CLIFTON, NEW JERSEY | The best rounds look easy, almost effortless. That’s what fans at Upper Montclair Country Club saw on Saturday from 29-year-old Madelene Sagstrom. The Swede shot a 63 on Thursday at the Cognizant Founders Cup and followed it up with a 2-under par 70 on Friday. But both of those looked like work. The 5-under par 67 Sagstrom shot on Saturday – the lowest round of a soggy and foggy day – looked as smooth as running water.
Starting three back of Minjee Lee, who had a 63 of her own on Friday, Sagstrom got off to a hot start with birdies on Nos. 1, 2, and 4. Then came a string of seemingly routine pars – fairways and greens with nicely struck putts that rolled to within easy range for a player who says short putts are the strongest part of her game. The next birdie came at 12, the short par-5, where Sagstrom reached the green in two and two-putted. She did the same on the par-5 14th – fairway, green, and two putts for birdie. She didn’t yawn, but only because the rain put just enough of a nip in the air to keep everyone awake and moving.
The only hint at a potential bogey came at the difficult par-4 16th where Sagstrom joined more than 50-percent of the field in missing the narrow fairway. Wet rough made it virtually impossible to hold the elevated green. She hit a good shot that released to the back fringe, but her pitch shot looked like it might go in. The ball caught the right edge of the hole before trundling four feet past, a putt Sagstrom made like a tap-in.
Two routine pars to finish and she starts the final round a shot out of the lead and looking for her second career victory.
“I think I had good numbers into the pins,” Sagstrom said. “When you have the perfect number, you can hit full shots and don't have to manipulate it too much. That's a nice confidence boost. And then I hit some really good putts. Hit a good putt on one, hit a really good eagle putt on two, and then I chipped in on four. I'm not sure if that counts, but it counted on the scorecard. Just nice momentum knowing that you're like kind of a little bit of ahead and can just play free golf.
“It's just one of those rounds that I’ve been looking for. It felt easy. It felt like I wasn't trying, but also wasn't giving myself too much grief when I was missing a putt or lipped it out. I had a lot of good chances, and my putter was hot in the beginning but then kind of cooled down, but I wasn't getting upset. Those rounds are really nice to have under your belt. And I think that's a great confidence boost to have with me tomorrow because pressure is going to be higher tomorrow.”
When you watch Sagstrom hit towering tee shots and crisp, solid irons with a golf swing that should be put on a loop in every golf-coach’s office, you wonder what could possibly be holding her back? This player looks like she should win every year and be a contender in all the majors.
Ask her what she thinks is holding her back and she defers. But there is one answer that no one is willing to admit. She’s smart, and not just in a college-degree and makes-smart-investments kind of way. Sagstrom is the closest we have on the LPGA Tour to an intellectual, an intensely curious, deep-thinking, veracious reader who just finished a book called “The Chimp Paradox.” It’s a psychological concept devised by Professor Steve Peters which postulates ways of managing the chimp in every human’s brain. It’s also one of many esoteric titles in Sagstrom’s library.
“I have to read non-fiction,” she said. “Because if I read fiction, I can’t put it down and then suddenly I’m up all night.”
Brilliance isn’t always a detriment in golf. In Gee Chun is a math genius and seems to manage her mind as you would expect – in a methodical and logical way. But Sagstrom will talk to you about everything from comparative religious philosophies to the impact of Roman imperialism on modern governments. And that can be a problem.
When Byron Nelson was helping Tom Watson with his game, Watson, who has an insatiable curiosity, asked one question after another. Finally, Nelson said, “Tom, there are two kinds of golfers: those who need to know a little, and those who need to know it all. Which do you think is easier?”
“I think I like to know it all and then I like to select what to focus on,” Sagstrom said. “I like to know everything about my own game, particularly just from my coach, but having it, I like to select what I believe. The more knowledge I have, the more I can kind of nitpick it and figure out what works for me and what doesn't work for me.”
Tiger Woods was that way. So was Annika. Dustin Johnson was the extreme opposite.
Where Sagstrom fits into that continuum has yet to be decided. Sunday at Founders might be a good place to find out.