Charles Dickens might have been describing Helen Alfredsson's remarkable play and equally remarkable demise at the 49th U.S. Women's Open in Lake Orion, Mich., last week when he wrote: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.... We had everything before us, we had nothing before us...."
In leading the Open by seven strokes midway through Saturday and then losing by eight on Sunday, Alfredsson called to mind some historic collapses in golf, including her own at last year's Open, which she led by two strokes going into the last round, only to shoot two over par and lose to Lauri Merten by one stroke. The most infamous plunge in the women's Open, however, belongs to Patty Sheehan, who in 1990 gave back nine strokes in the final 36 holes and lost by one to Betsy King.
This time Sheehan was the beneficiary of Alfredsson's meltdown on the Old Course at Indianwood Golf & Country Club, where Sheehan's steady rounds of 66-71-69-71, good for a seven-under-par 277, gave her a one-stroke victory over Tammie Green. It was the second U.S. Open win for Sheehan, a 37-year-old Hall of Famer, who has now won twice and finished second twice in the last seven Opens, and it was the 32nd LPGA victory of her 15-year professional career.
For the 29-year-old Alfredsson, a free-swinging, long-hitting former model from Sweden, the disappointment at leading and losing again was enormous. She began the week fiercely: In the first round, on Thursday, she shot a tournament-record 63, eight under on the hilly, links-style Old Course. Her bogeyless round included eight birdies and only 24 putts and gave her a three-stroke lead.
"Exquisite, divine," said Amy Alcott of Alfredsson's play. But Alfredsson described what was her best round ever in terms more workmanlike than wondrous. "I was just trying to give every shot my full attention," she said. "When you're shooting a good score, you don't even know what you're doing. It wasn't that hard."
The fiery Alfredsson plays with the kind of emotional abandon that can lead her to impressive heights—but also to unpredictable breakdowns. She shot a solid two-under-par 69 on Friday and led by four strokes, but that night, as she and her fiancè, Leo Cuellar, a former World Cup soccer player from Mexico, were leaving the parking lot of a local movie theater, she backed her car into the side of a passing sedan. The crash, small as it was, was a harbinger of things to come.
On Saturday, Alfredsson struggled early, saving pars on the first two holes, but seemed back on her game with a 40-foot birdie putt that just slipped in over the left edge of the cup on the par-3 5th. When she birdied the next two holes—getting to 13 under, a USGA record—her nearest competitor was seven strokes back. Sheehan was eight behind.
Alfredsson's collapse started with a bogey on the 8th, the result of a pushed tee shot. But if a tournament can turn on a single hole, it turned for Alfredsson on the 9th, a 339-yard par-4. She reached the green in regulation and had a tricky downhill four-footer for birdie to get back to 13 under. Instead, she pulled her putt, then missed the comebacker and settled for another bogey. Alfredsson, who was shaking her head as she left the green, never regained her confidence.
On the back nine she drove poorly and putted worse. After slicing her tee shot badly on the 14th, she pitched short of the green and wound up making bogey. Then, on the very difficult 188-yard par-3 17th, she hooked her iron, leaving herself a horrific pitch uphill to a green that sloped away from her. Double bogey. Six under. Alfredsson went to 18 desperate to stop the bleeding, but as she was waiting to hit her approach to the green, Sheehan was up ahead, closing out her round with a birdie to get to seven under, and cheers for the new leader poured down from the packed grandstands. The shaken Alfredsson made another bogey.
The round mercifully over, Alfredsson retreated to the scoring trailer with a five-over-par 76 for the day. What had looked like a runaway win was now a horse race, and, amazingly, the favorite was suddenly the dark horse. "It just kept slipping away," Alfredsson said, almost in a daze. "This is a game where you never try to understand. You just try to play it as well as you can. Today was one of those days where it just didn't go the way you would like it to go."
It did go the way Sheehan wanted it to, though she admitted afterward that she was surprised to find herself with the 54-hole lead. She had started the day five strokes back and didn't make a move until holing a 50-footer for birdie on 16. She followed that up with her birdie on 18. In the final round she relied on her putter to save par after some erratic drives and made a crucial birdie at 16 for the one-stroke advantage over Green.
For Alfredsson, the loss of the lead was devastating. According to Cuellar, she got very little sleep Saturday night, waking repeatedly and expressing continued disbelief about her second Open collapse in as many years.
On Sunday, after finishing with a bogey on 18 and warmly acknowledging the large gallery's applause by throwing a few kisses, Alfredsson disappeared into the scoring trailer. She emerged when Sheehan arrived at 18 moments later to claim her second Open title and waited to congratulate her with a hug, whispering into Sheehan's ear that she had bet on Sheehan to win. Then, crossing the putting green as she headed toward the locker room, Alfredsson finally broke down in tears, sobbing, "Why did this happen to me? Why? I'm a good person; I play hard. How can this happen two years in a row?"
When she reached her locker, she found it plastered with notes from friends, fellow players, even strangers, offering support. Alfredsson took them down one by one, reading each, carefully folding it up and tucking it into a large envelope. Three-time Open champion Hollis Stacy came by, as did Alicia Dibos from Peru, who finished tied for fourth, rookie Mardi Lunn from Australia and several locker-room attendants. They wanted to give Alfredsson a word or two of encouragement, to touch her and tell her it would be all right. Alfredsson thanked and hugged them all. Then she packed up her things and left to catch a plane to Boston for the next tournament.