Angela Stanford's roller-coaster Sunday leads her to Evian Championship
EVIANS-LES-BAINS, France -- In the final LPGA major championship of the year, Angela Stanford was thrust into the sort of drama a writer would struggle to create, a three-act, one-hour play that opened on a roller coaster, continued with Russian roulette and ended in redemption.
For most of the final day of the Evian Championship, the 40-year-old Stanford had been plugging away, high on the leaderboard yet always distant of the longtime leader Amy Olson.
But a 7-wood approach to the par-5 15th hole at Evian Resort Club transformed Stanford's situation and her career. It soared into the alpine skies, kicked forward on its first bounce, rode the bumps in front of the green and finally ran out to a position just 6 feet from the hole. The shot was so neat, the ball even settled at the end of the pin's shadow.
The Texan knew she had hit a fine blow from back in the fairway, but she had little clue quite how good the result was.
"I knew it was on a good line," she said afterward. "My caddie said that the hill was going to do it for me. I didn't see it land, I saw it reappear, but I had no idea how close it was until I got to the green."
She retained composure, drained the putt and, because Olson had just made bogey at the 14th, all of a sudden was tied for the lead.
Then her tee shot on the par-3 bailed out horribly to the right, the worst possible location other than in water. "I wanted to throw up on the 16th tee," she admitted. Her first chip raced through the green, and her second failed to find it.
Moments earlier, she had covered 527 yards in a mere three strokes, now four were needed to find a green just 165 yards from the tee. She made double-bogey and approached the 17th tee in a daze.
"I wanted to throw up again," Stanford said. "But I told myself that I kind of had to be who I am. I do a lot of bad things. I make a lot of bad swings. I do a lot of stupid stuff. But deep down I'm a fighter. I'm a grinder. I'm never gonna quit. You gotta just fight."
She birdied 17 from 30 feet, very nearly repeated on 18, then she exited stage-left to sign her card, re-emerging moments later -- this time signing autographs.
Olson held a one-shot advantage on the final tee, but it had withered by the time she reached the green, and her lengthy par putt raced by the hole. Her playing partners, Mo Martin and Sei Young Kim, were both looking at birdies, which would allow them to equal Stanford's clubhouse lead.
As every putt was hit, you could almost feel how Stanford must have held her breath, waiting for the roar of crowd.
Martin pulled the trigger first, her putt sliding past on the high side.
Kim went second, and again there was no roar, her ball having too much pace to take the slope.
Olson's slow squeeze pushed the ball into a dribble that missed low.
The agony of waiting was over. For the first time in her career, Stanford was a major champion, and with it came tears of redemption.
"I can't ..." Stanford started to say on TV before she ran out of words.
"I have no idea what just happened," she gasped in a second attempt.
"I'm so happy for everyone back home," she said, finally finding some clarity. "I mean, God's funny."
It was Stanford's 77th major championship start and her 13th top-10. Lucky No. 13 in this case. She is the second-oldest first-time winner of a major in history, and it was her first title in over six years. There were few people expecting her to win this week, including, she later confessed, herself.
"For the longest time I thought I was [good enough to be] a major-winner," Stanford said. "As a golfer, you always think that or you wouldn't be here. So I thought I was good enough, but not getting it, the doubts start to creep in to say the least."
If this all feels a little familiar, perhaps it was something to do with the location. This is the second time Stanford has redeemed herself in continental Europe.
I do a lot of bad things. I make a lot of bad swings. I do a lot of stupid stuff. But deep down I'm a fighter.Angela Stanford
Three years ago, she entered the Sunday singles of the Solheim Cup at St. Leon Rot in southern Germany (the other side of the Alps) struggling with herself. In her previous 19 matches in the Cup, she had claimed just three wins and three halves.
As she headed to bed the night before, Stanford slept (or attempted to) on the grim knowledge that she had lost no less than nine matches on the bounce.
"Behind closed doors, it was hard," she said of that experience. "It's hard to feel you're not contributing. I wanted to be a good teammate."
On that Sunday three summers ago, her atonement was motivated by a perceived slight to teammate Alison Lee on a conceded putt by the very woman she was drawn to play in the singles, Suzann Pettersen.
Stanford's golfing fault has never been swing-related. Instead, it is probably that she is simply too nice. On that day, she said: "Alison is a class act, and that's what bothered me most, what they did to her. She didn't deserve that, and that's what made me mad."
Protective of her buddy, riled by a wrong, Stanford dismissed both her wretched record and Pettersen, completing a vital 2-and-1 victory as Team USA regained the Solheim Cup.
Golf announcer Judy Rankin revealed on Sunday that she had something of a heart-to-heart with Stanford prior to her previous start in Portland. The details were sketchy, but Rankin added Stanford was a typical "underachiever." Maybe the discussion mentioned this, maybe it was another case of the fire being lit, maybe it was what made the difference.
"I was prepared to retire and not be a major champion," Stanford confided after her breakthrough, perhaps still not quite having come to terms with the fact that she had finally stepped into center stage.