They're not gonna know what happened, down the road," a dazed Betsy King said. "They'll see the winner's name and won't know what occurred."
King had just won her second straight U.S. Women's Open on Sunday in Duluth, Ga., but only because her longtime rival, Patty Sheehan, blew a nine-stroke lead on the final day. The outcome left Sheehan in tears, King embarrassed and the Atlanta Athletic Club with the distinction of hosting the most miserable major championship in memory. Small crowds, wretched weather, the televised humiliation of the LPGA's leading money winner—this tournament had it all, and it was all bad.
Sheehan's face in defeat was unforgettable. A 10-year tour veteran, she teed off on Sunday morning in bright red shorts and a tricolor shirt, but golf clothes are her version of camouflage. Her narrow, ascetic face is better suited to an Amish bonnet than a golf visor. She smiles as if it hurts, and maybe it does. Her house was badly damaged in last October's San Francisco King prevailed earthquake, and after having to spend $200,000 to repair it, she started this LPGA season feeling broke and dispossessed.
Three tour victories since January solved her cash-flow difficulties, but Sheehan made no secret of her hunger to make the Open her third major win. "She gears her entire year around this tournament," said third-place finisher Dottie Mochrie on Sunday. "She almost wants it too badly."
Sheehan threatened to shoot historic scores in Duluth, until she began to stagger under the weight of a big lead. When she birdied the 15th hole in the second round, she became the first golfer ever to reach 10 under par at any stage of either the men's or women's U.S. Open. When she hit 12 under early in Round 3, it seemed she might set a record that would last forever.
Blame the golf course, they said. Too short, too easy. Nancy Lopez, who shot a first-round 68, called the AAC's Riverside layout the "least intimidating" Open course she had ever played.
Even Sheehan, whose women's Open first-round-record 66 earned her no better than a tie with Jane Geddes, puzzled over Riverside's wide fairways and tame greens. "I like to see an Open course tough," she said. "It separates the really good players from the O.K. players."
They said these things, of course, before the skies opened up on Thursday afternoon. The three-day forecast: widely scattered golf. Rain and lightning prevented 27 players from finishing their rounds on Thursday, and Friday was even worse: three delays totaling more than six hours.
Overnight rains forced another six-hour delay on Saturday and a 36-hole final on Sunday. Players who completed their second rounds on Friday got a rare day off, but Sheehan and 101 other players slogged through casual water on a course that played at least two clubs longer than before. "You're walking along and all of a sudden your shoe disappears in a puddle," said Sheehan.
On Sunday morning, Sheehan showed how you can be walking along and have your whole game disappear. She charged out with a 35 on the front nine, and when Geddes disappeared into an eight-hole, eight-over-par black hole, Sheehan had a nine-stroke lead. Then she bogeyed 14, muffed a chip on 16 to lose another stroke and dumped her third shot into the pond on the par-5 18th to finish with a 75. Her lead had shrunk to four shots.
Lunch did nothing for Sheehan's game. Battling a tendency to hit her irons fat, she bogeyed four holes on the front side. Meanwhile, the preternaturally patient King, who trailed by 11 strokes earlier in the day, made up ground by avoiding mistakes. When she birdied 11 while Sheehan was bogeying 8, King suddenly had a two-stroke lead, at minus-five. It was practically a replay of last year's Open at Indianwood in Lake Orion, Mich., where Sheehan triple-bogeyed the 8th on the final round to open the way for King.
This time, Sheehan fought back with birdies at 14 and 15, but a pushed four-iron on the par-3 17th put her in the bunker, and she scored another bogey. Needing a birdie on the 18th to force a playoff, the desperate Sheehan thinned her second shot and then pulled her third 20 feet left of the pin. From there, she lagged her must-make putt two feet short of the hole, while King watched from the TV tower.
Bravely but unwisely, Sheehan submitted to an on-the-spot television interview. "It hurts," she said. "It hurts a lot." Then the tears came.
A great player won, but it was no fun. Better if there had been 40 inches of rain and the whole sorry affair had been washed out.
King prevailed despite trailing Sheehan on Sunday by as many as 11 strokes.