If Golf is a game of mental imagery, as the gurus would have us believe, how do you explain what Lauri Merten did on Sunday at Crooked Stick Golf Club? Faced with the biggest opportunity of her undistinguished 11-year career—a dead-straight three-foot putt to become the leader in the clubhouse late in the final round of the U.S. Women's Open—Merten rummaged through her attic of psychological nostrums and swing thoughts and came up with a real gem: Scott Hoch's missing a 30-inch putt to lose the 1989 Masters.
Then, firmly fixated on failure and imminent humiliation, she stroked the ball into the center of the cup. So much for visualization.
"I'm still numb," said Merten an hour later, after her two closest challengers, Donna Andrews and Sweden's Helen Alfredsson, had failed to catch her. "I can't believe I've won the U.S. Open."
Neither could most of those assembled in Carmel, Ind., for the premier championship in women's golf—certainly not the sports psychologists, who left town with their coat collars pulled up over their faces. The only happy guy in sight, outside the tiny Merten entourage, was the fellow trying to make a deal for his new book, The Power of Negative Thinking.
In truth, Merten, 33, could be the poster child for the Society of the Confidence Impaired. "By the way," she said in 1991 while interviewing a potential caddie, Tom Hanson, "I haven't made the cut in a major in about two years." (She also hadn't won a tour event since 1984, but Hanson took her bag anyway.) At about the same time, she went to golf teacher Mike McGetrick, hoping he could do something for her foundering game. McGetrick gave her a form to fill out and asked her to rate all aspects of her game—chipping, driving, etc.—on a scale of one to 10. Merten didn't give herself anything higher than a two, which prompted a startled McGetrick to ask, "Do you still think you can win?" Merten replied, "I don't know anymore," and she began to cry.
The pessimist sees the glass as half empty. The optimist sees the glass as half full. Merten doesn't even look—she knows it's not her glass.
Yet there she was on Sunday, dropping a 60-foot putt for birdie on number 8, chipping in for another birdie from a muddy lie on 16, busting her drives down the fairways and making every critical putt. When she was through, Merten had shot a four-under-par 68 for a 280 total, one shot better than Andrews and Alfredsson. What's more, she did this with a cacophony of voices echoing in her skull: admonitions about grip pressure from Hanson; swing thoughts from McGetrick; a putting tip from former coach Ed Oldfield; telephoned advice from her father, George, to concentrate on her tempo; and soothing words from her significant other, real estate developer Louis Capano. She also had to contend with a tournament-week quarrel with Hanson over her attitude (she later admitted to "having been a jerk"), a persistent summer cold and frustration at having missed the cut in two of her last three tournaments.
How could such an unfree spirit prevail over a field of proven stars? That's the question that will haunt the vanquished, at least for a while—particularly Alfredsson. For most of the week the 28-year-old Alfredsson, who won the Nabisco Dinah Shore earlier this year, seemed destined to match Hall of Famer Louise Suggs's feat of having her first two tour wins be majors. Skipping across Crooked Stick as blithely as a favored child, Alfredsson led after three rounds with an Open-record nine-under-par 207. "She's got everything," said 1980 Open champion Amy Alcott on Saturday. "Height, strength and a great putting stroke. And she has that rare Nordic fire."
Alfredsson's fans, who like to count how many times she turns the air blue with Swedish profanity, found her in full voice at Crooked Stick. "Spectators like her tantrums," the Financial Times of London editorialized recently. "They can be louder and more richly worded than many of Lenny Bruce's best performances."
Because her tantrums pass like summer squalls and because her standard demeanor is bubbly, Alfredsson, a former fashion model, seems more pixieish than boorish. "You have to stay so focused on the tour," she says. "You work so hard, you don't want anything to interfere. But then all of a sudden this little devil comes crawling out, saying, 'It's time to do something. You've been good too long.' "
The devil in Alfredsson was pretty obvious to her coach, Gordon Severson, during her days at U.S. International University in San Diego between 1984 and '88. He used to introduce her as "Crazy, from Sweden." The only thing that's consistently unbalanced about Alfredsson, though, is her follow-through, which even on her best shots often leaves her lurching like a tightrope walker.
Still, Alfredsson led by two shots over Hiromi Kobayashi of Japan—a first-time tour winner the previous week at the JAL Big Apple Classic—going into the final round, and Merten, who was five strokes back, could not envision her own victory. If asked who could beat Alfredsson, Merten might have picked another young player, someone as tall as the 5'10" Alfredsson and even longer off the tee, someone with confidence and flair. Someone like Michelle McGann.
McGann was the main player in the week's principal subplot, which was an effort by some members of the press to relive history. On Saturday, The Indianapolis Star ran a banner headline, LONGEST HITTER WALLOPS CROOKED STICK, that was clearly meant to evoke memories of John Daly's coming-out victory at the 1991 PGA Championship, also played at Crooked Stick. In Indiana folklore the Daly saga already approaches the Bob Knight chair-throwing episode, and it teaches that Hoosier golf tournaments are won by brash youths of Bunyanesque strength and mysterious origin.
McGann, 23, is the LPGA's longest hitter (253.8 yards per drive), and she possesses a few of the attributes Daly brought to Crooked Stick—youth, a crowd-pleasing manner and no victories. But McGann is a five-year tour veteran and a recognized presence, thanks largely to her gaudy jewelry and designer hats. So her second-round 66, good for a two-stroke lead over Alfredsson and Kobayashi, was a hit, yes, but not a myth.
Besides, who has ever heard of a Bunyanesque figure with diabetes? On Saturday, McGann reacted to the heat, humidity and excitement of leading a major by almost going into insulin shock—on the 3rd hole. "Eat something. Eat something!" said her caddie and father, Bucky McGann, alarmed by his daughter's leaden leg action. Granola bars, grapes and Gatorade had her back to normal by the 6th tee, but by then she was four over for the round and on her way to a tournament-killing 78 that included an eagle, three birdies, seven bogies and two double bogies. "Sometimes it's just not meant to be," said McGann, smiling gamely after the round.
It was also not meant to be for defending champion and Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan—who went from contender to curiosity in 10 minutes by rifling two balls into the water at 18 on Saturday—and 54-year-old legend Joanne Carner, whose bid to replace Sam Snead as the oldest tour winner in American golf perished on Sunday at 15 and 17, where she made bogeys. McGann wound up tied for seventh, Sheehan finished sixth and Carner tied for 11th.
The final round, which followed a violent overnight thunderstorm that felled trees and flooded several greens, seemed to offer hope to most everyone. Alfredsson went out in 38, and the leader board quickly became clogged with three-way and four-way ties. Pat Bradley, yet another Hall of Famer, had the lead momentarily on the back side but gave away three strokes down the stretch. Andrews shared the lead with Bradley at eight under, but then she three-putted the 14th. Kobayashi—who delivered the line of the tournament on Saturday when she said, "A lot of nervous today. Like, I almost puke"—looked unflappable with 13 straight pars on Sunday, but she bogeyed number 14 and was gone, finishing tied for fourth.
All that action seemed to put Alfredsson, who shook off the doldrums with a 15-foot birdie putt at the par-5 15th, back in control at eight under. But that's when Merten emerged like a subconscious thought. She'd been lingering, after all, at the bottom of the leader board for all four rounds—unnoticed, uninterviewed. Now one stroke back, she found her ball on a patch of mud-caked grass a foot or so from the lake on 16 and 72 feet from the hole. "The grass was brittle," she said, but her chip with a nine-iron was not. The ball curled around the pin and into the cup for a stunning birdie, and the tournament was tied again.
Two holes later, while Alfredsson was yanking her second shot into the long grass to the left of the 16th green, Merten struck another remarkable shot, a six-iron from the 18th fairway that hit the front of the green and rolled saucily up to the pin, stopping about a Hoch short. Alfredsson chunked her chip, punctuating her disappointment with a vicious swing at the grass and a string of scathing admonitions and Swedish epithets—and bringing to mind the line John Wayne used on Susan Hayward in that terrible '50s flick The Conqueror: "You're beautiful in your wrath!"
Merten still had to make her three-footer. "Terrible thoughts," she said afterward, describing her visions of Hoch and other golfing gargoyles. Even the one positive putting image she mustered was something of a downer. She recalled Sheehan's dropping a putt of about the same length to beat her in this year's Mazda LPGA Championship.
No matter. Merten holed the putt, and Alfredsson, who missed a 15-footer on 18 that would have forced a Monday playoff, was left with the terrible thoughts. "I don't know if I've ever felt this disappointed in my life," she said.
As for Merten, all she could do was giggle, talk breathlessly and carry on like someone who had suddenly discovered herself loved and admired. "People call me the Garbage Queen," she said, referring to her good short game. "It's fun to miss greens and pull off shots." When asked about her left leg, which, because of a childhood sports injury, is three centimeters shorter than her right one, she quipped, "I wish it was the other leg—I could have had an uphill lie all my life."
Merten, however, had no real explanation for her stunning victory at Crooked Stick. She could only shrug and say, "I just hit some shots that I'll probably never hit again."
That's Lauri Merten for you—putting the best possible outcome in the worst possible light.