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Mallon More Magical Than The Others

By Dave Shedloski

South Hadley, Mass. - Insurmountable evidence exists that winners of major championships, particularly winners of a U.S. Open, won't be found in the rough. But more tellingly, they also can't be found from the fairways or from the greens.

They can only be found from the bottom of the hole. It is so obvious, and yet it is so true.

Annika Sorenstam shot a 3-under 67 Sunday but it wasn't enough to catch Meg Mallon. Ironically enough, in 1995 Sorenstam caught Mallon on the final day of the Open to gain her first career victory. (Sam Greenwood/USGA)

Annika Sorenstam, golf's maven of mechanization, played arguably the finest golf of the 59th U.S. Women's Open at The Orchards Golf Club. She was the most accurate tee to green, leading the field in greens in regulation percentage, plus ranking fourth in driving distance and seventh in driving accuracy. She shot par or better in every round, and closed Sunday with a 4-under-par 67 - just one stroke shy of the final round record score by a winner.

Kelly Robbins, her power game far from waning at age 34, hit the ball the hardest. Her 256-yard driving average was tops in the field. It helped power her to a closing 69, usually a round that gets you pondering acceptance speeches in majors.

But neither player won the 59th U.S. Women's Open, because neither could do what Meg Mallon managed to do on the quick and quirky greens for which Donald Ross is known. With a fastidiousness putting performance that defied logic - one the winner herself called "magical" - Mallon was fastest in the hole on Sunday, and that was all she needed in a record final-round 65 and two-stroke victory, her second national title.

Gallery roars echoed throughout the old apple orchard as Mallon drained a series of putts from all angles and uncanny distances. One after another they dropped, an avalanche that not only made her scorecard handsome, but also delivered psychological haymakers to her challengers. Directly cold-cocked was third-round leader Jennifer Rosales who, like a starry-eyed spectator to a magic show, kept watching her playing partner's disappearing ball trick without ever figuring out how she was doing it.

"When the one you're playing with just makes everything you kind of lose your concentration," said Rosales, who ended up on the wrong end of a 10-shot swing on Sunday.

"Meg is such a good player. So solid, so straight, she hits a lot of greens. And she can putt with the best of them when she's putting well," Robbins said.

Though Mallon, 41, who also won the 1991 U.S. Open and twice was runner-up, was unhappy with her putter for much of the championship, she'll see in retrospect just how valuable that one club was to her victory. Yes, the 24 official putts in the final round (25 when you count the par she sank from off the 15th green) will one day be the stuff of legend, but the fact that she didn't have one three-putt green all week looms large in the final analysis. For the week Mallon ranked second in the field with her 28.3-putts-per-round average.

It's no coincidence that two weeks ago Retief Goosen won the U.S. Open without suffering a three-putt and making every club putt in his final round at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

It's no coincidence either that upstart Hilary Lunke, a playoff winner in last year's U.S. Women's Open, averaged a mere 27.5 putts per round over 72 holes, second best in the championship.

"It's a blue moon month. I had the blue moon lined up today," Mallon said, trying to explain her bogey-free effort that was solid in other areas - 11 fairways hit, 13 greens hit - but will be remembered for the putting round of her life. "I'm beside myself. Just to stand over the putter like that and have these amazing putts go in was so much fun. It was out of nowhere."

Compare that to Sorenstam, who made a gamely run at Mallon with birdies on the final two holes, but overall didn't convert enough of her chances - of which there were many. So many of her putts finished nowhere near the right place. "I think I putted pretty good; it's just that I hit every lip on this golf course," she mused with more than a trace of dejection.

Sorenstam is a ball-striking marvel, and on Sunday she hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation. However, the 33-year-old Swede needed 31 putts to complete her 67. All her wonderful consistency tee to green was nullified by her 31.3 putts per round, 45th in the field. She also had two three-putts - two strokes that ended up being the margin of victory.

Because of the penal nature of Open layouts and the pressure that goes with a major championship - pressure not only to win but also pressure to simply survive - putting takes on ever greater importance. It saves a round. It saves the soul. That's the lesson of Sunday's final round at The Orchards.

"Meg just played extraordinary," said Sorenstam. "I didn't make many mistakes, but I didn't make many putts."

Mallon did, and she delivered the victory speech.

Dave Shedloski is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.uswomensopen.com.