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 Göteborg, 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.