BETHESDA -- The LPGA had best watch itself. The women's tour might soon be gaining the reputation that it's only necessary to show up for the last two minutes to catch the thrills, a la the NBA.
Week after week, it seems, the tournament boils down to the last threesome playing the last hole on the last day with the last one to stroke the ball ending up the winner.
That's how the Mazda LPGA Championship concluded yesterday with young tour veteran Meg Mallon stroking in a putt guesstimated at between 8 and 15 feet to send playing partners Pat Bradley and Ayako Okamoto away tied for second place a stroke back.
The week before in Wilmington, Del., Beth Daniel beat rivals Bradley and Sally Little head-to-head and, the week before in Hershey, Pa., Coleen Walker's eagle-birdie finish overcame Daniel and Kris Tschetter at the buzzer.
"Consolation?" said the ever-gracious Bradley, repeating the question. "Well, at least I lost to a birdie; that's all I can think of."
And what a birdie. The threesome arrived at the 72nd tee all square, just as they had started the round nearly five hours before. Bradley and Okamoto, who own 43 tour victories between them, smacked drives to the middle of the fairway. Mallon's ball faded right when, just as she was about to stroke the ball, a car horn blew off in the distance.
"It could have been worse, the ball could have bounced further right," said Meg, known as one of most vivacious and best-liked women on the tour. "Maybe it was to my advantage hitting [the second shot] first."
She lashed the ball stiff to the pin and it trickled past, giving her a straight downhill putt. She defied the others to match her effort, but their 7-iron shots ended up 18 to 20 feet from the hole.
It was now a putting contest. Prior to the Hershey stop, Mallon might have conceded. "I was putting awful," she recalled. "I took a lesson from my pro, we used a videotape and what I was doing is taking it [the putter] out and cutting across the ball. Now, I'm rolling the ball straight and all week I felt the speed of the greens."
Bradley and Okamoto made Mallon hold her breath a few times before registering her second tour victory this year (and career). Bradley missed her putt by a couple of inches right. Okamoto left hers hanging on the lip.
"What a way to finish a tournament," sighed Mallon, who had by far the most adventuresome trip around the par-71, 6,246-yard Bethesda Country Club.
While Bradley had 13 pars, four birdies and a bogey, Okamoto was matching the card 15 times and making three birdies on the backside. Call 'em steady and steadier. Meg, meanwhile, had seven birdies, three bogeys, including one on the next to last hole, and was required to make some interesting recovery shots.
Mallon won the second LPGA tourney of the year in Florida and she said "that one helped me win the 'major' here. But I still have to tee it up Friday and hit a good shot. I don't want to be a flash in the pan; I want to last a while out here."
It appears she's following a proper approach. The youngest of six children out of a Boston family, Meg had reasonable success as a junior player before heading off to Ohio State to play and study. "I was a junior before I even thought about doing this for a living.
"Golf wasn't even my sport when I was a kid. Basketball, that will always be my first love." Maybe the fact the entire world champion Boston Celtics team of 1963 showed up at her christening has something to do with that. Pops, a car company executive, had business dealings with the likes of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy.
Anyway, Meg says that in almost all undertakings she starts out slow, observing, but always improving. It has shown on tour where she has made impressive yearly advances since 1986 to the point where yesterday's $150,000 paycheck shot her up over the $300,000 mark in 1991 earnings. "It was fun not spending any time in the $200,000 category," she admitted.
Bradley was nearly as enthused with Mallon's victory as she would have been taking her seventh major title. "There's several reasons why I like her," she explained. "She's a fellow New Englander. She's a Red Sox fan. She's a Celtics fan. And she's just a very likable, easygoing person."
Okamoto was impressed with Mallon's "control" throughout the ordeal of playing a pressure-packed round with a couple of grizzled vets and "her putting stroke." Truth be known, Ayako would probably shell out $1 million for a hot putter no questions asked, because she's been absolutely tearing it up from tee to green lately only to watch birdie putts slide by or pull up inches short.
"I really didn't get caught up in it [the hype]," said Mallon. "My job is to take it one shot at a time . . . and make sure not to do anything dumb, like on No. 17 [three putts]."
Sounds dull but it provided great theater.