to clean up after the other Dawgs. She concentrated on her own ball in the NCAA's opening round on May 27 and shot a 69, marking the first time she had broken 70 this year. Then last Friday night she had a vision. "I dreamed that I was having a hot round. I didn't dream the score, but there were a lot of birdies," she said. "It was kind of a weird premonition, but it was right on." Still, not even in her wildest dreams could Goetze have conjured up a 65.
On Saturday, Goetze foreshadowed the devastation to come by curling in a 30-foot birdie putt on the first green. As she marched to the 2nd tee, there was a spring in her signature duckfooted step that had been absent all year. "After Vicki rolled in the long birdie on the very first hole, I thought, Look out," said Oklahoma State's Stephanie Martin, one of Goetze's bird-watchers. "She got into such a fantastic groove on the front nine that I was really surprised whenever she missed a putt."
Goetze went on to drop a 20-footer for birdie on the 5th green, and then she cracked her tee shot on the par-37th to within gimme range. Meanwhile Sorenstam, playing several groups behind Goetze, hooked an approach shot to the 4th hole that caught the edge of the green but skittered off into a bordering pond, leading to a bogey. As Sorenstam exited that green, she crossed cart paths with Goetze leaving the 8th. Goetze had detoured to check out the leader's progress only to discover that Sorenstam was no longer the leader. "I was curious," said Goetze, the new pacesetter by a stroke.
News of Goetze's success spread as she had hoped it would, and Sorenstam was sweating. So Goetze turned up the flame on the 100° afternoon by shaving off two more strokes on the 9th and 10th holes. She added two more birds, on 13 and 17. For the day Goetze would miss only three greens, and she never once had a par putt outside the leather. "It was the best college round I've ever seen, under the most pressurized circumstances I can imagine," said Kelly. In fact, the only time Goetze got the yips was after the win, when she was asked if she would return to Georgia next season. Stay tuned.
If she leaves, Goetze will be able to renew her rivalry with Sorenstam, who plans to turn pro in September and play some LPGA events this fall—and perhaps become the hottest Swedish import since the Saab Turbo.
Back in Stockholm, Nilsson relishes the thought. "Whenever I go to the U.S., I always have coaches joking with me about this Swedish invasion," she says. "I don't mean to scare anybody, but I feel we're just getting started. There are lots more on the way."
Hang in there, Vicki—things aren't looking too bra for America.