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Blasberg arrived in Tucson in August 2002, only months after Lorena Ochoa had concluded her record-smashing career there, and the comparisons became inevitable when Erica won in her third collegiate start. She didn't finish outside the top eight for the rest of the season, leading the country in scoring average (72.36) and winning Pac-10 freshman of the year and player of the year honors, all of which earned her a place on the cover of Golfweek. During a cameo at the 2003 Welch's/Fry's Championship, a stop on the LPGA tour, she shot a head-turning 64. In the gallery was Mel, who drove to many of the tournaments. "How can I not say that I lived vicariously through her? I got so much joy watching her play," he says.
Blasberg turned professional in the summer after her sophomore season with a simple goal: "She wanted to be Number 1 in the world," says Cassandra Kirkland, a teammate at Arizona. In her second event as a pro—on the Futures tour, the LPGA's developmental circuit—Blasberg shot a 62, which is still the lowest score relative to par in the tour's history. She won the tournament going away, and the golf world was buzzing. Says Callahan, "We all thought Erica could be a crossover star who would transcend golf and take the sports world by storm. She could have been as big as Maria Sharapova. Erica was beautiful, she was great with people, and she competed with so much fire. People loved to watch her play. When she shot that 62, it was like, O.K., here we go." What no one could possibly know was that Blasberg's best golf was already behind her.
In 1996 and '97 a series of complicated land swaps were consummated between an Arizona developer and the federal government. In exchange for 173 acres of environmentally sensitive land in various parts of Nevada, the Olympia Group received 2,326 acres of desert scrubland at the southern tip of Las Vegas, just west of Interstate 15. The land was miles from the nearest development, but Garry Goett, Olympia's cofounder, fancied himself a latter-day Bugsy Siegel. Goett dreamed of a sprawling housing development that would be like a city unto itself with its own schools and fire stations and parks, a 21st-century, upscale community intertwined by a trail system that encouraged neighborly interaction. At the heart of this development would be an exclusive golf club with a national profile. In less than a decade this vision—dubbed Southern Highlands—sprang seemingly wholly formed from the desert floor, and the salespeople adopted a Capraesque slogan: IT'S A BEAUTIFUL LIFE.
Robert Trent Jones was contracted to design Southern Highlands Golf Club, but his early sketches would be some of the last of his long career as he was felled by a stroke. The work was carried on by his son, Robert Trent Jones Jr., and an impossibly lush dreamscape replete with streams, lakes and waterfalls became reality. With initiation fees of $200,000 and custom homes running well into seven figures, Southern Highlands quickly became home to "the who's who of Las Vegas," says Billy Walters, a prominent course developer in the area.
Hess joined the club 21/2 years ago, but he came in through a side door: His initiation fee was waived in exchange for his services as the club's on-call physician. Still, Hess was accepted by his fellow members, who universally called him Doc Hess. He was noted for having a low-key presence, a relative newcomer to golf who spent a lot of time at the range trying to dig the game's secrets out of the dirt. To other members it seemed that Southern Highlands was an important part of Hess's self-image. "You could see how proud he was to be a member," says a club source. And why not? Every time Hess drove his Mercedes through the club's imposing front gate, it was confirmation that he had finally arrived after a lifetime of striving.
Hess was raised in Chicago, his Nevada license plate serving as an enduring tribute to his favorite baseball team: XCUBSX. After a stint as a Navy corpsman he matriculated at the Ross University School of Medicine, in Dominica, West Indies. In 2003, upon completing his residency at Adventist La Grange (Ill.) Memorial Hospital, Hess moved to Las Vegas to be close to his elderly father. He hung his shingle as a family practitioner, settling in an office a mile from the Strip, in a tidy redbrick building. The waiting-room walls are covered with Norman Rockwell paintings, but these images of Americana are at odds with the surrounding neighborhood. Nearby businesses advertise checks cashed and payday loans. Last February ABC affiliate KTNV did a story about how the Hess Medical Center was in the vanguard of Las Vegas health-care providers offering "concierge" service to patients who were willing to pay a flat fee for around-the-clock access to their physician. Thomas Hess's affiliation with Southern Highlands was a ticket to a more upscale clientele.
For Blasberg, too, Southern Highlands was a transporting experience, a 25-minute drive from her very middle-class neighborhood in Henderson but a world away. Having grown up on scruffy public courses, Blasberg was dazzled by Southern Highlands's exclusivity and accoutrements, which included the best practice facilities in town. Erica had her agent aggressively pursue a relationship with the club and ultimately signed a sweetheart deal: In exchange for putting the club logo on her tour bag and for other considerations, she received a lifetime membership and unlimited meals and use of the spa, gratis. "Erica loved Southern Highlands," says Mel. "It was one of the reasons why she stayed in Vegas."
Blasberg's rookie year on the LPGA, in 2005, did not result in the coronation that many had expected. She made the cut in her first four tournaments but finished in the middle of the pack at each. It was a testament to her looks and reputation that ESPN asked her to wear an on-course microphone for her fifth event, the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship. Blasberg was always comfortable in front of the cameras, so it was no surprise when she opened with a solid 70, the low round of her season to that point. In the scoring tent afterward Blasberg signed her card and then scribbled autographs and posed for pictures with a handful of fans and volunteers. She was about 10 steps outside of the tent when she realized that she was still holding her scorecard. When she turned it in, she was promptly disqualified for having left the scoring area without submitting a card, the kind of ticky-tacky rule that befuddles those outside golf. It was a demoralizing end to what had begun as a heady week. At the next tournament, the Sybase Classic, Blasberg went 69--70 in the second and third rounds to scoot up the leader board. Playing her final hole of the final round she had a chance at a top 20 finish that would move her up the money list and provide some needed momentum. After hooking her drive into the heavy rough at Wykagyl Country Club's par-5 closing hole, she pulled out a hybrid in an ambitious attempt to reach the green. "I'm dying watching her take practice swings," says Mel, who was in his daughter's gallery. "I'm yelling at the trees. I mean, the grass is up to her ankles. No way she can hit a hybrid out of there. She should have had a short-iron in her hands just to get back on the fairway." Sure enough, Erica foozled her second shot only a few yards. Thus rattled, she went on to make a triple bogey and plummet to 37th place. Says Mel, "I honestly feel like these events"—the DQ and the final-hole blowup—"affected her in a profound way. You try to trace how her career unraveled, and it was a lot of little incidents that added up over time."
Blasberg struggled for the rest of the year. She finished 109th on the money list, with $52,522. Still, she remained a hot enough commodity that Puma signed her to a multiyear endorsement deal. The money wasn't that big, but the amount of promotion Puma did was almost unprecedented for an unproven LPGA player. When Blasberg began the 2006 season, she had to have been aware that her new contract had created a certain amount of jealousy and indignation among her colleagues. She then missed the cut in her first five tournaments, the worst slump of her life.
When her game was in a funk, Blasberg tended to withdraw from those close to her. It didn't help that her biggest fan could also be her harshest critic. "If Erica didn't play well, she didn't look forward to talking to her dad because she didn't want to hear about all the things she did wrong that day," says Callahan. "But by not talking to him after a poor round, she also would not give Mel that opportunity to play dad and comfort her and support her. It was a Catch-22 for the two of them." The LPGA schedule did Erica no favors. Debbie was content to go to a few tournaments a year; after the divorce Mel didn't have the financial means to attend many events. With Erica residing near the bottom of the money list—in '06 she would finish 112th, with $62,477—she couldn't afford to fly in her dad or friends for emotional support, unlike other young players who were prospering. "The difference between Erica and, say, Paula Creamer or Natalie Gulbis is that those girls could help their family or friends travel with them every week, so they had them there for the ups and downs and to take their mind off golf when they left the course," says Callahan.