Alfredsson Finds Victory in Long Personal Journey
by Lisa D. Mickey
From the very start of her career, Sweden’s Helen Alfredsson was always one of the LPGA’s most entertaining players.
The tour’s top rookie in 1992 had the shots, and at a stylish 5-foot-10 with modeling experience in France, she also had the look.
As a bonus, those streams of swirling Swedish words that came roaring off her lips when errant balls seemed destined for doom made her a must-watch player on the LPGA Tour. You just never knew what was going to happen next.
And while the drama of watching “Alfie” slug her way through a round was compelling, what was really going on during tournament rounds through most of her career was the tempestuous Swede’s wrestling match with her own emotions, physical health and personal journey.
“When things didn’t go my way out there, I remember looking up at the sky and saying, ‘OK, tell me. Show me. What am I supposed to learn this time?’” admitted Alfredsson during a recent telephone interview from her home in Orlando, Fla. “Honestly, that’s how I got through a lot of things.”
And there were a lot of things she had to push her way through for most of her life, detailed in her biography entitled “A Winning Shot,” published in Sweden last fall.
“The book is about my childhood, my anorexia, friendships and some of the s**tty decisions I’ve made and what I’ve learned through the good and the bad,” she said. “But it’s also about being a little bit different, owning my decisions and believing in what I want to do.”
So many of Alfredsson’s personal challenges were finally put to rest last year at age 54, when she won her first United States Golf Association title at the 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in North Carolina, followed by the 2019 Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick Resort in Indiana.
In looking back, both titles were more than just long-awaited milestones, Alfredsson said. They represented an ebb and flow of her entire career boiled down to the culmination of a more-healthy woman in a more-settled place in life.
“I’m most proud that my head held up,” she said. “And I struck the ball maybe better than I have in the last 15 years, but for me, this was the first time in my career that I had no injuries. I was healthy and focused and it was fun.”
For so many years of her career, Alfredsson would stand on the tee before her shots and fidget endlessly. To those watching, it appeared as an odd, struggling pre-shot routine. To Alfredsson, however, it was an attempt to get her injured body to cooperate in hitting her next shot.
“My right hamstring was detached for 11 years and my leg was sort of numb, so that’s why I fidgeted so much,” she said. “I was uncomfortable.”
Determined to play through injury, the ailment just got worse. Meanwhile, the player couldn’t sit comfortably on her right side and favoring the injured area also affected her back and neck.
“I was so crooked that I came into the ball different every time I hit it,” she said.
Eventually, Alfredsson experienced tingling in her right arm and lost feeling in her arm. She also struggled to grip the club with her right hand. It was the result of a herniated disk in her neck.
Next came a detached biceps tendon, followed by a detached shoulder -- resulting in surgery in 2011 and an eight-month recovery period.
“My mistake was that I just played injured,” she said. “And when you have an injury, your body adjusts to everything.”
While Alfredsson struggled physically, she also struggled emotionally. She wasn’t playing her best golf and she knew why, but to stop would have been to put the brakes on a career that seemed destined for stardom after she won a major -- the 1993 Nabisco Dinah Shore Championship -- in only her second season.
Her injuries often affected the way Alfredsson played and with that came both anger and fear on the golf course. She could be fearful of not being able to execute a shot or she could become explosive when her efforts went awry. Bottom line: the fiery redhead could go off during a round, which could go either way.
“For me, when I got angry, sometimes I played better because I lost my fear,” she said. “I dared to go for pins that I probably wouldn’t have gone for if I had been scared. Fear is the biggest thing to overcome.”
But Alfredsson stared down her demons over the years and would go on to win seven career LPGA titles, earn 25 worldwide victories, and captain the 2009 European Solheim Cup team. In spite of her physical battles and many milestones, she remembers, at age 47, looking around and noticing that most of her longtime LPGA fellow competitors had packed it in.
“I still wanted to play, but I didn’t want to be one of those players that people would say, ‘Oh my God, is she still out here?’” she said.
“That was my fear. I didn’t want people to be embarrassed for me because I was still out there, trying to play.”
With her last two LPGA wins coming in 2008, Alfredsson decided to leave the LPGA Tour in 2013. She went home to husband and retired National Hockey League player Kent Nilsson, and focused on playing and practicing when she felt like it. The two have continued to divide time between their homes in Florida and Sweden, playing recreational golf with each other and friends in both places.
Slowly, Alfredsson’s body healed. And gradually, her game sharpened during no-pressure friendly rounds.
Eligible to play on the Legends Tour at age 45, Alfredsson brought a spirited Solheim Cup-feel to the senior circuit’s ISPS Handa Cup competition when she joined the World Team vs. Team USA event.
She played on the World Team from 2013-2015, competing alongside such former European Solheim Cup teammates as Swedish compatriot Liselotte Neumann and England’s Laura Davies and Trish Johnson. With Alfredsson in the lineup, the World Team won for the first time in 2013, and nearly won again in 2014 and 2015, in the event’s tightest-yet competition.
Alfredsson still enjoyed the competition and this time around, she spent time reconnecting with 30-year LPGA Tour peers from both sides.
“Life is very different for all of us now, but we will always want to kick each other’s butt,” Alfredsson said with a laugh. “And then we’ll go have a glass of wine together and laugh about ourselves. One has a bad knee, one has a bad back, one can’t hear, one can’t see without her glasses, and then there’s menopause and all of those hot flashes!”
The Legends Tour offered renewed camaraderie with long-time friends and Alfredsson wished she could play in more Legends Tour domestic events, but with her golf schools in France and a charity tournament in Sweden each year during the summer months, her travel schedule has allowed limited competition. She has posted two top-10 Legends Tour finishes in recent years.
Those few tournaments, however, helped prepare her for some of the newly created women’s senior major championships. In 2017, she tied for third at the Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick Resort, and tied for second at that event in 2018.
“I think that triggered something,” she said. “I played well on a good course and when you see your name on the leaderboard again, you just want to stay there.”
But for Alfredsson, staying on top now also included staying in balance in a roller coaster life sometimes seemingly played with her hair on fire. On one hand, she had become laser-focused during practice – determined to emphasize quality over quantity, and target over aimless time.
On the other hand, the pressure was off. She was in a different place in life. The crazy, anxiety-filled golf dreams each night were over.
“I’m still as intense because that’s just how I am, but it’s not as exhausting as when I played on the LPGA Tour and golf was 24/7,” she said. “During that time, even on the weeks off, I always tried to prepare myself for the next event and the next event and the next event. You’re never finished and there’s always something you feel you should be working on.” “Now, my life is set,” she added. “I enjoy my time playing golf with Kent and my friends. I’m OK with money and I can just enjoy this. It’s not about the next tournament or keeping my LPGA card.”
There was, however, one more golf goal that had lingered in Alfredsson’s mind for a quarter century.
She had suffered a bitter final-round collapse at the 1994 U.S. Women’s Open, where she set scoring records after 18 holes (63) and 36 holes (132) and seemed poised to win the USGA’s top women’s prize before squandering her lead and tumbling into a tie for ninth.
Devastated after the melt-down, the Swede collected herself and addressed the media. She cried, she recapped the disastrous final round, but she took ownership of the day -- all the while thinking of another ugly result years earlier as a junior golfer.
“I was maybe 12 or 13 and took a 10 on the last hole of a tournament,” Alfredsson recalled during her phone interview. “I played horribly and my behavior was absolutely atrocious. My mom said, ‘I will never see that behavior again from you.’
"So, I remembered years later, that you have to be the same when you win and in defeat. That’s where you show character.”
Still, with runner-up finishes at the U.S. Women’s Open in 1993 and 2008, Alfredsson wasn’t sure she would ever get another shot at a USGA title, but as she strolled the fairways of Pine Needles at last year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open in May and navigated the tricky Donald Ross-designed greens with utmost respect, the years, tears and pain she had poured into the game finally turned into a calm peace when the last putt dropped.
Alfredsson had finally won her first USGA championship by two strokes over Juli Inkster and Trish Johnson. In October, she won again at the 2019 Senior LPGA Championship by three shots over Inkster at French Lick – completing the women’s “senior slam.”
“It feels very special to finally have a USGA trophy,” said Alfredsson, 55.
But even if it took some time, Alfredsson will tell you none of the waiting was wasted.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but at the end of the day, you’re actually winning because you’re usually learning something,” she said. “I’m extremely humbled and grateful that I was able to win again.”
Photo Credit: Rick Sharp