Massachusetts-born Meg Mallon evoked thunderous cheers from record galleries watching her make birdie- and par-saving putts from far and near Sunday at the Orchards Golf Club. She had said she was planning on having fun Sunday and no one in New England could possibly have enjoyed a more fabulous Fourth of July than the popular champion of the 59th U.S. Women's Open.
With four of her siblings cheering her on, Mallon smiled her way around to a 6-under-par 65, the lowest score ever posted over the last 18 holes by a winner of this national championship, and a 72-hole total of 10-under 274.
It gave her a two-shot victory over two-time Open champion Annika Sorenstam, who birdied the final two holes for 67 -- 276 and her fifth runner-up finish in a major.
A rousing run of four birdies over six holes starting at No. 9 allowed Mallon to pull away from her struggling playing partner Jennifer Rosales, who led by three strokes after 54 holes but faded to fourth with a 75 -- 281. And when Mallon's 25-foot putt to save par from the fringe at the 377-yard 15th disappeared in the hole, she turned around, looked at the crowd and lifted her arms as if to say, "Can you believe this is happening to me?"
"I felt so good over the putter," said Mallon, whose first of four major victories came at the 1991 LPGA Championship at Bethesda Country Club, followed two weeks later by her first Open title at Colonial. "The cup looked like a bucket today."
It certainly appeared that way, from the 55-footer she buried for birdie at the 421-yard No. 4 to the total of 10 one-putt greens over her entire round. Mallon, who earned $560,000 for the victory, played her final 25 holes bogey-free, in 9 under, with six birdies on Sunday. Of her 15 LPGA Tour victories, she has come from behind in the final round to prevail 11 times, including her last six.
At 41, Mallon is the third-oldest player to win this title, and it came at the end of a week when much attention was given to the 16 teenagers in the field, including 14-year-old Michelle Wie of Hawaii. Playing in her second Open, Wie ended with a 73 -- 285, and shared low amateur honors and 13th place with 17-year-old Paula Creamer (72). Mallon has always been one of the tour's goodwill ambassadors, and she's also witnessed some significant moments in golf history as a playing partner to someone else. She was there when Juli Inkster completed a career grand slam at the 1999 LPGA Championship and when Sorenstam shot 59 in 2001, the lowest score ever recorded by a woman in competition.
But on a sparkling sunny Sunday afternoon in the state where she was born, Mallon, who was raised in Detroit but summered every year with her family in Cape Cod, made a little history of her own. And when she hoisted the trophy over her head at the victory ceremony on the 18th green, she was heard to say "welcome home."
A lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox and Celtics, she also heard a woman in the gallery yell out, "If the Red Sox can't do it, you can Meg."
"That's soooo Boston, isn't it?" Mallon said.
Sorenstam, who finished fourth in the Open and missed a playoff by a stroke a year ago in Oregon, had predicted the day before that someone would have to go low to catch Rosales. It took Sorenstam a while, but her 4-under 31 over the back nine, including those last two birdies, at least gave her some solace that she had finished like the seven-time major champion she is.
"I did what I could do," said Sorenstam, who hit all 18 greens in regulation. "I never got impatient. I never got stupid. It just shows that even when you play your best, you won't win sometimes. I don't know if any of you thought there was a 65 out there, but Meg proved us all wrong. When I made that putt at 18, I thought it was my turn. . . . I did everything I could control, but I couldn't control Meg."
Kelly Robbins, who made it into that Open playoff last year at Pumpkin Ridge, also put some serious heat on Mallon, particularly in the middle of her own round. Playing with Sorenstam and launched into a share of the lead by a magnificent second shot to a converted three-foot eagle putt at the 527-yard ninth, Robbins simply couldn't keep up with Mallon. A drive in the right rough led to a bogey at No. 15, ending her title hopes, and she finished alone in third with a 69 -- 278.
"Having it three feet for eagle and I looked up at the board and knew the game was on," Robbins said. "It set up perfectly for an exciting back side. And good heavens, Meg Mallon must have done a lot of things right today, because I know I didn't have a 10 under in me. I was just trying to put some pressure on her somehow."
Rosales, hoping to become the first Filipino champion, birdied the first hole for a four-shot lead. But when she missed a two-footer and made bogey at the seventh hole, she unraveled. That began a slide of three bogeys in four holes, and two more bogeys at Nos. 15 and 16 dropped her even lower.
"I'm still young, I'll have more chances," she said. "Meg played unbelievable golf today. She deserved to win. She played awesome."
The week did not start out that way for Mallon, who has struggled with her putting all season. On Thursday, she said she was fortunate to salvage a round of 2-over 73 after hitting the ball in some very strange places, finding six fairways and reaching six greens in regulation. But she also had seven one-putt greens that day, a portent of grand things to come in the final round, when she needed only 24 putts all day.
Mallon also said she was spurred on by the memory of two runner-up finishes in the Open. In 1995, she had a three-shot lead after 54, made triple bogey on her fourth hole and lost by a shot in Sorenstam's first Open victory. Mallon also recalled four three-putt greens on the back nine in 2000, "when I was fully disgusted with myself at that performance.
"But you think about it," she said. "You take those things, and the history and tuck them in the back of your brain and you say, 'Okay, I'm not going to do that again.' I hope Annika feels like she got beat today, and that she didn't lose. That's what she does to us as players -- elevates our games. That's the kind of golf she's been playing, so to have her be the one to finish second is even that more gratifying, because you know you beat the best player in the world."