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BORN TO BE WILD HELEN ALFREDSSON, THE ROCK-AND-ROLL SOUL OF THE LPGA TOUR, LIVES--AND PLAYS THE GAME--AT FULL THROTTLE

May 08, 1995
May 08, 1995

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May 8, 1995

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BORN TO BE WILD HELEN ALFREDSSON, THE ROCK-AND-ROLL SOUL OF THE LPGA TOUR, LIVES--AND PLAYS THE GAME--AT FULL THROTTLE

It is four o'clock on a Southern California afternoon, and Helen
Alfredsson is reenacting a scene from the movie Speed. You know,
the one in which Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock take a city bus
down a freeway exit ramp while trying not to let the speedometer
dip below 50? There are only two differences in Alfredsson's
version: The 30-year-old professional golfer is driving a
lipstick-red Mazda MX-6; and because she is already doing 70
down this exit ramp north of L.A., she appears to be in no
danger of falling below 50. The danger lies elsewhere--with
the poor, unsuspecting pedestrian who is about to step into the
intersection ahead. To make matters dicier, Alfredsson is
singing at the top of her considerable lungs and playing air
guitar to a song she has cranked up on the car radio. All of
which means one thing: The only hands on the steering wheel are
God's.

This is an article from the May 8, 1995 issue Original Layout

Panic, however, has not entered Alfredsson's mind, so engrossed
is she in R.E.M.'s Bang and Blame: ``If you could see yourself
now baby, the tables have turned, the whole world hinges on your
swings. . . .'' Alfredsson hits every note. Better still, she
does not hit the pedestrian. He is spared when the Swede with
the need for speed momentarily returns her attention to the
steering wheel and deftly maneuvers the car around him at the
last second. Still singing, she roars up the narrow road to her
home in La Canada. For Alfredsson, the rock-and-roll soul of the
LPGA, driving--like golf and like life--can be done only at
full throttle.

Among redheads Alfredsson is a cross between Lucille Ball and
William the Conqueror. When not hurling insults at herself for
hitting wayward shots on the golf course, the rangy player can
usually be found sending mock insults JoAnne Carner's way on the
practice tee or exchanging off-color jokes with Amy Alcott on
the putting green. At her best Alfredsson, who owns three U.S.
Women's Open scoring records, has used her flash and fire, not
to mention her powerful ball striking, to dominate tournaments
and destroy courses. But Alfredsson's passion to succeed springs
from a very fragile sense of self- confidence, and it is this
dynamic that makes her, in good times and bad, such a compelling
athlete to watch.

At the 1994 U.S. Open at Indianwood Golf & Country Club in Lake
Orion, Mich., Alfredsson shot an opening-round 63, eight under
par. It not only broke the women's one-round Open record by two
strokes but also tied the men's record, held by Johnny Miller,
Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf. The six- time Swedish national
champion shot a 69 on the second day for a total of 132,
breaking the 36-hole Open record for women and the men's mark as
well. When she reached 13 under par midway through the third
round, the air she was breathing was more than a little
rarefied. Only one other player had ever reached subpar double
figures in a men's or women's Open--Gil Morgan, who made it to
12 under in 1984.

But just when Alfredsson's Open was starting to look like
Sherman's march to the sea, she went into full retreat. Playing
the last 29 holes in 14 over par, Alfredsson dropped to ninth
place, eight shots behind the winner, Patty Sheehan. That
collapse was even worse than her failure in the previous year's
Open, when she had entered the final round with a two-stroke
lead only to shoot two over par and lose by a stroke to Lauri
Merten. Days after the Open, Alfredsson said with resignation,
``I've come to the conclusion that this is a game I'll never
understand.''

A week after leaving Indianwood tearfully questioning fate and
her ability, she ran away with the PING/Welch's Championship at
Blue Hill Country Club in Canton, Mass. ``I was tied for the
lead after three days,'' Alfredsson says, ``and I thought, Am I
going to do it again?'' The answer was no. Alfredsson made five
birdies en route to a 31 on the back nine and a four-stroke win.

Life has had its ups and downs for Alfredsson, dating all the
way back to her childhood in Goteborg, where she was a redhead
in a blonde world. ``I had this long curly red hair below my
waist,'' Alfredsson says, ``and I was tall and heavy for my age.
Because of my hair and my height, the other kids always said
things like, `The skyscraper is on fire.' '' But Alfredsson took
on all comers. ``I liked to arm-wrestle the boys,'' she says,
``and I always beat them.''

Team handball and ice skating proved to be the main antidote for
her perpetual restlessness. But when she was 11, Alfredsson
picked up a golf club at the suggestion of her father, Bjorn.
``My dad wanted me to find something to do that was less
strenuous,'' she says. ``He gave me a seven-iron at first, then
a five-iron, then a putter, and I just started hitting balls all
the time.''

In summer and on weekends during the school year, Alfredsson
would play in tournaments throughout southern Sweden, and as a
14-year-old she was the youngest member of the Swedish junior
team. Success, however, was fairly unsatisfying. ``My dad
traveled with me to tournaments,'' Alfredsson recalls, ``but
he'd never say anything. My dad was not one to give a lot of
praise.''

The Alfredsson household was not a particularly nurturing one,
either. Helen's parents divorced when she was 15, and her
mother, Kathie, moved out. Helen and her younger sister, Annica,
then 11, stayed with their father. But Helen decided to live by
her own set of curious commandments.

She would join friends at a drinking club after school and stay
out until the early hours, though never past 6 a.m. ``I had a
rule,'' she says. ``Never be late to school the next morning.''
There was another rule: Never drink after midnight. Between
classes and all-night carousing, Alfredsson managed to squeeze
in work as a waitress and time for study at the library. Her
father found her too much to handle, and when she was 17 he sent
her to live with her mother.

In the winter of her senior year in high school Alfredsson met a
man at a dance club who told her she could make a lot of money
in Paris as a model. Within a week Alfredsson was on a plane to
France. Being a model, however, was not all she had imagined.
``I hated it,'' she says. ``It was a meat market.'' The 5 10"
Alfredsson developed anorexia and lost 25 pounds, reaching a low
of 120. ``I was tired all the time, and I was losing hair.''
When she became exhausted after playing nine holes of golf with
the Swedish national team in Italy, she realized it was time to
go home.

Alfredsson finished high school at 19 and then fled on a golf
scholarship to U.S. International University in San Diego. There
she studied hard, partied hard and fought hard with her golf
coach, Gordon Severson. ``We argued all the time about how to do
things,'' she says. ``He was never satisfied.'' Their
disagreements earned her three dismissals from the team in four
years for everything from studying during practice to becoming
romantically entangled with the school's soccer coach, Leo
Cuellar, now her fiance and sometime caddie.

More sophisticated than many of her classmates, Alfredsson
developed few friendships in college. The little camaraderie she
did find came from Cuellar, 13 years her senior and a former
World Cup and Olympic soccer player for Mexico. They started to
date in Alfredsson's junior year but kept their relationship
quiet. When he came to visit, Cuellar would park a mile from
Alfredsson's dormitory and sneak up to her room.

During summer vacations Alfredsson would return to Goteborg to
be with her sister. ``My dad had a new wife, and he didn't pay
much attention to us,'' Alfredsson says. ``He and his new wife
and her three kids went and lived in our summer house, and
Annica and I lived in the main house. The first time I came
home, Annica was there alone with nothing in the refrigerator.
We ate a lot of rice and ketchup those summers.''

After graduating from USIU in 1988 with a 3.2 grade point
average and a degree in international business and marketing,
Alfredsson went home to play on the Women's Professional Golf
European Tour. Cuellar joined her as her caddie during summers,
but life on the road was not easy. ``We'd sleep in the car,''she
says, ``and ate a lot of prosciutto and cheese.''

But if Alfredsson's diet suffered, her results didn't. She was
WPGET Rookie of the Year in 1989 and won the women's British
Open in '90. When asked what her proudest accomplishment on the
European tour is, however, Alfredsson says, ``I never missed a
cut in six years.''

Although Alfredsson has often had to struggle to put food in her
mouth, she has little interest in accumulating wealth. She has a
combined 12 LPGA and WPGET wins and $1.03 million in earnings,
but the only extravagance she has indulged in over the past few
years sits in her driveway: a jet-black Harley Davidson she
bought in February for $7,500. There is only one hitch:
Alfredsson is not yet licensed to drive it, so her cruising thus
far consists of tours of her cul-de-sac. Alfredsson says, ``I
can't deny money gives you a great sense of freedom -- you can
come and go whenever you want. But it doesn't ever make you
happy.''

That her happiness depends on winning, not winnings, was
apparent after her free fall in last year's Open. On the
surface Alfredsson was composed. She blew appreciative kisses to
the loudly applauding gallery after putting out on the 72nd
hole, she spent several minutes in the TV booth talking with
ABC's Brent Musberger and Steve Melnick, and she spent
considerable time fielding questions from the press. Nonetheless
she sobbed heavily afterward. ``Why did this happen to me?'' she
said. ``I'm a good person. I play hard. How can this happen two
years in a row?''

In the following weeks Alfredsson was surprised and comforted by
the letters of support she received from fans all over the
country. She keeps those letters in a drawer in her bedroom.
``Don't get discouraged,'' a man in Washington, D.C., wrote.
``Golf needs you. We all need role models like you.'' Another
letter, written in large block letters, reads: NEWS BULLETIN:
HELEN ALFREDSSON A CLASS ACT! BEST THING TO HAPPEN TO THE LPGA
SINCE NANCY LOPEZ.

There is a lot of truth to the last statement. At a time when
golf coverage is increasing, the LPGA still suffers from the
criticism that its players lack luster. Alfredsson, with her
stylish play, emotional abandon and penchant for playfulness, is
the tour's most charismatic asset.

Somewhere southwest of L.A., Alfredsson is humiliating another
golf course. This time the links she is bringing to its knees is
the dragon course at Golfland Miniature Golf in El Monte. When
she gets to the 17th hole, Alfredsson has already made eight
birdies on holes over bridges, through castles and into caves.
But here she struggles, having trouble getting her ball through
the small opening in the lime-green mission house that is the
main obstruction on number 17. It takes her two to get down to
the hole, and Alfredsson has to settle for her only bogey of the
day. Though she is poised to beat her opponent by a rousing 18
strokes, she is clearly unhappy to have to concede the hole.

When she steps up to number 18, she's faced with a difficult
putt up an anthill to the hole. No problem. Alfredsson grips her
little aluminum putter and sends her blue ball rolling with
perfect pace. It glides up the front side of the anthill and
loses just enough speed at the top to fall gently into the cup.
Hole in one. Alfredsson throws back her head, raises her putter
into the air and does a jig. She has scorched the par-3 Golfland
course with a seven-under-par 47. It's not surprising, of
course. As Alfredsson would no doubt tell you, miniature
golf--like driving and like life--can only be done at full
throttle.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT Alfredsson has made a cool mil, but her only indulgence is a Harley she can't even drive. [Helen Alfredsson on motorcycle; Helen Alfredsson]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Alfredsson's third round in the '94 Open was first a beauty and then a beast. [scoreboard for 1994 U.S. Women's Open Championship]COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN MASCK [see caption above--Helen Alfredsson] COLOR PHOTO: MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT No course is too tiny to rouse Alfredsson's passion.[Helen Alfredsson on miniature golf course]