BETHESDA -- When Meg Mallon won for the first time in five years on the LPGA Tour in February, her popularity was such that more than two dozen players showed up on the 18th green to celebrate her victory at the Oldsmobile LPGA Classic.
Yesterday, Mallon won much more than just a popularity contest.
After playing partners Pat Bradley and Ayako Okamoto barely missed long birdie putts on the final hole, Mallon made a 12-footer to win the $1 million Madza LPGA Championship at Bethesda Country Club. The victory was worth $150,000 and a brand-new Miata to Mallon.
"It hasn't sunk in," said Mallon, 28, who battled 99-degree heat, her own nerves and two of the tour's most experienced players to win her first major championship. "What a way to finish a golf tournament. It's something as a kid that you make putts for. It's a dream situation, playing against Pat Bradley and Ayako Okamoto. I felt like I was in a dream."
Mallon's birdie putt punctuated a resilient round of 4-under-par 67 for a total of 10-under 274. Bradley and Okamoto, whose putts each turned away at the last moment, shot 68s and finished tied at 9-under 275. Defending champion Beth Daniel, who shot 69, came in four strokes behind.
The birdie came after Mallon nearly four-putted from 100 feet on the 17th hole. While she was standing over a 15-footer to save bogey, Mallon thought what others on television might have said had she missed. "They were saying, 'This is typical. This is where the pressure is showing,' " she recalled. "I didn't want to prove them right."
Mallon made the putt at 17, but still had some obstacles left. The first came as she started to take her driver back on the 18th tee. A car horn beeped on a nearby road, causing Mallon momentarily to lose her concentration. But her tee shot, though 20 yards behind Bradley's and 30 yards behind Okamoto's, found the right edge of the fairway.
Hitting first, Mallon nailed her approach from 167 yards away on the 379-yard hole. Using a 5-iron instead of a 4-iron -- "I knew I'd be pumped up," she said -- she hit her ball 12 feet above the hole. Bradley's ball landed 20 feet below the hole. Okamoto put her approach 2 feet inside Bradley's. After this group started the day tied at 6-under, it came down to their final putts.
"I had a very good feeling," said Bradley. "I had made excellent putts on 15 [for birdie] and 16 [to save bogey]. I had a good feeling standing over the putt. It just didn't get there."
Said Okamoto, who narrowly had missed a 15-footer for birdie at 17: "When I hit the putt [at 18], I thought the ball went in. I was on my way to pick it up out of the cup."
After Bradley's putt turned left in front of the hole and Okamoto's turned right, it was Mallon's turn. She had putted well throughout the round. Included among her seven birdies was a 45-footer from the fringe at No. 9 that gave her a two-shot lead, and, after a bogey at 10 cost her sole possession of the lead, she had birdied 12 and 13.
But, now, with the prospect of sudden death against these two 40-year-old veterans staring her right in her usually smiling face, Mallon stood over her putt. The image of her second putt at 17, a 12-footer that she jammed 4 feet past the cup, lingered in her mind.
"After I charged my putt at 17, I had to make sure I didn't do something -- should I say -- dumb," said Mallon, who recently had gone to her teacher in Denver for a putting lesson. "I just wanted to get it on line. Once I hit it, I just wanted to hear it drop."
When the ball fell, Mallon jumped into the air and then into her caddie's arms. Bradley, showing her affection for a fellow New Englander, hugged the winner warmly. As Mallon went into the scorer's tent, Daniel and Amy Alcott were there to congratulate her.
It was a disappointing defeat for Bradley, looking for a second LPGA Championship and her seventh major title, and for Okamoto, still looking for her first major victory. Though they have combined for 43 LPGA wins, Bradley and Okamoto were relegated again to the role of runners-up.
"There are losses in the game that are average, and there are tough losses, and this one is certainly one of the tough losses," said Bradley, whose second-place finishes (53) nearly double her victories (27). "It was a terrific battle between the three of us. It was a tough one to go walk away from. The only consolation is that I lost to a birdie."
Okamoto, who has finished second four times in major tournaments, tried to mask her frustration. Asked how disappointed she was, Okamoto said jokingly: "I'm so disappointed, I don't think anybody should come near me for the next two or three hours or they might get hurt."
Though some tried to say that she played better than Mallon, with three birdies and no bogeys compared with Mallon's seven birdies but three bogeys, Okamoto said: "The winner always plays the best golf. Meg played the best golf."