Tackling Another Major

By Randall MellJune 10, 2009, 4:00 pm
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McDonalds LPGAHAVRE DE GRACE, Md. ' Helen Alfredsson cant always contain her giant spirit.
 
Sometimes it leaps about so raucously that her body has no choice but to follow.
 
Thats what happened at Stanleys Tavern in Wilmington, Del., after she finished fifth at the McDonalds LPGA Championship in her rookie season.
 
Les Dukart, whose family owns eight McDonalds restaurants, and his wife, Barbara, have invited Alfredsson into their home for championship week for the past 18 years as a host family. If they didnt glimpse Alfredssons determination playing the event that rookie season, they saw it afterward in the tavern after Dukart picked up the $63 check.
 
Helen Alfredsson
Helen Alfredsson has three consecutive top-15 finishes on the LPGA. (Getty Images)
Helen won a lot of money that week, and she insisted she was going to pay the tab, Dukart said. Pretty soon, shes chasing me around the table in the middle of a restaurant full of people.
 
Alfredsson tackled Dukart, laid him out flat with tavern patrons gaping and pried the bar tab away.
 
Thats Helen, said Barbara Dukart. Shes a firecracker.
 
The Swedish firecracker may have worked as a Parisian model at one time, but she also went on to race dragsters, ride Harley Davidsons and fly with the Blue Angels.
 
Alfredssons giant spirit literally left its mark on the Dukart home. She was like an adopted teenage daughter in a grown-ups body.
 
Helen used to work on her swing in our family room, Barbara said. Les would tell her, Helen, dont swing the club in the house . . . dont swing the club in the house . . . dont swing the club in the house. Of course, she would anyway.
 
With Les away one morning, Alfredsson got carried away with her follow through and took a divot out of the family-room ceiling.
 
She came running upstairs, all hysterical, speaking in Swedish, and I dont speak Swedish, Barbara said. I finally got her to speak English, and she said she wanted whiteout. She got some whiteout to cover it up, but, unfortunately, the ceiling was beige.
 
After Alfredsson left at weeks end, Dukart had a sign maker create a bulls-eye, forever identifying the divot as Alfredssons work. He attached the sign to his ceiling. It was there when Alfredsson returned the following year.
 
When the McDonalds LPGA week arrives, its like the circus coming to town, Barbara said. With Helen here, my house is ground zero.
 
Alfredsson, 44, is back with the Dukarts for the final week of the McDonalds LPGA Championship. The event is moving away next year as the LPGA seeks a new title sponsor and a new venue.
 
Over the years, the Dukarts have had special insight into the crazy ups and downs of Alfredssons career. Like so many of Alfredssons friends, theyre moved by her revival. Shes back as the most unlikely favorite with a chance to add to her seven LPGA titles.
 
Two years ago, it looked as if Alfredssons playing days were near an end. The pain that had followed her most of her career got to be too much to bear and she shut down her American season before June, skipping the McDonalds LPGA Championship. She teed it up just 11 times that season, recording no top-10 finishes.
 
Alfredssons career looked as if it would end as European captain at the Solheim Cup near the finish of the 2007 season.
 
We thought she was going to have to retire, Les Dukart said. Weve seen her in a lot of pain during McDonalds week over the years. My wifes taken her to doctors before.
 
Back in 1985, Alfredsson broke a bone in her pelvis and endured 11 years of various levels of discomfort before undergoing surgery. She also detached her left hamstring in college, though she didnt know for a decade just how badly that injury had impacted the rest of her body. She never completely shook the pain through the years. She would go from good days to bad days to worse days. At one point, she lost the feeling in her right leg. She went through that disappointing 07 season with a tingling sensation and loss of strength in her right hand.
 
Two years ago, I couldnt grip the club firmly, Alfredsson said. I was a pretty good iron player, but I was hitting iron shots 40, 50, 60 yards off line.
 
Finally, after her Solheim Cup captaincy, Alfredsson was diagnosed with a herniated disc in her neck. She began a new rehabilitation program focused on relieving the pressure on her neck and the nerves that were being assaulted there. Though she missed five of the first six cuts last season, she could feel the pain easing, her body regaining strength and the freedom in her swing returning.
 
The shattered pieces of her game came fusing back together at the U.S. Womens Open at Interlachen during the end of last June. She finished second. A month later, she won the Evian Masters, her first LPGA victory in five years. Three months after that, she won the Grand China Air LPGA.
 
With five finishes of 14th or better this season, Alfredsson arrives for the McDonalds LPGA Championship as a legitimate contender to add a second major championship to her resume. She won the Nabisco Dinah Shore in 1993.
 
Helens a tough cookie, said Kent Nilsson, her husband, who knows something about toughness as a former NHL player. I wouldnt be surprised if she wins another major.
 
Alfredsson is thrilled people think shes capable again.
 
For so long, I thought about wanting to win again, Alfredsson said. When I was not feeling good, I thought, if I could just win again, I would be happy. Thats not really the way it is now. Winnings a bonus. Playing well, being able to hit good shots, its amazing.
 
Alfredssons revival is so complete shes poised to deliver a first in Solheim Cup history. Typically, being named captain is a sign that a players career is over. None of the 12 past captains of the American and European teams has ever gone on after serving to make another team as a player. Alfredssons poised to become the first when the matches are played Aug. 21-23 at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill. Shes a lock to make the team based on her position as the second highest ranked European in the Rolex Womens World Golf Rankings. Shes No. 9, trailing only No. 6 Suzann Pettersen.
 
At the Kapalua LPGA Classic at the end of last season, Alfredsson showed just how far shes come back. She knocked a drive past the youthful and long-hitting Yani Tseng. Stunned, Tseng checked her ball twice, not believing hers was the short ball in the fairway.
 
As Tseng checked her balls marking, Alfredsson walked by.
 
Look at that, Alfredsson said. Grandma hit it past you.
 
Tseng laughed.
 
Helen likes to tease, Tseng said. She is fun.
 
When Alfredssons having this much fun, shes dangerous. Men get tackled, ceilings get busted and trophies get claimed.
 
I think one of the hardest things for an athlete is to finish their careers injured, Alfredsson said. After last year, I felt so happy, so extremely grateful that I was able to show it wasnt my fault.
 
Alfredsson was grateful she could show her body really had been holding her back, and that shes once more free to tackle lifes challenges (and Les Dukart, if she likes).
 
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