There are different kinds of slumps out here," Danielle Ammaccapane was saying last Saturday, on the eve of the final round of the Mercury Titleholders Championship. "There are the kinds during which you're fighting something mechanical in your swing, and those can be tough, but you work through them. Then there are the slumps during which you're fighting yourself. Those are something else entirely."
Ammaccapane spoke in the weary tone of someone who has grappled with the latter. Since 1992, when she burst into stardom with three wins as a haughty 26-year-old, Ammaccapane has been locked in mortal combat with her swing, her psyche and herself. Until last week the score was Slump 1, Ammaccapane 0. All that changed last week in Daytona Beach, where Ammaccapane shot a gutsy 71 to conquer the elements, a tough LPGA International course, a stellar field and the ghosts of six years of failure. "All I can say is, I'm back," she crowed on Sunday evening, her eyes still saturated from the emotion that had poured out on the last green.
To understand Ammaccapane you need to know that at age 10 she quit tennis, only a few months after taking up the sport, because she lost for the first time. Five-foot-five in spikes and slight of build, she succeeded in golf because of an XXL heart and a competitive drive she describes as "bordering on unhealthy." At Arizona State, Ammaccapane won the first college tournament she played in, and as a sophomore she took the 1985 NCAAs, nipping the more heralded Dottie Pepper by a stroke. Ammaccapane's pro career began in 1988 and two years of steady progress were followed by three seasons of spectacular success. She was among the top 10 LPGA money winners from 1990 to '92, climbing all the way to third in the last of those years. Ammaccapane was positioned to be one of the dominant players of the decade. Then she fell into the abyss.
Her tumble began in the '92 off-season, when she suffered a fall while horseback riding, landing in the hospital with a serious concussion. Ammaccapane felt the effects of the injury during the early part of the following season and never quite got back in the saddle, finishing 28th on the money list. In 1994 she dropped to 76th, in part because of needless tinkering with her swing in hopes of adding length. Thus began a vicious circle in which bad results would lead Ammaccapane to make desperate changes in her swing, which would erode her confidence and lead to more bad results. In '96 she finished a career-worst 84th in earnings. The year was lowlighted by a self-immolation at the Ping Welch's Championship in Tucson, where she led the tournament by two strokes heading into the final round only to close with an 81. After beginning last year with six straight missed cuts, she was ready to give up the game.
What kept Ammaccapane going was a fluke performance at last June's Edina Realty Classic, where she shot a final-round 68 to come from five shots back over a faltering field and win the fifth tournament of her career, but her first since '92. Ammaccapane would have only one other top 10 finish all year, but the victory secured her immediate future and persuaded her to soldier on. This season she has rediscovered her old consistency with a back-to-basics approach inspired by watching videotapes of her victories. Coming into the Titleholders, Ammaccapane had made eight of nine cuts and could feel her confidence cresting.
After opening with solid rounds of 70-68, Ammaccapane seized a share of the third-round lead with a nearly flawless 67, which tied for the low round of the windy day. "I was so calm it was scary," she said. "I hadn't been that calm in a long time." Still, she wasn't given much of a chance against the coleader, Annika Sorenstam, who was hoping to break out of the kind of slump most players pray for.
Last year Sorenstam was the LPGA's answer to Tiger Woods, winning six tournaments and setting a single-season earnings record. This year Sorenstam has also played like Woods—distressingly so. In the six tournaments before the Titleholders she finished no worse than seventh but had been unable to get it done on Sunday. "I feel that this year I'm playing better golf. I'm steadier," she said after a second-round 69, echoing Woods's hollow mantra. "I feel like I'm in control. I'm waiting. I'm waiting like everybody, I'm sure."
She was still cooling her heels on Sunday after missing more fairways than in the previous three rounds combined and making four bogeys, including two in a row midway through the back nine. "I wanted it too much," said Sorenstam, who finished third, two back of Ammaccapane and one behind Michelle Estill. "The problem was in my head more than my golf swing, and that's what's disappointing."
Twenty-two spots below Sorenstam in the final standings was Kelli Kuehne, and she was thrilled to be there, proof of just how topsy-turvy life can be once a player gets mixed up in an Ammaccapane kind of slump. You may remember Kuehne as the teen sensation whose sterling amateur career and telegenic smile earned her seven figures worth of endorsements, much to the dismay of just about every other woman who makes her living playing golf. After sailing through Q school last fall Kuehne, now 20, came into her rookie year hoping to justify the hype, but hasn't.
She opened the season at the HealthSouth Inaugural by shooting 76-78 to miss the cut by a stroke. Pressing in the second round there, she took a ghastly 37 jabs with the flat stick, including a four-putt on the 10th hole. After that, "I pushed harder and harder, and that only made things worse," she says. "I had so much tension in my swing and in my putting stroke that it was almost impossible to play."