Alfredsson atones for past stumbles, wins at Pine Needles

The Swedish golfer made 13 straight pars on Sunday to win the second annual U.S. Senior Women’s Open

Helen Alfredsson celebrates after winning the 2019 U.S. Senior Women's Open on Sunday at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines. (Chris Keane / USGA)

SOUTHERN PINES — The U.S. Senior Women’s Open has given players over the age of 50 an opportunity to get back out onto the course and relive their past glory.

For Helen Alfredsson, it was more like a return to some of her worst golf nightmares.

Twice, in 1993 and 2008, she faltered in the final round of a U.S. Women’s Open on the way to frustrating runner-up finishes. She also squandered a four-shot lead in 1994 by playing her final 29 holes in 24-over par.

It seemed as though history might be repeating itself Sunday when the 54-year-old Swede made double bogey on the fifth hole at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club to drop out of a tie for the lead, two shots behind England’s Trish Johnson.

This time, though, Alfredsson used the experience of those close calls to stay calm and finish with 13 straight pars — a run of steady play that earned her that long-awaited first U.S. Golf Association title.

Her final round 71 put her at 1-over for the four-day tournament, two shots ahead of Johnson, Hall of Famer Juli Inkster and the star-studded field that converged on Pine Needles for the second U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

“Nothing ever makes up for the tournaments you didn’t win,” Alfredsson said after collecting the $180,000 winners share and a 10-year Senior Open exemption. “But this is a USGA championship and everyone wants to win one of those.”

Playing with her husband, former NHL star Kent Nilsson, on her bag as caddie, Alfredsson was the only player in the tournament to post two rounds in the 60s. She followed up an opening 75 with a pair of 69s on Friday and Saturday.

While those low scores put her into contention, it was her ability to avoid big numbers that pulled her through to the finish on a sweltering Sunday in the Sandhills. She was able to save par after missing the green three times on the back nine.

In the meantime, it was her competitors that faltered.

Johnson, whose 5-under 66 on Saturday was the low round of the tournament, dropped shots with back-to-back bogeys on 13 and 14 and never recovered. Inkster didn’t make enough putts to completely erase the four-shot deficit with which she started the day.

She settled for her second runner-up finish in as many U.S. Senior Women’s Opens, while Michelle Redman and Jane Crafter tied for fourth, four shots back. Redman’s 68 was the best of the final round. Defending champion Laura Davies finished ninth at 8-over.

No one, however, was able to mount a serious charge thanks to Alfredsson’s ability to string together pars.

“She kept making putts that I would have had to have her eventually miss, and she didn’t miss one,” Johnson said. “That’s very impressive because it doesn’t matter how you do it, you get the ball in the hole and she did.”

Although Alfredsson’s victory earned her an automatic exemption to the upcoming U.S. Women’s Open, she said she plans to skip the event in order to recover from the physical and mental stress of the past week and to savor her first career USGA title.

The seven-time winner on the LPGA Tour, who also earned 11 victories on the European Tour, no longer plays on a regular basis.

“I’m completely elated. Exhausted. That probably goes before elated,” Alfredsson said. “You just have a hard time believing it because when you’re out there, you keep grinding and grinding and you’re trying to just stay focused on what you’re doing, not let your thoughts slip, and that’s something that is also very difficult when you don’t play as much.”

Among the golfers with North Carolina ties, Donna Andrews was the highest finisher with a tie for 14th. Her 11-over score was good enough to earn her automatic entry into next year’s Senior Women’s Open in New Jersey.

The top 20 finishers qualified for 2020. That was good news for Whiteville’s Maggie Will, who tied for 19th at 18-over, but not so good for former UNC golfer Cathy Johnston-Forbes, whose 19-over score left her tied for 21st.

Regardless of the results, Andrews called the tournament a victory for Pine Needles and the legacy of its late owner and soon-to-be Hall of Famer, Peggy Kirk Bell.

“It was an awesome week, so much fun to have all my family and friends here, all my extended family from the LPGA Tour,” said Andrews, the lead golf instructor at Pine Needles. “This has been my family for my life, so to have all of them here playing on my home golf course here at Pine Needles, the course was in beautiful shape. They did a great job out there keeping it where we could play it.”