Margaret Mary Elizabeth (Meg) Mallon, who had won once—just last February—in five seasons on the LPGA tour, got her Irish up last weekend when she sensed that most of the reporters covering the Mazda LPGA Championship at Bethesda (Md.) Country Club didn't consider her a serious threat to win the tournament. What really got her charged up were all those stories in the Sunday papers implying that the tournament winner would come from among three much more seasoned members of the women's circuit: Pat Bradley and Ayako Okamoto, who were
tied with Mallon for the lead after three rounds, and defending champion Beth Daniel, who was two shots back in fifth place. So throughout the final round, Mallon pumped herself up by imagining what the pundits were saying about her as she kept her place atop the leader board.
And, at the end, there she was, another in the growing line of upstart players who have made the 1991 LPGA season the most competitive in the tour's history, with a chance to win her first major championship on the 72nd hole. Daniel was already in the clubhouse with a 69, which enabled her to move up only one notch, into fourth place. Bradley and Okamoto, Mallon's playing partners on Sunday, were watching from the edge of the 18th green, having barely missed long birdie attempts and putted out for 68s and a share of the lead at nine-under-par 275.
Mallon had persevered through 71 holes in the stilling heat and humidity of suburban Washington, D.C., held her concentration when a car horn honked in the middle of her backswing on the 18th tee Sunday and then, on her second shot at 18, ripped a five-iron that stopped 12 feet behind the hole. So with a national television audience and a crowd of 25,500 staring at her, she stood over her ball knowing that if she made this birdie putt, she would beat Bradley, the most intense competitor among the grandes dames currently on the tour. It would be a bold stroke indeed, not only for Mallon but also for the generation of young pros who had proved that they could win at the regular-tour stops but had yet to show their mettle in the majors against the Big Five—Bradley, Daniel, Betsy King, Nancy Lopez and Patty Sheehan.
Sure enough, when the roaring, hugging, high-fiving and crying subsided minutes later, Mallon was the one wearing the winner's white jacket, holding the cardboard check for $150,000 and pocketing the keys to a 1991 limited edition Miata. An upstart no longer, she was a lioness, and a popular one at that.
Five months ago, when Mallon won the Oldsmobile Classic, in Lake Worth, Fla., Lopez, Sheehan and 30 other players and caddies held a pep rally for Mallon as she walked up the 18th fairway with a one-stroke lead and a four-foot putt for birdie awaiting her. After she drained the putt, LPGA commissioner Charles Mechem Jr. jokingly told Mallon not to expect a similar reception on the occasion of her next victory.
But there they were again on Sunday, about 20 players and caddies gathered around the woman who had been voted most popular in The Blade poll of players at the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic last year. (Mallon, with her Lopez-like charisma, smiles even when she three-putts.) And Bradley was the first player to congratulate her. "I thought Meg showed a lot of courage and strength," she said.
Daniel kidded Mallon about how easy she made it look on the 18th green: "Just a nothing putt right?" Between hugs and sobs, Amy Alcott, another member of the old guard, said, "It's very exciting to see a new name up there, especially when she's such a nice person."
What makes the 28-year-old Mallon so special? It probably has something to do with the fact that NBA Hall of Famer K.C. Jones and his Boston Celtics teammates from the early 1960s were like big brothers to John and Marian Mallon's six children when the Mallons lived in South Natick, Mass. John was a Ford marketing executive who dealt with the Celtics organization and had developed a close friendship with Jones, and several members of the team showed up for Meg's christening in 1963.
As a kid who was used to sitting at the dinner table with pro basketball players, Meg developed a special bond with Jones, whom she calls "one of the classiest individuals I know. He taught me that nice guys do win, and that there's always a place for sportsmanship in athletics."
A half hour after walking off the course a champion, Mallon said, "It still hasn't sunk in. It's something you dream about, but I was concentrating so hard I didn't realize the magnitude of what was going on. I didn't even know what I was shooting out there [a four-under 67, for a 274 total]. It was really exciting playing head-to-head against Pat because she's the best at that."
How preoccupied was Mallon with Bradley? It was news to her that Okamoto's final-hole 18-footer, which grazed the right edge of the cup, could have been for all the marbles, too. "I guess," Mallon said, "I was just trying to take care of my own business."
In the process, she also took care of some business for her fellow up-and-comers, who may find themselves in a similar situation some Sunday in the near future. Included in that group is another 28-year-old, Deb Richard, who has won twice, most recently at the Women's Kemper Open in March. Richard's opening-round 67 at the LPGA Championship put her one shot off the lead, and she wound up tied for fifth, with Barb Bunkowsky, at 279. Usually mentioned in the same breath with Mallon and Richard as being future LPGA stars are Danielle Ammaccapane and Dottie Mochrie, both 25.
For the past seven years, however, the Big Five have dominated the top spots among the money and scoring leaders and thus the Player of the Year award. They also won five of the eight majors—the LPGA Championship, the U.S. Open, the du Maurier Ltd. Classic and the Nabisco Dinah Shore constitute the women's grand slam—in 1989 and '90. Moreover, six of the last eight LPGA Championship jackets have gone to Sheehan (two), Lopez (two), Daniel and Bradley.
Last Thursday, Richard had the temerity to suggest that members of her crowd would be winning major championships before long. "As a group we're starting to come into our own and establish ourselves for the day when Lopez, Sheehan, Daniel and those guys start retiring," she said. "But I think a young player can win a major now."
Hollis Stacy, who turned pro in 1974, before the advent of college golf scholarships for women, thinks the large pool of new talent on tour is the result of what she calls "the women's golf farm system"—collegiate programs, the satellite futures tour and the European and Japanese tours.
Well before Mallon and Richard played themselves into contention on Bethesda's narrow, tree-lined fairways, it was clear the 1991 LPGA tour was not following the same old script. At this time last year, the Big Five had combined to win half of the 18 tournaments played. Coming into this year's LPGA Championship, 16 different players had won the 18 tournaments, including a tour-record 15 different winners to open the season. Daniel and nine-year tour veteran Jane Geddes were the multiple winners, while King, Sheehan, Lopez and Bradley had one victory apiece.
On the other hand, in addition to Mallon and Richard, each of whom also has a runner-up finish this year, winners among their generation in 1991 include Ammaccapane, who won for the first time; Laura Davies, 27, who won for the fourth time; and Penny Hammel, 29, who won for the third time. What's more, Mallon (third), Mochrie (sixth), Ammaccapane (10th) and Richard (11th) are ranked among the top dozen money leaders this season. Says Stacy, "These younger players aren't afraid to win."
So intense was the battle in Bethesda that the absence of Lopez, who is expecting her third child in November and skipped last week's event because of the heat, wasn't much of an issue. In years past, when Lopez left the tour, most of the interest in the LPGA went with her. Now, with the young players putting up a good fight against the veterans every week, that's far less likely to happen.
"With young players like Meg Mallon, who is loaded with personality and talent, and the veterans who've won so many tournaments and continue to win, the tour has a more diversified product," says Jay Burton, a vice-president in the golf division at International Management Group, the sports-marketing giant that represents Lopez, King and about a dozen other LPGA players. "The tour won't suffer if a popular player decides to taper her playing schedule now."
As a group, the grandes dames aren't about to shy away from a tough fight just yet, especially when there is a major championship on the line. After punctuating her third round on Saturday with a string of five birdies to get to four under, only two shots behind the leaders, Daniel issued a warning. "I've heard all the talk about the next generation," she said, "but I think we're going to be around for a while longer."
Still, that roar that was heard at the 18th green on Sunday was Mallon and the rest of the young lionesses announcing their arrival.
Playing together on Sunday, the three coleaders all had birdie putts (each ball belongs to the player pictured closest to it) on 18. Bradley (right) and Okamoto missed, but Mallon made her 12-footer and started celebrating.
Another up-and-comer, Richard, got up and out of trouble often enough to tie for fifth.