Originally created 05/02/00

Sophie's struggle in world for words



STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. -- Sophie Gustafson can sing in a clear, uncluttered voice, which she proved by belting out a few lyrics from the rock band Tonic.

"You wanted more, more that I could give, more than I could handle," she crooned, the words especially poignant for the 26-year Swedish golfer.

Some of Gustafson's colleagues on the LPGA Tour remember the night in Australia when she had a few drinks at the pub. For some reason, the words flowed smoothly.

"She came out and spoke fluently, without one stutter," Karrie Webb recalled. "And everyone was like, `Have you spoken to Sophie? Go speak to Sophie. You'll find out stuff about her tonight because she is not stuttering."'

Gustafson chuckled when she remembered that outing.

"Maybe I was drunk," she said.

For the most part, just a few simple words are a burden for Gustafson, who won her first LPGA title Sunday, a one-shot victory at the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship near Atlanta.

Afterward, she talked of how the simplest of tasks pose obstacles.

"It's hard to book rooms and flights," said Gustafson, whose father helps with such chores.

Leading the tournament after all three rounds, she made the trek each day to the interview tent, refusing to succumb to her condition.

"It might take some time," her caddy, Chuck Hoersch, advised reporters. "Please be patient and she'll answer all your questions."

Sometimes, it took several excruciating seconds just to get out one or two words. With eyelids fluttering and fingernails pinching into her arm or fidgeting with the microphone, Gustafson would labor to form the sounds that are so clear in her head.

"It's a breathing thing," she said, pointing out that her problem is less severe in her native language.

Gustafson has two brothers who stuttered early in life, but they grew out of the condition by age 6. She wasn't so fortunate -- even after extensive speech therapy -- and has struggled to fit in on the tour.

"I know her as much as anyone can get to know Sophie," Webb said. "She's such a great person. She has a good sense of humor about her stutter when you try to talk to her. She wants to get it out as much as anyone, and that probably makes it worse."

On the course, Gustafson does her talking with an awkward yet powerful swing that makes her one of the longest hitters in the world. She has developed a special relationship with her caddy, who said he knows her "so well that she can start a few words and I know where she's going."

This is only her second full year on the American tour, but Gustafson has given a glimpse of her potential with six victories in Europe and Asia.

"She takes every shot full on," said Laura Davies, who played with Gustafson in the final group Sunday. "She reminds me of me 12 years ago. She doesn't care where she hits it, as long as she hits it hard."

Gustafson was all over the course in the final round, playing the first seven holes at 4 over. She hit a tee shot out of bounds. She hit a short iron shot through the green, the ball rolling down a hill before coming to rest just short of a large tree.

But, having given up the lead and seeming on the verge of a collapse, Gustafson rallied with a string of five birdies in six holes. After bogeying Nos. 15 and 16, she went to the par-5 final hole needing a birdie to win. Her second shot landed in a green-side bunker, but she escaped the sand with a shot that spun to a halt just 4 feet from the cup.

"I've been hitting good bunker shots," she said, "so it really wasn't a hard one."

The short putt turned out to be the toughest shot. But the ball rolled firmly into the cup, giving her a one-shot victory over Kelly Robbins and Amy Fruhwirth.

"Oh, that was terrible," Gustafson said. "Wow, I was shaking."

After avoiding a playoff, she steered away from the microphone that usually goes to the winner at the victory ceremony on the 18th green.

"Her English is not quite as good as she'd like it to be," tournament host Nancy Lopez told the thousands of spectators. "I'm going to talk for her and tell you some of the things she wants to say to you."

Actually, Gustafson speaks English fluently. With her auburn-tinged hair glimmering in the sunlight, she accepted the crystal trophy from Lopez and mustered the courage to speak for herself. In a halting voice that brought a hush to the crowd, she managed to get out two words.

"Thank you."