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Back In The Fight Danielle Ammaccapane KO'd her slump at the Titleholders

There are different kinds of slumps out here," Danielle
Ammaccapane was saying last Saturday, on the eve of the final
round of the Mercury Titleholders Championship. "There are the
kinds during which you're fighting something mechanical in your
swing, and those can be tough, but you work through them. Then
there are the slumps during which you're fighting yourself.
Those are something else entirely."

Ammaccapane spoke in the weary tone of someone who has grappled
with the latter. Since 1992, when she burst into stardom with
three wins as a haughty 26-year-old, Ammaccapane has been locked
in mortal combat with her swing, her psyche and herself. Until
last week the score was Slump 1, Ammaccapane 0. All that changed
last week in Daytona Beach, where Ammaccapane shot a gutsy 71 to
conquer the elements, a tough LPGA International course, a
stellar field and the ghosts of six years of failure. "All I can
say is, I'm back," she crowed on Sunday evening, her eyes still
saturated from the emotion that had poured out on the last green.

To understand Ammaccapane you need to know that at age 10 she
quit tennis, only a few months after taking up the sport,
because she lost for the first time. Five-foot-five in spikes
and slight of build, she succeeded in golf because of an XXL
heart and a competitive drive she describes as "bordering on
unhealthy." At Arizona State, Ammaccapane won the first college
tournament she played in, and as a sophomore she took the 1985
NCAAs, nipping the more heralded Dottie Pepper by a stroke.
Ammaccapane's pro career began in 1988 and two years of steady
progress were followed by three seasons of spectacular success.
She was among the top 10 LPGA money winners from 1990 to '92,
climbing all the way to third in the last of those years.
Ammaccapane was positioned to be one of the dominant players of
the decade. Then she fell into the abyss.

Her tumble began in the '92 off-season, when she suffered a fall
while horseback riding, landing in the hospital with a serious
concussion. Ammaccapane felt the effects of the injury during
the early part of the following season and never quite got back
in the saddle, finishing 28th on the money list. In 1994 she
dropped to 76th, in part because of needless tinkering with her
swing in hopes of adding length. Thus began a vicious circle in
which bad results would lead Ammaccapane to make desperate
changes in her swing, which would erode her confidence and lead
to more bad results. In '96 she finished a career-worst 84th in
earnings. The year was lowlighted by a self-immolation at the
Ping Welch's Championship in Tucson, where she led the
tournament by two strokes heading into the final round only to
close with an 81. After beginning last year with six straight
missed cuts, she was ready to give up the game.

What kept Ammaccapane going was a fluke performance at last
June's Edina Realty Classic, where she shot a final-round 68 to
come from five shots back over a faltering field and win the
fifth tournament of her career, but her first since '92.
Ammaccapane would have only one other top 10 finish all year,
but the victory secured her immediate future and persuaded her
to soldier on. This season she has rediscovered her old
consistency with a back-to-basics approach inspired by watching
videotapes of her victories. Coming into the Titleholders,
Ammaccapane had made eight of nine cuts and could feel her
confidence cresting.

After opening with solid rounds of 70-68, Ammaccapane seized a
share of the third-round lead with a nearly flawless 67, which
tied for the low round of the windy day. "I was so calm it was
scary," she said. "I hadn't been that calm in a long time."
Still, she wasn't given much of a chance against the coleader,
Annika Sorenstam, who was hoping to break out of the kind of
slump most players pray for.

Last year Sorenstam was the LPGA's answer to Tiger Woods,
winning six tournaments and setting a single-season earnings
record. This year Sorenstam has also played like
Woods--distressingly so. In the six tournaments before the
Titleholders she finished no worse than seventh but had been
unable to get it done on Sunday. "I feel that this year I'm
playing better golf. I'm steadier," she said after a
second-round 69, echoing Woods's hollow mantra. "I feel like I'm
in control. I'm waiting. I'm waiting like everybody, I'm sure."

She was still cooling her heels on Sunday after missing more
fairways than in the previous three rounds combined and making
four bogeys, including two in a row midway through the back
nine. "I wanted it too much," said Sorenstam, who finished
third, two back of Ammaccapane and one behind Michelle Estill.
"The problem was in my head more than my golf swing, and that's
what's disappointing."

Twenty-two spots below Sorenstam in the final standings was
Kelli Kuehne, and she was thrilled to be there, proof of just
how topsy-turvy life can be once a player gets mixed up in an
Ammaccapane kind of slump. You may remember Kuehne as the teen
sensation whose sterling amateur career and telegenic smile
earned her seven figures worth of endorsements, much to the
dismay of just about every other woman who makes her living
playing golf. After sailing through Q school last fall Kuehne,
now 20, came into her rookie year hoping to justify the hype,
but hasn't.

She opened the season at the HealthSouth Inaugural by shooting
76-78 to miss the cut by a stroke. Pressing in the second round
there, she took a ghastly 37 jabs with the flat stick, including
a four-putt on the 10th hole. After that, "I pushed harder and
harder, and that only made things worse," she says. "I had so
much tension in my swing and in my putting stroke that it was
almost impossible to play."

In all she missed the cut in her first six starts, failing to
break par in any of the 12 rounds. Three weeks ago at the City
of Hope LPGA Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Kuehne finally broke
through, shooting a two-under 70 in the second round and
finishing 59th, cashing her first check, for $1,125. She
reverted to form the following week, shooting 75-75 at the
Chick-fil-A Charity Championship to get cooked yet again. This
season's lessons have been delivered in bold-faced type. In
Daytona, KUEHNE LEARNS HUMILITY was the headline stretched atop
the front page of The News-Journal sports page two days before
the Titleholders.

So when the tournament began and Kuehne got off to a strong
70-69 start, she quickly turned into the belle of the ball,
getting at least as much attention from the media as the
leaders. "This week was the most fun I've had as a pro," she
said on Sunday, still flush from nearly holing a five-wood shot
on the final hole for what would have been a double eagle. That
put an artful end to a respectable 73-73 weekend and netted her
$8,320. Even her colleagues took notice. "In the beginning I
don't think any of us were sorry to see her get beat up. She
needed it," says one tour veteran. "But no matter how much
jealousy there is, none of us would ever wish a slump like that
on another player. That was brutal, and it shows some guts for
her to fight her way out of it."

Ammaccapane also came by humility the hard way. During the salad
days of 1992 Pepper had said of Ammaccapane, "She's like a fly
at a picnic. She just won't go away." This was meant as a
tribute to Ammaccapane's resolve, but it could have just as
easily applied to her irritating on-course emoting, which got
Ammaccapane, in a poll of her peers, named the least favorite
player with whom to be paired. Looking back, Ammaccapane says,
"I had a demeanor about me, everybody knows that. I'm a softer
person now, not so harsh, not so stressed-out. I don't want to
put myself through that anymore."

Ammaccapane credits this maturity in part to the influence of
her husband of two years, Rod Kesling. No question Kesling is a
good guy to have around. Unable to get out of their hometown of
Phoenix until Friday because of work (Kesling is a stockbroker),
he crashed his wife's gallery just as she was addressing her
second shot on the 383-yard par-4 16th hole. Ammaccapane
proceeded to hole the five-iron from 165 yards for the eagle
that keyed her round.

There were no such dramatics on Sunday, just a lot of little
clutch shots. Part of Ammaccapane's resurgence can be traced to
her reemphasizing her old strengths: keeping the ball in play
(she ranks eighth in driving accuracy at 78.9%) and getting a
lot of mileage out of her short game, one of the tour's best.
Ammaccapane saved her round and quieted her nerves with
up-and-down pars on the first three holes, and, after grabbing a
two-stroke lead with birdies at the 5th and the 7th, she again
pulled out terrific one-putt pars on three straight holes, the
9th through the 11th. Down the stretch Ammaccapane didn't miss a
shot, two-putting easily on the 72nd hole for her one-stroke
victory over Estill.

The $150,000 winner's check pushed her to eighth on the money
list, but more important it will allow her to cover the tab at
Ammaccapane's Sports Bar at 7th and Thunderbird, in north
Phoenix. Danielle's father, Ralph, owns the joint, thanks to
generous financing from his daughter, and it's a tradition that
he buys the house a drink whenever she wins. Reached by phone on
Sunday afternoon, while he was monitoring the telecast that was
being shown on 15 of the bar's 17 televisions, Ralph sounded a
little bittersweet. "From the looks of things," he said, "we may
be going back to the days when we're giving away drinks on a
regular basis."

COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN SHORT STORY Ammaccapane played to her strength in the final round, hanging on to the lead with a string of par-saving putts. [Danielle Ammaccapane]

"I don't think any of us were sorry to see [Kuehne] get beat up.
She needed it," a veteran says.