Alfredsson calls it a career this week in France
Friday, September 13, 2013
Helen Alfredsson was once pulled over by a cop for going 160 mph in her Volvo. The free-spirited Swede was driving from her Los Angeles home to an LPGA event in Phoenix.
“I always sort of pushed it a little bit,” Alfredsson said by phone from her hotel in France, understating the obvious.
One of the LPGA’s all-time characters, Alfredsson, who happens to share a birthday with the late Seve Ballesteros and Hugh Hefner, will retire after this week’s Evian Championship. It’s fitting for the 48-year-old beauty to hang it up at the base of the French Alps, for she’s a three-time winner of the event. Last week Alfredsson said goodbye to a home crowd at the Helsingborg Open in Sweden. She made her professional debut there in 1989.
“I don’t like traveling,” Alfredsson said. “I think it’s time to get a real job maybe and do something good.”
Alfredsson’s first professional victory came at the Women’s British Open in 1990 (before it was a major), and her last came in 2008 at an LPGA event in China. Her seven LPGA titles include one major, the 1993 Nabisco Dinah Shore. She won her final Evian Masters in 2008, beating Angela Park and Na Yeon Choi in extra holes.
“They were together not my age at the time,” Alfredsson said. “That’s when you realize you’re getting old.”
Most would look at Alfredsson’s LPGA debut and think she hit the tour with a loud bang, taking Rookie of the Year honors and winning three times worldwide. But as good friend Meg Mallon points out, it actually began with a thud.
After participating in the inaugural Solheim Cup, in 1990, Alfredsson showed up for LPGA Q-School that fall intending to take her act to the next level. But while standing on the practice putting green tournament week, Alfredsson learned she had missed the event’s signup deadline. She couldn’t play.
“That’s what helped her become so great so early,” Mallon said. “She had a full year to think about it and get mad about it.”
Alfredsson’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants outlook often meant showing up to tournaments without reservations. She recalled sleeping on the couch of Janice Moodie’s hotel room one year in Portland, Ore.
Moodie, of course, was used to taking care of her unorganized friend. One week on the road, Alfredsson forgot her toothpaste, and the morning when Moodie checked out, she made sure to leave some paste on Alfredsson’s brush before leaving. Those in Alfredsson’s inner circle were loyal to the core.
“If I had a problem, she would be one of the first people I would call,” Moodie said.
Beth Daniel, one of Alfredsson’s closest friends on tour, like many, at first didn’t know how to take the powerfully intense Swede.
“She’s a very genuine person, and if she likes you, she would do anything to help you,” Daniel said. “Otherwise she’s not going to really give you the time of day. She just doesn’t waste her time on silly things.”
When it comes to Alfredsson’s explosive game, Daniel points to her ability to carry the ball a long way as her greatest strength. That, coupled with sheer competitiveness, Mallon said, brought her decades of success.
“She had a temper,” Daniel said. “But she was more intense than an angry golfer.”
Mallon said her outbursts were, at times, amusing for other players. She recalled playing a tournament in Taiwan in typhoon-like conditions and Alfredsson hit the ball into a huge bunker on the last hole. She got so irate in that bunker that she wound up raking the entire thing herself, shoveling it like snow. Mallon and the rest of the group stood on the green, howling.
Alfredsson played in eight Solheim Cups, her last coming in 2009 after she captained the 2007 squad. No one wanted to win more, Mallon said.
The last few years of Alfredsson’s career were slowed by an injured shoulder that she said was prolonged by misdiagnosis. (She hasn’t played a full schedule since 2010.) Eventual surgery led to eight months of rehab. Alfredsson didn’t want to be forced out by injury and feared she would become one of those players whom people whispered about: Oh, my God. How pathetic! Why is she still out there?
She asked her husband, Kent Nilsson, a former NHL player, to tell her when it’s time.
“He said, ‘I can’t tell you. You will know,' ” Alfredsson said.
And she did.
Now hitting the ball better than she has in years, Alfredsson is leaving the tour on her own terms. She’d like to study sports psychology and put more energy toward her charity tournament in Sweden that benefits Alzheimer’s disease, which took her mom. People don’t talk as openly about mental disease in Sweden as they do in the U.S., Alfredsson said, so the vibrant player has worked hard to help start the conversation.
Alfredsson has pursued varied interests since the beginning of her career, which is probably why she retired just shy of 50. The 5-foot-10-inch, blue-eyed redhead once was a model in Paris, though the lifestyle didn’t take and lasted only six months.
“I weighed 45 pounds less than I do now,” said the ever-slim Alfie.
When she showed up to work with mascara and blush, only to discover every other model had the full spectrum of colored eye shadows, Alfredsson lied and said she left the rest of her makeup at home.
“I was always a tomboy,” she said. “I couldn’t take all that.”
Paris, however, remains her favorite city, and she never backed down from trying new things. She has flown with the Blue Angels and been drag racing with the boys. Unabashedly wild with a noted temper, Alfredsson has experienced so much of life.
“I remember one Christmas I had $1 and change in my pocket,” she said.
To date, Alfredsson has made $5.6 million on the LPGA.
For all her antics over the years, Alfredsson said she’s humbled every time she sees someone make “one little bad decision” and have it affect them for the rest of their lives.
“I’m extremely grateful that I was very lucky,” she said.
Alfie isn’t sure if she’ll keep her place in Orlando, Fla., though the idea of leaving her friends at Bay Hill is tough. She and Kent spend most of their time in a flat in Stockholm. Though Alfie never had children of her own, she has been a stepmom to six. There’s a caring, soulful side to the Swede, Moodie said, that not everyone sees.
When Alfredsson looks back on her days on tour, she’ll miss the camaraderie. Specifically, she mentioned the old days in Japan, when it was a major event to trek to Asia, and there were no entourages.
“We used to say, ‘What happens in Japan, stays in Japan,’ ” Alfredsson said with a laugh. “We used to have a party bus and the non-party bus. The party bus always seemed to show up an hour later.”
No need to ask which one she was on.