Beth Daniel can hit her irons. Always could. A decade or so ago,
when she was winning LPGA events in bunches, players envied her
ability to hit high approach shots to sucker pins. When more
timid golfers looked for ground routes--a level apron for the
bump-and-run, a mound to kill the ball's forward
momentum--Daniel went for sky miles. "Her ball doesn't spin like
others," raved a caddie who worked for her in the 1980s. "She
hits it high off the club, and it drops on the green--bump,
bump--and stops. It's such a pretty, pure shot."
Unfortunately it's sometimes the golfer who gets landed on, not
the green. It happened to Daniel on Sunday at the McDonald's
LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Del., and the outcome (a
shades-of-Greg Norman collapse by Daniel that handed the title
to steady, single-minded Se Ri Pak) was neither pretty nor pure.
Daniel wept afterward. "It's because I'm 45 and I'm in
menopause," she joked to reporters. More likely it was because
she couldn't understand how she could cruise so smoothly for
three rounds and then--bump, bump--stop.
Daniel led by four strokes and was eight under par when she and
Pak teed off on Sunday at DuPont Country Club. Daniel hadn't won
a tournament since 1995 and hadn't even contended often, to be
honest, since surgeons opened her left shoulder a few years ago
and sanded down a bone spur that was fraying a tendon. Still,
most of her peers expected the LPGA Hall of Famer to win at
Wilmington and become the oldest winner of a women's major,
replacing Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who won the 1954 U.S. Women's
Open at 42. "Beth is playing with confidence, she's in control
of her emotions, and she has a mature way of thinking her way
around the course," said Solheim Cup captain Patty Sheehan.
"That's what you see in Hall of Famers."
But Wilmington would not provide one of Daniel's career
highlights. By Sunday evening, when she tapped in on the final
hole, Daniel had a dazed, distant look in her eyes. Without
hitting any really awful shots, she had ended up with a
six-over-par 77 and finished in second place, three strokes
behind Pak. "A couple of times I thought the ghost of Babe
Zaharias stepped on my ball," Daniel said. How else to explain
how balls that had wandered only a foot or two off the fairway
wound up buried in ankle-high rough?
But that's golf: often confounding, rarely fair. Take the venue.
DuPont, site of the LPGA Championship since 1994, should have
been as familiar as a favorite chair to most of the 144-woman
field, but this year the course was perplexing. The rough was
deeper than usual and the greens impenetrably firm. In practice
rounds the players complained that their iron shots were
releasing 10, 20, even 30 yards after landing, forcing the
players to aim for the narrow openings to most greens. Then it
rained the night before the tournament, turning those openings
into comfy cushions while leaving the well-drained greens as
hard as slate.
"If the fronts of the greens are soft, then it's pretty
difficult," said Lorie Kane, less than thrilled with a 12-over
296. "You can hit great shots and not get much out of them."
Betsy King, who won the last of her six majors, the 1997 Nabisco
Championship, when she was 41, shot a 298 and condemned the
course setup as "over the top--harder than any U.S. Open
course." The problem, according to King: "It didn't give you a
chance to play a good shot."
That's golf, too: constantly defying expectations. Before play
began on Thursday, everyone buzzed about the possibility of a
Soren Slam--a sweep of the year's majors by four-time player of
the year Annika Sorenstam. Coming off an 11-stroke victory at
the Kellogg-Keebler Classic and having already won the year's
first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship (remember the red
shoes?), Sorenstam seemed poised to win another. Hall of Famer
Pat Bradley, who won three of the four women's majors in 1986,
agreed that Sorenstam had "everything it takes to win a grand
slam" but pointed out the absurdity of trying to make a dollar
out of two bits. "When she gets two in a row, then we can talk."
Bradley was prescient. Sorenstam opened with a solid, one-under
70, but her Friday went like a walk in the fun house, without
the fun. On 14 she chunked a simple approach into a bunker 50
yards short of the hole. On 16, after smoking her drive through
the dogleg and into a deep bunker, she wandered into the woods,
shaking her head and muttering to herself. "I'm at a loss for
words," Sorenstam said afterward, having shot her worst score of
the year, a 76. "You don't get rewarded for good shots. That's
toying with my mind." For 2002 the door to the slam was slammed.
Pak, meanwhile, was working at the edge of everyone's vision,
just as she did last August when she came from four off the pace
in the final round to win the Women's British Open. There is
nothing inherently stealthy about the 24-year-old South Korean.
You don't win four majors and 11 other LPGA events in fewer than
five seasons by flying beneath the radar. But Pak's
self-discipline and unemotive playing style obscure the fact
that she is only a step behind Sorenstam and Webb in the race to
the Hall of Fame. Her free-spirited younger sister and traveling
companion, Ae Ri Pak, rolls her eyes over Se Ri's rigid training
schedules and early bedtimes. "I don't dare ask to go to a dance
club with Se Ri," says Ae Ri. "I know better." But Se Ri has
loosened up in recent years. She giggles on the practice range
and plays big sister to the dozen LPGA players from South Korea.
A couple of weeks ago she even let her hair down long enough to
join Ae Ri in a Chicago shopping spree. "It helps not being the
only Korean out here," Se Ri said in Wilmington. "It's more like
a big family. We can hang out, go to dinner, shop, just have fun."
Be that as it may, the 2002 LPGA will be remembered more for
Daniel's despair than for Pak's perkiness. A fiery, often
hot-tempered competitor in her prime, Daniel suffered years of
comparisons with the crowd-pleasing Nancy Lopez. "I have always
said that Beth was a better player than Nancy," Sheehan said
last week. "It's just that Nancy had the support of the
Daniel certainly had the fans' support on Sunday. Many of them
knew that while she had 32 LPGA wins, Daniel had only one major
title--a come-from-five-strokes-behind win at the 1990 LPGA
Championship--and had failed three times previously while
holding the lead going into the final round of a major. And if
they read the papers, they knew that she was amusingly ticked
off by TV commentators who repeatedly refer to her as
"45-year-old Beth Daniel."
"That's all they said on TV for the whole week of the Nabisco,"
Daniel joked on Saturday evening, a little giddy from shooting
67-70-68 and leading after all three rounds. She added, a bit
ominously, "I hope they're saying something about me tomorrow."
As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. On Sunday,
Daniel's lead melted faster than a snow cone in the Sahara. It
was four strokes when she started, three when Pak birdied the
2nd hole and two when Pak birdied the 4th. It was one when
Daniel missed a short bogey putt on the 5th, allowing Pak to
gain ground despite a bogey of her own. And then, with a
two-shot swing at the 10th hole, the lead was suddenly Pak's at
Daniel bogeyed three of the last seven holes, but it was a quiet
meltdown, nowhere near as horrifying as Sheehan's unforgettable
blowup in the 1990 U.S. Women's Open at the Atlantic Athletic
Club or Arnold Palmer's seven-strokes-in-nine-holes giveaway of
the '66 U.S. Open at San Francisco's Olympic Club. "I actually
hit the ball more solidly today than the rest of the week,"
Daniel said, "but I got screwed." Her marvelous iron shots still
flew high and long, but on this sad day the ball either bounced
to the treacherous high side of the hole--bump, bump--or
skittered off the green into deep grass.
"That's golf," said Sorenstam, who recaptured her own magic on
Sunday and finished third with a tournament-best 65. "It does
not have an explanation."
That made sense to Pak, who said she would allow herself only a
few hours to enjoy her 279 total and $225,000 winner's check
before boarding a flight to Paris and this week's Evian Masters.
"This moment is happy," she said with a knowing smile, "and
after that, same life."
For Pak, maybe. But not for 45-year-old Beth Daniel.
Read John Garrity's Mats Only column on golfonline.com.
a U.S. Open course."