At 41, Meg Mallon thought her days of winning the U.S. Women's Open were over. Boy, was she wrong.
In winning the 59th U.S. Women's Open at the Orchards Golf Club Sunday, Mallon was a putting maestro on the 6,473-yard, par-71 layout. She fired a 6-under 65 for a 72-hole championship total of 10-under 274 for a two-stroke victory and her second Open title, the last one coming in 1991.
The 13 years between first and last Open titles is the longest in history, surpassing the six-year span for Hollis Stacy. The 65 also was the lowest final-round score by a Women's Open champion and it matched the lowest score in the final round by anyone in the championship's storied history.
Mallon's brilliance overshadowed a superlative final 18 by the world's best female player, Annika Sorenstam. The Swede carded a 67 (8-under 276 total), but finished as Women's Open runner-up for the third time in her Hall-of-Fame career. Kelly Robbins, who was in the three-way 18-hole playoff at Pumpkin Ridge last year, filled the third-place position at 6-under 287 (final-round 69), while third-round leader Jennifer Rosales, with a 4-over 75 Sunday, dropped to fourth amid devastation afterward.
"I thought I had it and it was in the palm of my hand and it just slipped away," said the 25-year-old Rosales before burying her head in her mother's arms and sobbing.
Said Robbins: "This time around was a little different. Last year caught me off guard."
In the process of erasing Rosales' three-stroke lead entering the day, Mallon became the third-oldest champion in the event's history. Only Babe Zaharias (43 years, 0 months, 6 days in 1954) and Juli Inkster (42 years, 0 months and 14 days in 2002) were older. This was her fourth major title - she also captured the 1991 LPGA Championship and the 2000 du Maurier Classic, which has since been replaced as a professional women's major by the Weetabix Women's British Open.
"I didn't ever think I'd see her again," said Mallon when the U.S. Women's Open Championship Cup was presented to her.
She was mistaken again.
Mallon's paranormal round was highlighted simply by her putter. Much like Retief Goosen's performance at the U.S. Open two weeks ago at Shinnecock Hills, Mallon virtually made every putt, including a 54-foot birdie at the fourth that got the momentum going. Generally known in LPGA Tour circles as a great putter, Mallon's Sunday effort came with a flat stick that she only started using a couple of weeks ago.
In taking just 24 putts, converting 5 of 7 on birdie opportunities from 15 feet in and draining 2 of 3 30 feet or longer, there's no other way to say that she was absolutely clutch when it counted.
"The putter looked like she had a third hand out there," said Mallon's caddie, John Killeen.
"The hole was like a bucket," added Mallon, whose Open title in 1991 came at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.
Or maybe as engulfing as the Grand Canyon. She just couldn't miss. On the flip side, there was Rosales who played as though the hole was a speck. She imploded with five bogeys over the final 12 holes. Things were so ugly that she went 5-for-10 in par putts that were less than 6 feet, finally converting on the first one at the 12th green. She took 36 agonizing putts overall.
By the ninth hole, Mallon, who at one point on the front nine trailed Rosales by four strokes, had caught Rosales at 6 under. Rosales had no inkling the day would fall apart because she started strong with a birdie on the first hole to fall to 8 under. But it started to unravel at the seventh hole when she missed a 6-footer for par.
"It's hard to believe how many putts I missed today from 8 feet and 6 feet that didn't even hit the hole," said a disheartened Rosales. "I was so upset because I never miss those putts. To tell you the truth I couldn't feel anything. That's when I started worrying because I should feel something in this situation. I was just stunned, shocked the way that everything turned out."
Rosales seemed distracted and uneasy despite the birdie on No. 1. With Robbins and Sorenstam playing one group ahead, The Orchards seemed more like an amusement park than a golf course with all the "oohs" and "ahhs" echoing from the distance. When Robbins eagled the par-5 ninth hole, there was a three-way stalemate for the lead.
But over the final nine holes, the freckle-faced Massachusetts-born Mallon was a model of composure, smiling and waving to the gallery from the first hole during the bogey-free round. The fourth hole, one of the many Donald Ross-designed crowned greens, may have eased her emotions. When she drained the downhill 54-footer for birdie, it brought a bow from Mallon. It also brought a high-five from brothers John and Paul.
Mallon was cushioned by the support of four of her five siblings. John and Paul Mallon were joined by sisters Timi and Liz. Lately, the family has drawn closer together by their mother's health. In 2001, Mallon's mom suffered a severe brain hemorrhage that left her right side paralyzed and with a speech impediment. Because of that, her parents were home in Hilton Head Island, S.C., watching the action on television.
Mallon, who had the 1963 Boston Celticsattend her christening, started sensing that something special was happening. Between the smiles, she was steely-eyed and determined. Mallon grabbed the outright lead on No. 9 with a 2-foot birdie and never looked back, even though Sorenstam applied pressure late with birdies at the difficult 17th and 18th holes.
Then again, Mallon could understand how Sorenstam felt. Nine years ago, Mallon was actually Rosales. In truth, she helped kick-start Sorenstam's career in 1995. Mallon owned five-shot lead on the young Swede going into the final round before a triple-bogey on the fourth hole all but ruined the round and handed Sorenstam her first career win.
It was the first of two runner-up finishes at the Open, the other in 2000 when Mallon had four three-putts on the back nine to lose to Karrie Webb at the Merit Club north of Chicago.
Someone asked if it was easier winning the first time or on Sunday.
"I would definitely say much, much harder [now]," said Mallon. "When you have history, you just know all the things that can go wrong. I've had two second-place finishes in Opens, and to me they were disasters."
But Sorenstam tried as she could to tighten the vice, but despite hitting 94 percent of her greens in regulation, she didn't have the hottest putter on the course.
"I think I did everything I possibly can," said Sorenstam, who has already won four times on the LPGA Tour this year. "I kept trying and fighting and I thought I did well at that. . Meg just played extraordinary today. To shoot 6 under on Sunday at the U.S. Open, that's as good as it gets."
There was no clearer sign that the championship was Mallon's than on the par-4 15th hole.
Before hitting her approach, Mallon had some indecision due to the swirling winds. The shot bounded to the right of the green and into deep rough. A bogey or even worse looked imminent, especially after she chunked the chip, leaving herself some 30 feet from the hole on the fringe. At this point, Mallon was simply trying to salvage a bogey. But she struck the putt perfectly and the ball went dead-center into the hole. John Mallon grabbed his chest and bellowed, "Whew, that was unconscious!"
"I was so relaxed over that putt, and it goes in. What are you going to do? It's your day when things like that happen," said Mallon.
With so much attention given to the next generation of youngsters ready to take over women's golf, three of the top-four finishers were older than 30. Paula Creamer, 17, and Michelle Wie, 14, tied for low-amateur honors. Their tie for 13th (1-over 285) also gave them exemptions into the 2005 Women's Open. Mallon has no doubt that the game will eventually give way, but said the leader board was an example that experience means so much. "The older players still want to knock these little girls' fannies," said Killeen.
Mallon said winning again 13 years later hasn't really sunk yet. Asked later, in the din of the night, Mallon thought harder about drawing comparisons to now versus 1991.
"I didn't think it would ever happen, especially after finishing second twice," said Mallon. "This was one I was able to take in. And the Open I won before I had to wait an hour for the leaders to come in, so this was so great to have the last group, the last putt and have the opportunity to celebrate like that. "I'm 41, and you have to enjoy these days. Thirteen years ago I was 28. I was old." To all the young phenoms out there, take note.