CORONA, Calif. – No sooner had Erica Blasberg’s coffin been rolled into the large ballroom than her weeping mother shuffled up to the metal cocoon with the help of relatives and placed three items on top – a Cleveland Golf visor, an LPGA player identification badge and a squeeze toy.
Then Debbie Blasberg was handed a tiny Yorkie named Wynston. This was Erica’s pet, and her mother seemed intent on providing the dog his opportunity for farewell. She clutched the toy and squeezed it desperately as it emitted a squeak-squeak sound for the dog and 250 mourners to hear.
They were among so many overwhelmed by the senselessness of this inexplicable tragedy.
Erica Blasberg, 25, a sixth-year LPGA player, was found dead May 9 in her home in Henderson, Nev. No cause of death has been released, and the case remains under investigation.
The public memorial service at Eagle Glen Golf Club hadn’t even started and Debbie Blasberg was emotionally spent, the sobs heaving from her body. She seemed just as incapable of speaking as she did walking, knees buckling beneath her.
For the next 2 1/2 hours, the tributes and memories were echoed in the same room where Erica had been awarded numerous honors as a junior golfer. The crowd included a handful of LPGA players and former commissioner Carolyn Bivens. Greg Allen, who coached Erica at the University of Arizona before she turned pro and he moved on to become women’s coach at Vanderbilt, was there as well, flying cross-country from the NCAA Women’s Championship in Wilmington, N.C., where his Vandy team was competing.
Mourners streamed into the ballroom long after 200 seats were filled and lined the walls.
As if to head off questions, the Order of Service sheet contained this sentence in the first paragraph: “The cause of death is still unknown.”
More than two dozen flower wreaths guarded the coffin on each side like silent sentinels. Dozens of large photos of Erica were on display. Such photos are readily available for a golfer who was medalist in the U.S. Junior, played on a Curtis Cup team against Great Britain & Ireland and reigned as the No. 1 female collegiate player.
Looking out of the ballroom windows, mourners could see the putting green below. “It was just a few weeks before (her death), she was right down there on that green, working with her father on her putting,” said Phil Huntley, an assistant professional at Eagle Glen. “All this just doesn’t seem possible.”
Dan Newstrand, the club’s director of golf, called it “a surreal couple of weeks.”
Mel Blasberg, Erica’s hard-driving father, is listed on the Eagle Glen Web site as director of instruction. He shares top billing with Mark Moore, one of the most esteemed teachers in Southern California.
It was Mel who steered his daughter into golf and watched as she became the beautiful blonde with the big smile and the free-flowing golf swing. When she went 10 under par in one round on the Duramed Futures Tour – a record that still stands – it furthered the notion that she was destined to become a star.
But she wasn’t supposed to finish 128th on the LPGA money list, which she did in 2009. And she wasn’t supposed to die before her parents or relatives in her parents’ generation. The mystery of the life and death of Erica Blasberg is inescapable.
Mel received word of his daughter’s death shortly before midnight on May 9. A “baton on the door” is how he described that dreadful night when a deputy sheriff and a coroner appeared at his house.
“Erica is playing in a tournament in Alabama,” Mel said vainly.
“No,” came the response. “We’re sorry, but it’s your daughter.”
Mel and Debbie Blasberg are legally separated. He was unable to reach her by phone that night, so he left a message. Then he made the three-hour drive to Las Vegas.
He talked with Debbie the next morning, and she joined him. Together they went to Erica’s house, turning the key in the lock, “wondering why Erica wasn’t there to let us in, waiting for her to come bounding down the stairs to be with us.”
Ten days after his daughter’s death, Mel Blasberg is insistent that “the blur between coach and father had vanished. This is a story about a daughter who tried to understand the difference between a demanding coach and, as she remarked recently, a father and a nice guy.”
The tears cascading down his face, Mel removed his eyeglasses and tried to summarize his feelings. “I love her beyond the bounds of earth,” he said. “No day will come when Mel and Erica Blasberg are apart.”
We humans laugh awkwardly at death, but there were plenty of attempts at humor during the service. Irene Cho, Blasberg’s best friend on the LPGA, told about the time they both missed the 36-hole cut and decided to go bicycle riding on Kiawah Island, S.C.
“Only Erica couldn’t ride a bike,” Cho said. “She ran into a fire hydrant and a stop sign. So we got one of those two-person bikes. I peddled like crazy, and she just sat back and enjoyed it.”
Later, a more composed Debbie Blasberg addressed the subject of bike riding: “Sorry, Irene, but she did know how to ride a bike. I don’t know where that (impression) came from. She could do lots of things besides golf. It wasn’t that she went directly from birth to the golf course.”
Arden Czyzewski, athlete and sports marketing manager for shoe and sportswear maker Puma, Erica’s primary sponsor, told a story about the time she visited the Czyzewski household. Erica was tired from traveling, but Arden’s two children, Logan and Ava, wanted to hit golf balls at a driving range.
“So she drove them to the local range,” he said. “They had a great time. Any time she had a chance to affect a young person’s life, she did it. After she left, I discovered that she left her favorite 3-wood, which had a pink shaft, with Logan because he hit it so well.”
Ray Kim, Erica’s sometime-caddie, told a story that indicated her fun-loving nature.
“During a tournament, there was a sign on a house, obviously directed at another player,” Kim said. “The sign said, ‘We love you. Call us.’ She insisted that I write down the phone number. Then we planned what she would say to them. We were laughing so much, I stepped in a pothole and fell down. It was like that all the time with Erica.”
Jay Beckman, director of golf at Southern Highlands Golf Club in Las Vegas, told the audience how one of his duties was to keep Erica out of the men’s locker room and grill at the club.
“After golf, that’s where all the action was,” Beckman said. “Erica was so much fun to be with, all the men just wanted her around. I had to tell my assistants to keep an eye on her, to make sure she didn’t get in there.”
A fortune teller might look into the future and forecast indefinite happiness, the playful girl with the gift for golf just playing her game.
But her star plummeted. How could this be?
Despite her free-fall on the LPGA’s 2009 money list, she was tied for 21st in driving accuracy and tied for 74th in driving distance. She was 71st in greens in regulation.
She struggled on the greens, where she ranked 143rd in putts per round. “She had that putting stroke that never seemed to agree with her,” said her agent, Chase Callahan.
She had played in one LPGA event this season, tying for 44th at the Tres Marias Championship in Morelia, Mexico. Friends would remark later that Blasberg seemed optimistic.
However, the weekend of May 8-9, something went terribly wrong. Erica had sent a text message to her caddie, canceling out of a Monday qualifier for the Bell Micro LPGA Classic in Mobile, Ala., without elaboration.
A 911 call on May 9 – Mother’s Day – apparently came from inside her house, although Henderson police have not released the identity of the caller. Mel Blasberg, in an interview with the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise, speculated about the cause of death, mentioning the possibility of suicide. He later claimed to have been misquoted.
Amid all of this confusion, a young woman was memorialized. When the service ended, most of the mourners sat in silence, many wiping their faces. Slowly they left, some heading to the burial at Pacific Views Memorial Park in Corona Del Mar.
It just wasn’t supposed to be this way.