For Neumann, starting at top had down side Struggles: Liselotte Neumann's problems began when she won the U.S. Women's Open here in 1988 as a 22-year-old. They finally seem to be behind her.

July 02, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There is a part of Liselotte Neumann that can't believe a decade has passed since her coming-out-of-nowhere victory in the 1988 U.S. Women's Open at Baltimore Country Club. And there is a part of Neumann that can't believe it's only been 10 years.

"A lot of things have happened," Neumann said last week.

Going into this year's Open, which begins today at the Blackwolf Run course in Kohler, Wis., Neumann has won 12 times since she beat Patty Sheehan by three shots here, breaking what was then an Open record at 7-under-par 277.

But as much as her victory at Five Farms helped serve as Neumann's introduction to the LPGA Tour, it also heaped pressure on a shy 22-year-old from Finspang, Sweden.

"A lot of people expected me to be up at the top all the time," Neumann recalled. "It made me want to prove that I wasn't this little rookie who was lucky to win the biggest tournament in the world."

As hard as she tried, Neumann couldn't. Every tournament she played in after the Open seemed to be a letdown. Even her first victory after the Open, a few months later in Germany, didn't carry with it the same excitement.

In fact, it wasn't relief or elation she felt as much as emptiness.

For years, nothing helped Neumann relive those emotions.

"I wish I had won a smaller tournament first," she said.

It took Neumann three more years to win another LPGA event, and, even then, it was barely noticed because it took place in Japan. By 1993, Neumann was back in the pack, scraping along. She earned just $90,776 in 16 tournaments and finished 57th on the money list.

She was short off the tee and had become a sloppy ball-striker, not repeating the same swing over and over. Though she maintained her magic touch around the greens inside 15 feet, she didn't get the ball close enough to give herself a chance at making birdie with any regularity.

Some thought her to be another in a long list of players who had started off with an Open victory, but done little afterward.

"A lot of people gave up on me," she said. "But I never gave up on myself."

Slowly, Neumann put her game back together. Beginning in 1994, when she won four events on the LPGA and European tours, including the Women's British Open, Neumann has progressed somewhat bumpily to become one of the best players in the world.

She found similar problems in 1995 that she did after the Open. After finishing third on the LPGA money list the previous year, Neumann failed to win a tournament and slipped to 16th in earnings. "I thought that since I had finished third, I could do even better," she said. "But the competition was getting tougher and tougher."

Much of that competition came from fellow Swede Annika Sorenstam, whose star eclipsed Neumann's when she won the first of two straight U.S. Open titles in 1995. With victories in her past two events, Sorenstam will be the player to beat this week in Wisconsin.

Neumann rejects the importance of being the best female player out of a country that has produced several current members of the LPGA Tour, including Helen Alfredsson.

"We all live here," said Neumann, who lives in Florida. "I think the only competition we have is to push each other to get better."

Those who know Neumann believe it was just a matter of time before she reached her peak and had the kind of year she is having this season, with victories in the Standard Register Ping in March and the Chick-Fil-A Charity in April.

"I think she needed more time to mature than a lot of players," said Pia Nilsson, a former LPGA player who will coach this year's European team in the Solheim Cup.

Neumann credits her swing coach, Jim McLean, for making the changes in the past year that have gotten her playing aggressively again, shooting for pins and putting with the same aggressive style that helped her at Five Farms a decade ago.

It was her putting that helped Neumann open up a three-shot lead with seven holes to play.

Then there was the infamous four-putt that led to a double-bogey on the 12th hole, and ultimately a three-shot swing that left her tied with Sheehan, who had birdied.

"I had that lead, and it was all gone," Neumann said. "But then I hit a great 5-wood on the next hole and a long birdie putt. Obviously, the four-putt didn't affect me because I putted well after that."

After building her lead to two shots, Neumann secured victory with a birdie on the 17th. Standing over a 20-foot, downhill putt, Neumann's caddie whispered something to her. Mark Woods, then a rookie himself after leaving a career in the restaurant business in Hawaii earlier in the year, made Neumann laugh.

"He said to me, 'Knock it close,' " Neumann recalled. "An experienced caddie would never had said something like that. It would have been more like, 'Knock it in the hole.' "

Which is exactly what Neumann did.

"After the putt went in, I said to him, 'Was that close enough?' "

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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