If Golf is a game of mental imagery, as the gurus would have us believe, how do you explain what Lauri Merten did on Sunday at Crooked Stick Golf Club? Faced with the biggest opportunity of her undistinguished 11-year career—a dead-straight three-foot putt to become the leader in the clubhouse late in the final round of the U.S. Women's Open—Merten rummaged through her attic of psychological nostrums and swing thoughts and came up with a real gem: Scott Hoch's missing a 30-inch putt to lose the 1989 Masters.
Then, firmly fixated on failure and imminent humiliation, she stroked the ball into the center of the cup. So much for visualization.
"I'm still numb," said Merten an hour later, after her two closest challengers, Donna Andrews and Sweden's Helen Alfredsson, had failed to catch her. "I can't believe I've won the U.S. Open."
Neither could most of those assembled in Carmel, Ind., for the premier championship in women's golf—certainly not the sports psychologists, who left town with their coat collars pulled up over their faces. The only happy guy in sight, outside the tiny Merten entourage, was the fellow trying to make a deal for his new book, The Power of Negative Thinking.
In truth, Merten, 33, could be the poster child for the Society of the Confidence Impaired. "By the way," she said in 1991 while interviewing a potential caddie, Tom Hanson, "I haven't made the cut in a major in about two years." (She also hadn't won a tour event since 1984, but Hanson took her bag anyway.) At about the same time, she went to golf teacher Mike McGetrick, hoping he could do something for her foundering game. McGetrick gave her a form to fill out and asked her to rate all aspects of her game—chipping, driving, etc.—on a scale of one to 10. Merten didn't give herself anything higher than a two, which prompted a startled McGetrick to ask, "Do you still think you can win?" Merten replied, "I don't know anymore," and she began to cry.
The pessimist sees the glass as half empty. The optimist sees the glass as half full. Merten doesn't even look—she knows it's not her glass.
Yet there she was on Sunday, dropping a 60-foot putt for birdie on number 8, chipping in for another birdie from a muddy lie on 16, busting her drives down the fairways and making every critical putt. When she was through, Merten had shot a four-under-par 68 for a 280 total, one shot better than Andrews and Alfredsson. What's more, she did this with a cacophony of voices echoing in her skull: admonitions about grip pressure from Hanson; swing thoughts from McGetrick; a putting tip from former coach Ed Oldfield; telephoned advice from her father, George, to concentrate on her tempo; and soothing words from her significant other, real estate developer Louis Capano. She also had to contend with a tournament-week quarrel with Hanson over her attitude (she later admitted to "having been a jerk"), a persistent summer cold and frustration at having missed the cut in two of her last three tournaments.
How could such an unfree spirit prevail over a field of proven stars? That's the question that will haunt the vanquished, at least for a while—particularly Alfredsson. For most of the week the 28-year-old Alfredsson, who won the Nabisco Dinah Shore earlier this year, seemed destined to match Hall of Famer Louise Suggs's feat of having her first two tour wins be majors. Skipping across Crooked Stick as blithely as a favored child, Alfredsson led after three rounds with an Open-record nine-under-par 207. "She's got everything," said 1980 Open champion Amy Alcott on Saturday. "Height, strength and a great putting stroke. And she has that rare Nordic fire."
Alfredsson's fans, who like to count how many times she turns the air blue with Swedish profanity, found her in full voice at Crooked Stick. "Spectators like her tantrums," the Financial Times of London editorialized recently. "They can be louder and more richly worded than many of Lenny Bruce's best performances."
Because her tantrums pass like summer squalls and because her standard demeanor is bubbly, Alfredsson, a former fashion model, seems more pixieish than boorish. "You have to stay so focused on the tour," she says. "You work so hard, you don't want anything to interfere. But then all of a sudden this little devil comes crawling out, saying, 'It's time to do something. You've been good too long.' "