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Blasberg's death cracked open her complicated private life, leading stricken friends and family to wonder how much they didn't know about her. The tragedy also opened a window into the often harsh world of the LPGA, for which young women travel the world alone while competing in a cutthroat profession. Blasberg died in a city in which she had no family and only one close girlfriend; in her final year she sought companionship with at least two married men. In the farewell note Blasberg said she was tired of being alone. This isolation was surely compounded by the lifestyle of a tour pro.
Of his daughter's death Mel Blasberg says, "It's an American story." There is indeed something outsized in the sweep of Erica's rise and fall. But hers was also an intensely personal journey, in which a young woman who seemingly had it all was ultimately a victim of her own talent. "I'm not sure I ever got the sense that this is what Erica wanted to do," Mel says of her golf career. "She was forced into something she never would have done herself. Even though she didn't want to do it, she got so good, she didn't have any other choice. It was like she was trapped in her own life."
When she was 10, Erica journeyed from Corona to a weeklong golf camp at Arizona State. On one of her first days there a fellow camper pushed her into a swimming pool, and Erica called home sobbing. Days later, at the airport, she again burst into tears while giving a hello hug to her mother. "I thought it was just relief at being home," says Debbie, "but then she said, 'I didn't want to leave.' That's when I knew she was taking this golf thing seriously." How could Erica not? Her father radiated a passion for the game and demanded that she demonstrate a commensurate desire. "The one thing I always wanted her to have was the emotion of wanting it so bad," says Mel. "She was a happy-go-lucky kid, but she could modify her personality on the course. She was programmed to be a competitor. Girls don't know how to compete; it's not in their nature. Over time Erica became a fierce competitor. It was my personality being force-fed into her."
Growing up on Long Island, Mel had been taught the game by a transplanted Scot he describes as "real stoic and cold, with very particular ideas about how golf was to be played." Mel competed for Plainview High but says, "I was good, but not that good. I was never quite the player I hoped to be."
He followed his father's footsteps into the car business, settling in Corona—an arid town of 150,000 about 40 miles east of Los Angeles—in part because of the promise of year-round golf weather. One night in 1980 he arranged a meeting with an old acquaintance from New York. She sent Debbie in her place, and a year later they were married. Erica was born three years later. In the late '80s Mel opened his own driving range and by 1990 was teaching golf full time, and he worked his way up to director of instruction at Corona's Eagle Glen Golf Club. Erica became his prized pupil.
Mel's swing theories were influenced by noted golf gurus David Leadbetter and Jim McLean, but his coaching icon was Vince Lombardi. He adopted an old school, confrontational style when teaching his daughter. "I used to get in her face, to try to break her down," he says. Yet Erica never cracked. This little pixie with a ponytail and frilly ribbons in her hair was "tough and strong-willed," says Donnie McGrath, a close friend and pupil of Mel's who lived at Eagle Glen and regularly played there with Erica. "They were often at each other's throats, and she gave it right back to him. If Erica was fed up with Mel, she would pick up her bag and walk away. But the next day they'd be back out there on the range like nothing had happened."
By age 11 Erica had a national profile, thanks to an athletic, repeatable swing and the passion that Mel prized. "She was so fiery," recalls Cho, who was 12 when she first competed against Blasberg. "The rest of us girls were pretty intimidated by her."
To supplement his teaching Mel enlisted the guidance of Derek Hardy, a renowned instructor who had mentored Hall of Famer Beth Daniel and 1986 U.S. Women's Open champ Jane Geddes. Hardy was blown away by Erica's raw talent and mature game. "As far as physical tools, knowledge of how to play golf, the ability to envision shots and then execute them, she was as good as anybody I had ever seen, including Beth," says Hardy, 77. He would become close friends with Mel, but that did not exempt him from tinges of exasperation with the father-daughter dynamic on the practice tee. "I would make suggestions to Erica, and Mel would always comment, 'No, that won't work very well.' So I had to learn to tell Mel what I was seeing and he would translate it for Erica. It worked. It made her better. But it did reinforce this exclusionary relationship they had."
Debbie, too, was often caught in the middle. "I tried to make sure Erica had a normal childhood," she says. "When she was in high school, she went to the proms, to parties, to football games, she went shopping and had sleepovers with friends. But there were definitely a lot of times when it created tension. Mel wanted golf to always be her priority. Erica sometimes struggled to find the right balance between being a kid and being a top golfer."
Erica was heavily recruited by all of the big golf schools, with strong pushes coming from UCLA and USC. But escaping Southern California became increasingly attractive after the Blasbergs' marriage fell apart during her senior year. Erica picked Arizona. "She needed her space from her parents," says Chase Callahan, a friend from Corona who would later become Erica's agent.