Beth Daniel can hit her irons. Always could. A decade or so ago, when she was winning LPGA events in bunches, players envied her ability to hit high approach shots to sucker pins. When more timid golfers looked for ground routes—a level apron for the bump-and-run, a mound to kill the ball's forward momentum—Daniel went for sky miles. "Her ball doesn't spin like others," raved a caddie who worked for her in the 1980s. "She hits it high off the club, and it drops on the green—bump, bump—and stops. It's such a pretty, pure shot."
Unfortunately it's sometimes the golfer who gets landed on, not the green. It happened to Daniel on Sunday at the McDonald's LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Del., and the outcome (a shades-of- Greg Norman collapse by Daniel that handed the title to steady, single-minded Se Ri Pak) was neither pretty nor pure. Daniel wept afterward. "It's because I'm 45 and I'm in menopause," she joked to reporters. More likely it was because she couldn't understand how she could cruise so smoothly for three rounds and then—bump, bump—stop.
Daniel led by four strokes and was eight under par when she and Pak teed off on Sunday at DuPont Country Club. Daniel hadn't won a tournament since 1995 and hadn't even contended often, to be honest, since surgeons opened her left shoulder a few years ago and sanded down a bone spur that was fraying a tendon. Still, most of her peers expected the LPGA Hall of Famer to win at Wilmington and become the oldest winner of a women's major, replacing Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who won the 1954 U.S. Women's Open at 42. "Beth is playing with confidence, she's in control of her emotions, and she has a mature way of thinking her way around the course," said Solheim Cup captain Patty Sheehan. "That's what you see in Hall of Famers."
But Wilmington would not provide one of Daniel's career highlights. By Sunday evening, when she tapped in on the final hole, Daniel had a dazed, distant look in her eyes. Without hitting any really awful shots, she had ended up with a six-over-par 77 and finished in second place, three strokes behind Pak. "A couple of times I thought the ghost of Babe Zaharias stepped on my ball," Daniel said. How else to explain how balls that had wandered only a foot or two off the fairway wound up buried in ankle-high rough?
But that's golf: often confounding, rarely fair. Take the venue. DuPont, site of the LPGA Championship since 1994, should have been as familiar as a favorite chair to most of the 144-woman field, but this year the course was perplexing. The rough was deeper than usual and the greens impenetrably firm. In practice rounds the players complained that their iron shots were releasing 10,20, even 30 yards after landing, forcing the players to aim for the narrow openings to most greens. Then it rained the night before the tournament, turning those openings into comfy cushions while leaving the well-drained greens as hard as slate.
"If the fronts of the greens are soft, then it's pretty difficult," said Lorie Kane, less than thrilled with a 12-over 296. "You can hit great shots and not get much out of them." Betsy King, who won the last of her six majors, the 1997 Nabisco Championship, when she was 41, shot a 298 and condemned the course setup as "over the top—harder than any U.S. Open course." The problem, according to King: "It didn't give you a chance to play a good shot."
That's golf, too: constantly defying expectations. Before play began on Thursday, everyone buzzed about the possibility of a Soren Slam—a sweep of the year's majors by four-time player of the year Annika Sorenstam. Coming off an 11-stroke victory at the Kellogg-Keebler Classic and having already won the year's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship (remember the red shoes?), Sorenstam seemed poised to win another. Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, who won three of the four women's majors in 1986, agreed that Sorenstam had "everything it takes to win a grand slam" but pointed out the absurdity of trying to make a dollar out of two bits. "When she gets two in a row, then we can talk."
Bradley was prescient. Sorenstam opened with a solid, one-under 70, but her Friday went like a walk in the fun house, without the fun. On 14 she chunked a simple approach into a bunker 50 yards short of the hole. On 16, after smoking her drive through the dogleg and into a deep bunker, she wandered into the woods, shaking her head and muttering to herself. "I'm at a loss for words," Sorenstam said afterward, having shot her worst score of the year, a 76. "You don't get rewarded for good shots. That's toying with my mind." For 2002 the door to the slam was slammed.
Pak, meanwhile, was working at the edge of everyone's vision, just as she did last August when she came from four off the pace in the final round to win the Women's British Open. There is nothing inherently stealthy about the 24-year-old South Korean. You don't win four majors and 11 other LPGA events in fewer than five seasons by flying beneath the radar. But Pak's self-discipline and unemotive playing style obscure the fact that she is only a step behind Sorenstam and Webb in the race to the Hall of Fame. Her free-spirited younger sister and traveling companion, Ae Ri Pak, rolls her eyes over Se Ri's rigid training schedules and early bedtimes. "I don't dare ask to go to a dance club with Se Ri," says Ae Ri. "I know better." But Se Ri has loos-ened up in recent years. She giggles on the practice range and plays big sister to the dozen LPGA players from South Korea. A couple of weeks ago she even let her hair down long enough to join Ae Ri in a Chicago shopping spree. "It helps not being the only Korean out here," Se Ri said in Wilmington. "It's more like a big family. We can hang out, go to dinner, shop, just have fun."
Be that as it may, the 2002 LPGA will be remembered more for Daniel's despair than for Pak's perkiness. A fiery, often hot-tempered competitor in her prime, Daniel suffered years of comparisons with the crowd-pleasing Nancy Lopez. "I have always said that Beth was a better player than Nancy," Sheehan said last week. "It's just that Nancy had the support of the galleries."