On A Roll Riding a sizzling putter during a record-setting finish, Meg Mallon made winning a second Women's Open look like kid stuff

July 11, 2004

They were everywhere last week, highly skilled, highly confident
and blissfully ignorant. A record 16 teenagers were among the 150
starters at the 59th U.S. Women's Open, and along with a cadre of
similarly brash twentysomethings, the kids arrived at the
Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, Mass., having already taken
over the women's game. The only question: When would they start
taking the big trophies, too? ¶ Forgive Meg Mallon, a matronly
veteran at 41, for shedding her normal mother-hen role and
stomping on all the cocky young chicks. Two holes into Sunday's
final round, she trailed the leader, her 25-year-old playing
partner Jennifer Rosales, by four strokes. Mallon made six
birdies without a bogey the rest of the way to overwhelm Rosales,
shooting a stunning six-under-par 65 to win her second Open and
fourth major championship, by two over Annika Sorenstam. Mallon's
final round was the best ever by a Women's Open champ, and her 13
years between titles also set a championship record. "I'm 41
years old, and you have to enjoy it when things like this
happen," Mallon said afterward. Asked what she had learned
since winning the Open in 1991, Mallon said, "Thirteen years
ago I was 28. I was old [then]."

Such is the state of the women's game that a player is considered
over the hill before she has even climbed it. Mallon may be one
of the best players in LPGA history--she has played on seven
Solheim Cup teams and has amassed more than $7 million in
earnings--but her Q rating can't compare with those of Michelle
Wie, the 14-year-old prodigy from Honolulu, and Paula Creamer, a
17-year-old from Pleasanton, Calif., who fell a stroke shy of
winning the LPGA's ShopRite Classic last month. The Open,
however, is usually not kind to the callow.

The first-round leader was Brittany Lincicome, an 18-year-old
amateur from Seminole, Fla., whose 66 was highlighted by a
hole-out for eagle on the par-4 15th that left her in ecstatic
tears. Lincicome, however, was 18 over the rest of the way as she
finished 55th, which should teach her that there's no crying in
the Open (or at least not in the first round). Only six of the
teens made the cut, and just three finished in the top 30.
(Creamer and Wie wound up one over and in a tie for 13th.)
Rosales, a native of the Philippines who was the 1998 NCAA champ
at Southern Cal, lost her nerve on the greens on Sunday and
stumbled home with a 75 that left her in fourth, seven shots
behind Mallon. "It's frustrating," Rosales said, "but I told
myself, Jen, you had a good tournament. Take that experience."

Mallon, who played in her first major three years before Wie was
born, already had plenty of experience. She said her best round
at this year's Open was not the last but the first, during which
she scraped together a 73 despite hitting only six fairways and
nine greens. As she made her charge up the leader board on
Sunday, Mallon refused to be overwhelmed by the teeming galleries
that had adopted her as a native daughter. (She grew up near
Detroit but was born in Natick, Mass.) "I said, 'This is like the
Solheim Cup. Go out and enjoy the galleries.' I played off that
experience." Nor did Mallon become overconfident as she walked to
the 16th tee with a four-shot cushion. This was a woman who had
blown a three-stroke lead in the final round of the '95 Open,
allowing a 24-year-old Annika Sorenstam to win her first major.
"I've seen too many strange things happen in the Open," Mallon
said.

Mallon has also had more tragic life experiences than her younger
challengers, which helps keep her on an even keel. She remembers
sitting in Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angles in 1993 as her
close friend and fellow tour player Heather Farr died of breast
cancer at age 28. In December 2001 Mallon's mother, Marian,
suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that paralyzed the right side of
her body. "I have my life in perspective," Mallon says. "My
brothers and sisters are here today. We would have had a great
time tonight no matter what."

That was a refreshing coda to a week that had been filled with
objections to the USGA's granting a special exemption to Wie. The
invitation, only the second extended to an amateur, meant that
Wie did not have to play her way into the Open through regional
qualifying. That Wie had performed well enough in three LPGA tour
events this year to earn an exemption--she would have won enough
to rank 28th on the money list if she had been a pro--didn't
soothe the snipers. "Even a 14-year-old phenom should have to
earn her way into things," said five-year tour veteran Cristie
Kerr. "She's going to be very good for our tour one day, but
she's not going to learn much by being handed things."

Juli Inkster, a two-time Open winner, echoed that sentiment. "If
you fail at qualifying, you work harder. We've all done it," she
said. No one seemed to have any qualms about the exemptions given
to 49-year-old Betsy King, who went 11 over and missed the cut,
and to Dottie Pepper, 39, who withdrew because of injuries and
then announced her retirement from the tour. Told that Wie
probably brought more fans than either King or Pepper, the
44-year-old Inkster replied, "So you give an invite to anyone who
sells tickets?"

Similar arguments were used against Sorenstam last year when she
was given a sponsor's exemption to the Colonial on the PGA Tour,
but when asked about Wie's free pass, Sorenstam wouldn't stick up
for her. "She's a wonderful player, but I don't think it's up to
me to have an opinion if she should be in or not," Sorenstam
said.

Sorenstam and her peers probably are uncomfortable with the
knowledge that Wie is already the biggest name in women's golf.
Sorenstam may have won seven majors, but with galleries that were
larger and louder, Wie was the main reason this Open set
attendance records. (For the week the championship drew 118,458
fans.) "Michelle is better able to transcend the sport than
Annika," says USGA executive director David Fay. "She's drawing
in the casual fan, as Tiger did when he first came out. The
likelihood is that 99 times out of 100 she's going to qualify,
but our feeling was, Why put her through that when she's already
proved that she should be here?"

Wie's play--the top 20 are automatically invited to the following
year's Open, so Wie already has a ticket to Cherry Hills, outside
Denver--answered her critics. "There won't be any controversy
[next year] because they'll know I've earned it," Wie said.

Wie has also become a target for sponsors. Greg Nared, a business
affairs manager at Nike, is normally assigned to Tiger Woods, but
instead of trailing Woods at the Western Open last week, he was
at the Orchards, a constant presence in Wie's galleries and with
Michelle's father, B.J., and mother, Bo, after rounds. Fay
speculated that Wie, despite her statements to the contrary,
could turn pro before she gets to college. Fay recently sent the
Wies clippings of stories on pro athletes who are also students,
including figure skater Sarah Hughes, who accepts endorsement
money while attending Yale. "Playing college golf won't do
anything for Michelle," says Fay. "She can make money to pay for
tuition and still play a full slate of LPGA tournaments if she
wants to."

Wie ranked second in driving distance last week with a 255.4-yard
average, but a tendency to make the big mistake kept her from
contending. Her costliest error came on Saturday at the 412-yard
par-4 18th, where she tried to muscle a four-iron out of the left
rough and badly hooked her ball into the gallery, even though she
and her coach, Gary Gilchrist, had determined during practice
rounds that she shouldn't try to hit anything more than a
six-iron out of the rough. That miscue led to Wie's third double
bogey of the week. Still, Wie has already diversified her
shot-making, most notably adding a soft fade on tee shots and
approaches. "You can't hit stock shots all the time at a U.S.
Open," she says. "You have to learn how to move the ball around.
Sometimes you have to hit it high, sometimes low. You never know
what's going to happen at a U.S. Open."

Mallon learned that all over again at the Orchards, where her
best club was her putter. Even though she ranked 11th in greens
hit in regulation, she finished second in putting and needed only
24 putts on Sunday. Among her six birdie putts were a 54-foot
bomb on number 4 and a 15-footer on the 11th. Her most important
stroke, though, came at the 15th, where she saved par with a
curling 25-footer from the right fringe. "You know it's your day
when things like that happen," Mallon said. "The hole looked like
a bucket today."

At the conclusion of her magical round, Mallon stood on the 18th
green on Sunday evening to accept the championship trophy.
Creamer and Wie were standing nearby with the rest of the fans.
When Mallon was introduced, a USGA volunteer leaned in and
whispered to the teenagers, "One day, ladies."

Creamer nodded and replied, "One day."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH STROKE OF GENIUS Mallon needed only 24 putts on Sunday, the biggest being this par-saver at 15.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH UNQUALIFIED SUCCESS With her 13th-place finish, Wie silenced critics by earning a spot in next year's Women's Open. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER (2) FLASHY FILIPINA The personable Rosales won over the record crowds before succumbing to Open pressure on Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER (2) HARD CHARGING Sorenstam was almost perfect from tee to green but couldn't make enough birdie putts to catch Mallon.