An hour before her tee time last Friday at the LPGA State Farm Classic, Suzann Pettersen was sitting in the fitness trailer, covered in towels. The flu is brutal at any time of year, but it is especially debilitating on a warm spring day in Springfield, Ill., when the most important stretch of tournaments on the LPGA calendar awaits you.
After considering a withdrawal so she could recover in time for this week’s McDonald’s LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Md., which she won two years ago, Pettersen shed her hot towels, popped some cold tablets and shot a second-round 66 to tie for the 36-hole lead.
Pettersen’s competitors may have been impressed, but they weren’t giving anything away, especially In-Kyung Kim, who went 10 under over the final 36 to get to 17 under and secure a one-shot win over a resurgent Se Ri Pak. Undone by a third-round 72, Pettersen still came back to close with a 68 to tie for sixth.
“Her composure is immaculate,” says Shaun McBride, a neighbor in Orlando who caddied for Pettersen at the State Farm. “She has total emotional control.”
That Pettersen pushed through a difficult obstacle was typical of a woman with a reputation for enduring physical punishment. “She’s one of those players that you always see in the gym,” says Natalie Gulbis, a frequent practice-round partner. “She’s as disciplined and detailed in her fitness regimen as she is in her practice.”
Pettersen’s workouts complement her natural ability, as she is widely considered the best athlete on the LPGA tour (sorry, Lorena). Born in Oslo, the 5′ 7″ Pettersen is an avid skier — “In Norway you’re born with skis on your feet,” she says — and she even walks like a jock: spine straight, shoulders back, arms away from her body as if weighed down by sore biceps. “She hits the ball a mile,” Gulbis says with a touch of envy. That length off the tee is among the attributes that make Pettersen a favorite every time she tees it up but especially on the tougher courses on which the majors are played. Those are looming.
Following the LPGA Championship, the tour hits two familiar stops (the Wegmans LPGA and Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic) before playing its final two majors of the year, the U.S. Women’s Open, at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., starting on July 9, and the Women’s British Open, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, England, three weeks later.
“I love these courses that are coming up,” says Paula Creamer, who is the defending champ at the Farr and in search of her first major title. “It’s more [a matter] of simply pacing yourself because there’s so much going on these weeks. You have to be prepared mentally.”
Says Pettersen, who had five victories in 2007 but hasn’t won since that October’s Honda LPGA Thailand, “You try to peak in the periods where you have the majors.”
For all of its small-town charm, the State Farm played like a major. Forty-nine of the top 50 players on the money list (only No. 1 Lorena Ochoa ditched) were in the field at Panther Creek Country Club, a 6,746-yard course that happily dished out bogeys and worse. Michelle Wie was in contention on a windy Saturday until she closed bogey, bogey, double bogey for a five-over 77. Wie, who went on to finish 54th, was one of 31 players over par in the third round.
“We have a course that is an absolute bear,” said Christina Kim, who toughed out a third-round 71 on her way to a 27th-place finish. “I can’t recall the last time I’ve hit so many six-irons into greens. It’s a great, great prep for [the LPGA Championship].”
To peak for the upcoming grind of majors, Pettersen says she has ramped up her workouts — spirited mixes of biking, running, core work with a medicine ball and daily training with strength bands. “For me, it’s not simply something I do because someone told me to. My fitness builds on my swing. I’ve just gone through a hard [workout] period, so my body is a little bit down. Then, in four or five days, I’ll feel pretty energized and full of power.”
Pettersen hasn’t missed a cut in two years, and in her best tournament of 2009 (sadly, not televised in the U.S.) she went toe-to-toe with Ochoa in the final round of the Corona Championship in Ochoa’s native Mexico. Pettersen birdied the 72nd hole, finished five under par and still lost by a stroke. “I had all of Norway behind me,” she says, joking.
Despite her 20-month drought, Pettersen says she has no qualms about the state of her game and is eagerly looking ahead. “We’re going into the majors,” Pettersen says. “All I can do is keep playing and keep putting myself in position, and we’ll see.”
Just wait until she’s over the flu.