Neumann first tasted success in Open at BCC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She was 22, a virtual unknown rookie on the LPGA Tour, playing in her first U.S. Women's Open.

When Liselotte Neumann came to the Five Farms course at Baltimore Country Club that July week in 1988, she didn't realize that she would soon become one of the LPGA's up-and-coming stars.

"I was just so happy to be there, I had to qualify to even get there," Neumann, now 39, recalled earlier this year. "We came down from Boston and I had actually quite a good finish there, so I knew I was hitting the ball pretty good. I couldn't have even dreamt about winning the Open."

But that's what she did, nearly going wire-to-wire, then holding off future Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan in the final round to win by three strokes. What Neumann didn't know was that the Open would be the highlight of what is now a 17-year career.

It took Neumann another three years to win her next LPGA event, and five more to have a breakout year. When she won the last tournament of the 2004 season in North Augusta, S.C., it was her first win in nearly six years. Neumann realizes now that her success in Baltimore came a little too quickly.

"My life kind of changed in a week," she said, sitting outside the clubhouse at Superstition Mountain near Phoenix in mid-March. "For me, obviously I expected a lot from myself after that. You win sort of the biggest tournament and everything else seems so small, like it didn't really matter.

"A lot of things happened with friends and family and media. I felt like everyone kind of wanted my time. I felt like I didn't put enough time into my golf game after that, I was so busy doing other things, different appointments, going to Sweden, sort of took away from my game."

Neumann might have been considered something of a phenom in the U.S., but she had put together a pretty impressive resume in her home country, where she was the top amateur player in 1982 and 1983 and had represented Sweden in the European and World team championships.

"The thing was for me, I had won some tournaments on the European Tour, I had competed against good players, I had been there before, but obviously it being the U.S. Open and playing against Patty, it was so different from anything I had been through before," Neumann said.

It was something of a surreal experience for Neumann, who had once studied Sheehan's swing on a videotape the LPGA veteran had made with former PGA Tour player Al Geiberger. At the time, Sheehan was eight years into a Hall of Fame career that would include 35 wins and five majors by the time she finished.

"She was someone I looked up to," recalled Neumann. "I loved her golf swing. I always remember having these tapes and watching Patty."

The victory was big news on the tour among a growing group of Swedish players that included Helen Alfredsson, Catrin Nilsmark and Carin Koch. It was also front page news back home, and a promising young golfer living in a small town outside Stockholm recalled how it influenced her burgeoning career.

"I get goosebumps, actually," thinking about it, said Annika Sorenstam, who was then a 17-year-old playing on her country's national team. "I remember watching it, I remember what she was wearing, the next day in the newspaper she was on the cover."

Sorenstam has often said that Neumann's U.S. Open win inspired her more than anything else growing up.

"She comes from a little town just like I do, she grew up playing lots of sports. For her to win the U.S. Open, it was huge," Sorenstam said. "It gave girls like me the thought that, maybe I can do it. We needed someone to break the ice."

Said Neumann: "A lot of girls out here that I played against at that time, they probably felt like if I can do it, they could too. Things felt like they were so far away, then all of a sudden somebody you know does something like that, you start realizing, maybe it's possible."

What many also remember from her victory was Neumann's boyfriend, a club pro from Hershey, Pa., named Terry Herzog, running onto the 18th green and giving her a hug. The two had been dating for a few months, but the relationship eventually ended a few months later.

The one relationship that has endured from that victory is with her caddie and now close friend, Mark Scott.

They are now in their 18th year together, the longest on the LPGA Tour.

Scott, who had given up a job as a food and beverage manager at a hotel in Hawaii to work for Neumann, recalled that he might have been more nervous carrying the bag than Neumann was hitting the shots.

"I knew she was playing good. I just remember her hitting so many great shots and making so many great putts," Scott said. "The more I think about it, we do about the same thing as we do now. We kind of just talk. She never was under any stress the whole week, it came so natural to her."

The attention that followed Neumann after the Open wasn't as easy a fit.

A shy person to begin with, Neumann seemed to retreat even more, and her golf game suffered. Being named the tour's rookie of the year at the end of the 1988 season put a great deal of pressure on her. Like many of the other 14 players who had made the Open their first victory, Neumann couldn't back it up.

At least not immediately.

After nearly winning a few times, Neumann's next victory didn't come until the 1991 Mazda Japan Classic. It wasn't until 1994, when Neumann won three times, including the Women's British Open, that she was again thought of in terms of being a star.

But after winning her 12th LPGA event in 1998, Neumann went into a winless drought. She nearly won another major, at the 2002 Kraft Nabisco, finishing a stroke behind Sorenstam. By 2003, she was 71st on the money list with a little over $108,000 in earnings and no top 10 finishes.

"A lot more downs than ups," Scott said of Neumann's slump. "The great thing about Lotte is that you'd never know on the outside if she was No. 1 on the money list or No. 101. Inside, it was driving her crazy. She just kept working hard."

Neumann, who has used Sorenstam as an inspiration by going more to the gym and working with Sorenstam's coach, Henry Reiss, wouldn't trade her week in Baltimore for a dozen more victories.

"Overall I'm extremely happy with what I've done and hopefully I have a lot of golf in me," said Neumann, who recently passed $5 million in career earnings. "Maybe the best years to come, who knows?"

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