It was tempting to view the final round of the Nabisco Dinah
Shore as Cliffs Notes to the season's first three months.
Hanging near the top of the leader board were those sizzling
Swedes, Liselotte Neumann and Helen Alfredsson, one and two on
the money list, respectively, with three victories between them.
Lurking nearby was countrywoman Annika Sorenstam, 0 for '98
despite playing some of the steadiest golf of her career. There
was Laura Davies, feuding with her putter as always but
nevertheless still in contention, as well as Karrie Webb,
typically dour despite playing in the final threesome.
By the end of the day, though, something unexpected had
happened. Pat Hurst, an up-and-coming 28-year-old from San
Leandro, Calif., had held off her more celebrated rivals to win
her first major championship. Although the brassy, wire-to-wire
performance doubled Hurst's career victory total, it was not a
fluke. In fact, Sunday may be remembered as the day the next
American force in women's golf was unveiled.
"She's going to be a great player for a long time," said
Neumann, who was paired with Hurst on Sunday and held a share of
the lead at the turn before stumbling home to tie for fifth. "I
would be surprised if this is the last major she wins. She hits
it a mile, and her game is really aggressive and precise. She
amazed me with her poise out there. Look who was chasing her."
No kidding. While England's Helen Dobson closed with a flawless
67 to sneak into second, Alfredsson and Davies tied for third,
two back of Hurst. Sorenstam and Webb split seventh. The fast
company hardly rattled Hurst. "I just treated them like numbers
on a scoreboard," she said after her closing 71, which followed
rounds of 68-72-70 for a seven-under-par 281. Hurst's $150,000
winner's check wasn't secured until she nailed a five-foot par
putt on the 72nd hole. "It looked like a mile," said her drained
caddie, Gary Lukash. "It looked like five feet," said Hurst.
Hurst is of Japanese and German descent but her mellow attitude
is pure California. About the only anxiety she displayed
throughout the week was over the prospect of having to take the
traditional winner's dip in the sludge that passes for a lake
next to the 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club. Hurst has
a phobia about water that goes beyond red stakes--she can't swim
a lick. Saturday evening Hurst gave a Namath-like guarantee that
she wouldn't allow herself to get wet, but she was knee-deep in
the water by the next afternoon, tournament cochairman John
Manfredi dragging her in by the hand. It was the only time in
four days that Hurst wasn't in control.
She had grabbed the tournament by the throat on Thursday with an
eagle at the 2nd hole and a birdie at the 3rd. After putting the
finishing touches on her 68, Hurst said, "I'm not surprised to
be leading. If you're out here on tour, you've got to believe in
yourself. You've got to be confident enough to hit the shots. If
you're not, you're just defeating yourself." Hurst knows of what
she speaks, for it was the mental game that almost drove her to
give up golf before her career had even begun.
Hurst first took a fancy to the links at age 11 because she
liked to chauffeur her stepfather around in his cart, but within
a matter of years she was tearing through the amateur ranks. In
1986, at 17, she won the U.S. Junior. Three years later, as a
sophomore at San Jose State, she was the medalist at the NCAAs
and led the Spartans to the national championship. When Hurst
followed that with a triumph at the U.S. Amateur in 1990, there
seemed to be no slowing her ascent.
But following college she twice flunked Q school, with the
result that she slogged around mini-tours for three seasons.
Dogged by expectations and fed up with the financial uncertainty
and small-time feel of the minor leagues, Hurst burned out on
the game. The end came when she was leading a podunk tournament
in Visalia, Calif., by nine shots--and was miserable. "Life's
too short to do something you don't enjoy," she says.
In short order she took a job at swanky La Quinta Country Club
in the Palm Springs area, not far from Mission Hills. Hurst gave
lessons ($40 for a half hour, plus tips) and hawked polo shirts
in the pro shop during downtime. Once in a while she would get
in on the bustling money games played by the boys in the shop.
The easy camaraderie and lack of pressure rekindled Hurst's joy
in playing, and it showed. "Every time I played with Pat it
seemed like she would birdie the 18th to take all the money,"
says Eric Hildreth, an assistant pro at La Quinta. "Every time."
Soon enough Hurst was again haunting the mini-tours, and not
only was she winning again but she was also having a blast doing
it. In the fall of '94 she got her card at Q school and, staked
by a group of La Quinta members, lit out on the LPGA tour with
Jeff Heitt, then her fiance, now her husband, as her caddie.
Hurst had a solid rookie year, earning $124,989 to finish 49th
on the money list, and in the last two seasons has improved to
24th and 19th, respectively. Last June she won her first
tournament, nipping Juli Inkster by a shot at the Oldsmobile
Classic in East Lansing, Mich.
At 6,460 yards Mission Hills is the longest course the women
play, and it was particularly mean for this Dinah Shore. Stiff
breezes dried out the greens, making them even harder and faster
than usual, and the rough had been grown to near U.S. Open
specifications. "I've never lost so many balls in a practice
round," Neumann said on Wednesday. By the next morning the rough
had been trimmed, but the rains that fell periodically
throughout the tournament turned it into a wrist-breaking snarl.
Sorenstam was the only player to crack 70 in the wind last
Saturday, and just 10 players broke par for the tournament. The
conditions helped to identify the best players, so it was no
surprise to see Neumann only a shot behind Hurst after opening
with a 69. She was coming off a victory in Phoenix and has twice
been a runner-up in '98.
On Friday, Neumann looked as if she might run away with the
tournament when she made her sixth birdie of the day at the
par-5 14th to reach seven under. By round's end, though, she was
tied with Hurst at four under thanks to a sloppy finish of three
straight bogeys, which she blamed on feeling harried and hurried
after being put on the clock for slow play on the 15th hole.
"It's pathetic, just stupid," Neumann said moments after the
round. "I've been out here 10 years and to let that bother me is
just...." Before she could finish venting, a TV announcer asked
for an interview.
"I know you're a little unhappy right now...." he began.
"Actually, p----- off is what I am," Neumann said. "I could hit
somebody. Can I hit you?"
Neumann is "the prototype of the ice-cool Swede," according to
Davies, and a less likely candidate to accost bystanders than
the saucy Alfredsson. Five years ago Alfredsson burst onto the
scene by making the Dinah her first victory on U.S. soil. She
quickly became one of the most compelling figures in golf, a
former Paris model whose play fluctuated from the sublime to the
ridiculous. Alfredsson's legend expanded over two weeks in 1994
during which she suffered an epic demise at the U.S. Open--seven
shots up on Saturday, she would lose by eight--and rebounded
with a heroic victory the very next week. But while her game
flourished, her body was breaking down.
In 1985, while careening down a hill on her bike back home in
Goteborg, Sweden, Alfredsson crashed. Her right foot stayed
strapped to the pedal, and as a result, she says, her hamstring
was torn and a piece of bone broke off her pelvis. Alfredsson
came to believe that her condition was permanent. "I learned to
live with it," she says. "I was always putting my weight on my
left side. I felt like I had a downhill lie even when I had a
flat lie." In time the hamstring atrophied, as did her game. It
was not until December 1995 that X-rays revealed the bone
fragment. She underwent surgery 11 months later. Alfredsson won
two tournaments in Europe last fall and her comeback just keeps
coming, as she has had two more wins this season on the LPGA. "I
am remembering how to play this game," she says. "I am
remembering how to enjoy playing this game."
Alfredsson and Neumann have been friends for about 20 years;
they first played against each other as preteens. Of their
remarkable success this year Alfredsson says, "There's no secret
formula. It is what it is. We're not taking any special drugs,
unless you count Swedish meatballs."
That Sorenstam has been reduced to Third Swede is an astonishing
turn of events. By this time last year she had already won twice
and was about to win again, and though last week's Dinah was her
fifth top-10 finish in as many tournaments, she has been unable
to close the deal this season. At Mission Hills she never
recovered from a much-discussed 76 in the first round. Two days
earlier Sorenstam had begged out of the pro-am, saying only that
she didn't feel well, and in the information vacuum tongues
started wagging. The rumor that blazed through the pressroom was
that she was pregnant and suffering from morning sickness.
"That's a good one," her bemused husband David Esch said a few
days later. "It's not true, but it is pretty funny. I promise,
when it happens, you'll be the first to know."
After finishing up on Sunday, Sorenstam laughed at the rumor but
turned serious when discussing the state of her game. "I'm this
close," she said. "It's encouraging because I got so many bad
breaks this week and I still only lost by five shots to her."
Her was Hurst, who was about to sink the winning putt on 18.
During the trophy presentation that followed, Hurst was still
holding out hope that she wouldn't have to take the plunge into
the lake. "If you can make that putt, you can walk into the
water," said one hectoring tournament official, who was holding
the embroidered terry-cloth robe that has become part of the
Hurst must have misheard him, because she said, with some
amusement, "What do you mean? I can't walk on water." Not yet,