2004: Reliving old glory

By Jay A. Coffin

South Hadley, Mass.

Here is all you need to know about the competitive fire that long has burned inside Meg Mallon. As an 11-year-old growing up in suburban Detroit she was drafted second as a shortstop in a boys’ baseball league. “The only reason why I wasn’t drafted first was because the coach had to pick his son ahead of me,” young Meg explained to her father, John Mallon.

Former Detroit Tigers pitcher Earl Wilson once stopped by the Mallon house, and 8-year-old Meg insisted they head to the back yard to throw the baseball around. Wilson returned 30 minutes later and told John Mallon “you have one hell of an athlete.”

Mallon excelled at baseball, basketball and tennis before ultimately turning to golf in high school. That’s Mallon in a nutshell. Full of talent, full of desire. Four days at The Orchards Golf Club showed that Mallon has an overabundance of both. The 41-year-old shot the best final round in U.S. Women’s Open history July 4 to claim victory only 90 miles from where she was born in Natick, Mass., just outside Boston.

Mallon shot 73-69-67-65 for a 10-under-par 274 total to earn $560,000 and outlast Annika Sorenstam for her fourth major championship, her first since the 2000 du Maurier Classic. Paula Creamer, 17, and Michelle Wie, 14, their combined age 10 years less than Mallon’s age, tied for 13th and shared low amateur honors. They both earned exemptions into next year’s Open.

In 1991, Mallon won the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open at Colonial Country Club, with the 13-year gap between Open titles the longest ever.

“I’m amazed,” Mallon said. “I just can’t believe the day that I had today. I knew it was in me, I just didn’t know if I could put 18 holes together like that.

“To do that was just so gratifying, I just can’t explain it.”

Gratifying for numerous reasons. Mallon moved to Detroit when she was 10 months old but spent summers as a child on Cape Cod. She still has strong allegiances to the Bay State, particularly with the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Celtics (Mallon is good friends with Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and his wife, soccer star Mia Hamm). The galleries at the Open tuned into Mallon, falling in love with her ‘aw shucks’ attitude and beaming, freckle-faced smile. A female fan yelled, “If the Red Sox can’t do it, you can do it today.”

“That is so Boston right there,” Mallon said. “I figure if I can win the U.S. Open, the Red Sox can win the World Series.”

Mallon is the youngest of six children, and four of her siblings and a nephew were in South Hadley to show their support. John Mallon remained in Bluffton, S.C., to care for his ailing wife, Marian Mallon, who is paralyzed on her right side because of a brain hemorrhage Dec. 27, 2001. Marian has always been the inspiration of the Mallon family and is said to have been the most athletic over the years. Marian single-handedly started the golf team at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, Mich., so Meg could get involved with the game for her final two years of high school. Although they couldn’t be here for the latest of their daughter’s achievements, they followed closely on television. Everytime Meg made a lengthy birdie putt, Marian found enough strength to raise her left arm in celebration and continuously blurted out “Meg, Meg, Meg.”

“It was a wonderful therapy for my wife,” John Mallon said. “She was so animated and happy with everything.”

There was plenty for Marian to cheer for on this beautiful, New England Fourth of July afternoon. Mallon entered the final round tied with Sorenstam and Kelly Robbins, three shots behind Jennifer Rosales. A short birdie on the first hole gave Rosales a four-shot lead. But Mallon followed a short birdie on No. 3 by sinking a 50-foot birdie bomb on No. 4 to begin narrowing the gap. Consecutive bogeys on Nos. 7-8 and another at 10 started Rosales quickly spiraling downward. Mallon then stepped on the accelerator, made birdies on 9, 11, 12 and 14 and cruised home to victory. She needed only 24 putts to negotiate the small, Donald Ross-designed greens. Mallon didn’t make a bogey over the final 25 holes, and made only six all week.

“The cup looked like a bucket, and it was a great day for that to happen,” Mallon said.

While Robbins (69), who briefly shared the lead after an eagle on the par-5 ninth, and Sorenstam (67), with a back-nine 31, threw their best efforts at Mallon, Rosales clearly did not.

Rosales (75), a 25-year-old who is a megastar in her native Philippines, made bogeys on five of her last 12 holes. Although she won for the first time as a professional at the Chick-fil-A Championship in May, Rosales (nicknamed J-Ro) knows that this Open week was a learning experience. She was able to spend quality time with her 4-year-old niece, Isabelle, and her mother, Lourdes, who has breast cancer. Rosales wasn’t sure if her mother would be strong enough to spend a week at the course in the afternoon sun. However, watching Rosales play well seemed to ease some of her mother’s pain. Rosales led after the second and third rounds and still had a chance at victory with nine holes remaining.

“It was a really tough day for me,” Rosales said. “I was just grinding out there. Probably I grinded so much that I was trying too hard and I couldn’t make anything. I was trying to change, but it wasn’t going my way.”

Sorenstam, 33, gave a huge fist-pump when she made birdie on the 72nd hole, then appeared stunned by the numbers Mallon was putting up. Surely a 67 on Sunday would be good enough for her to win her third Open title, her first in eight years. But not on this Sunday. Instead, Sorenstam ended this championship close to the lead for the third consecutive year, finishing second, fourth and second, respectively.

“I kept trying and kept fighting, and I thought I did really well at that,” Sorenstam said. “I can’t play really much better. I gave it all and I feel good about that.

“Obviously I’m unhappy with the outcome but sometimes you get outplayed. That’s what happened today.”

Mallon knows a thing or two about heartache in the U.S. Open. She blew a three-shot lead to a little-known Sorenstam in 1995, and squandered another chance at victory at the Merit Club in Chicago in 2000, as four three-putts on the back nine Sunday handed Karrie Webb the trophy. This year, Mallon wasn’t about to let the big one slip away. She knows how difficult it is to win the U.S. Open. She knows opportunities like this only come along so often. So she seized the day.

“It’s great to have my family here with me,” Mallon said. “We’re going to go have a great time tonight, which we always do together, whether I had won or not. We would have enjoyed each other’s company.

“I have my life in perspective, so this is unbelievable, it’s fantastic. I’m pinching myself.”

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