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.
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 Cañada. 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 earner'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 Göteborg, 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.