Sweden Casts Long Golf Shadow
State-supported program does for their women what similar effort did for men's tennis
SWEDEN and golf may seem as mismatched as flannels and Florida. But as anybody who pays the slightest attention to the Ladies Professional Golf Association knows, a number of players on the United States-based tour carry Swedish labels. Their presence should be felt at the World Championship of Women's Golf in Seoul Oct. 12-15.
One of the Swedes, Helen Alfredsson, was in Boston recently to promote a line of Scottish golf wear, as well as her appearance in an LPGA tournament. Left at home in Los Angeles was her $7,500 motorcycle, the one Sports Illustrated posed her with for an article on the tour's ''most charismatic asset'' and ''the rock-and-roll soul of the LPGA.''
A queue formed to speak with the Goteborg native. In turn, she handled each request, conversing easily with reporters as fiance Leo Cuellar, a former Mexican soccer player, chatted nearby. The two met when Alfredsson played golf at U.S. International University in San Diego, where Cuellar was the school's soccer coach.
Like other Swedish players, Alfredsson got her start back home in a well-run, state-sponsored junior program that copies what the Swedish Tennis Federation did to cultivate top players like Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander.
Swedish courses are more accessible to the public than courses in the US, Alfredsson says, especially for late-night summer golf in the land of the midnight sun. After dinner she used to scavenge balls from the local club's water hazards, then tee off about 8:30. ''You lose the concept of time and come home at 3 in the morning,'' she says.
Alfredsson confides that 1995 has been a ''frustrating'' year, that she's striking the ball well but not seeing the same results as the previous three years on the tour.
''It's funny how you can't perfect this game, even when you've been playing nearly every day for years,'' she says philosophically. ''If I don't feel like I have control of what I'm doing, it's hard to just leave golf. It's maybe 90 percent of my life, so you keep bringing everything home with you and working on what's wrong.''
While Alfredsson's season has been marked by erratic results, she remains in the LPGA's upper echelon and should secure her fourth consecutive finish in the year's Top 20.
If she falls short, two other Swedes - Annika Sorenstam and Liselotte Neumann - are almost certain to take up the slack.
Sorenstam won this year's US Open for her first professional victory, just as Neumann had done in 1988. They rank No. 1 and No. 15, respectively, on the current tour. Carin Hjalmarsson (pronounced Yall-mar-son) is not in the top 25 but not too far behind. That gives Sweden, with its estimated 400,000 golfers, a surprisingly high profile.
THE Swedish men, while good, have not enjoyed the same measure of success as the Swedish women, who seem to reserve some of their best efforts for the major events.
Alfredsson is a case in point. After being named the LPGA's top newcomer in 1992, she won her first major title the following year (the Nabisco Dinah Shore), finished one stroke back at the US Open, and tied for third in the LPGA Championship.
Despite not winning the Open, she has produced some of the tournament's best shotmaking. In 1994, it appeared she was going to run away from the field after two record-setting rounds placed her 12 under par. Then disaster struck. After a glut of bogeys, she finished ninth. To her credit, she recovered the following week to win the PING/Welch's Championship.
This year she is among the tour leaders with nine Top 10 finishes, but she has occasionally missed the mid-tournament cut that reduces the field, something that never happened in six years playing on the Women's Professional Golf European Tour.
Like other Swedes, Alfredsson lives in the US, where she says conditions are sometimes almost too good. ''When I'm home in LA I feel guilty because it's such nice weather I should be out hitting balls,'' she says. ''In Sweden, you get time to do other stuff,'' especially during cold, dark winters when the six-time Swedish national champion says players stay sharp practicing indoors.
Asked her impression of pursuing a career so far from home, she replies, ''Sometimes you feel like you fit in anywhere, and sometimes you feel like you fit in nowhere. It's funny. I was just in Sweden, but it's too inconvenient to just pop over for a few days.''
Even so, the Swedish contingent usually hops back across the Atlantic for some European events. Neumann, for example, recently won the Trygg Hansa Open in Stockholm by one shot over Sorenstam. Both players say they feel at home in the US.
Last year, when Neumann, a Florida resident, won the Minnesota Classic, Minnesotans of Swedish descent cheered her on in Swedish. Like the other Swedes, she speaks fluent English, although with an accent ''sand wedge'' comes out sounding like something you eat for lunch with peanut butter and jelly in it.
Charles Mechem, the LPGA commissioner, says Swedish players help to make the LPGA ''a world tour right now.'' And while impressed by their success, he says it would be ''unfair to suggest that the United States could develop the same kind of program. For one, Sweden is small enough that the Swedes can focus on something like this. What their success does is show the enormous benefits to a disciplined approach early on.''
While the personalities of the Swedish players differ - from the fiery Alfredsson to the steady Neumann, Mechem says each is a delightful addition to the LPGA circuit. ''They are absolute ladies in the way they behave,'' he says. ''They are polite, considerate, very nice people.''