CLIFTON, NEW JERSEY | The best rounds look easy, almost effortless. That’s what fans saw at Upper Montclair Country Club on Saturday from 29-year-old Madelene Sagstrom. The Swede hit a 63 in Thursday’s Cognizant Founders Cup and followed that up with a 2-under-par 70 on Friday. But both looked like work. Saturday’s 5-under-par-67 Sagstrom shot – the lowest round on a wet and foggy day – looked as smooth as running water.
Starting three behind Minjee Lee, who had a 63 of her own on Friday, Sagstrom got off to a hot start with birdies at Nos. 1, 2 and 4. Then came a series of seemingly routine pars – fairways and greens with nice putts hit that catered for a player who says short putts are the strongest part of her game rolled into easy reach. The next birdie came at 12, the short par 5, where Sagstrom hit the green with two and two putts. She did the same on the par 5 14 – fairway, green and two putts for the birdie. She didn’t yawn, but only because the rain pushed up just enough air to keep everyone awake and moving.
The only hint of a possible bogey came on the difficult par-4 16th, where Sagstrom joined more than 50 percent of the field when he missed the narrow fairway. Wet rough made it virtually impossible to hold the elevated green. She hit a good shot that loosened to the back edge, but her pitch shot looked like it was going in the hole. The ball hit the right edge of the hole before rolling four feet past, a putt that Sagstrom made like a tap-in.
Two routine pars to finish and she starts the final round with a shot off the lead and looking for her second career win.
“I think I had good numbers on the pins,” Sagstrom said. “When you have the perfect number, you can hit full shots and you don’t have to manipulate too much. That’s a nice confidence boost. And then I hit some really good putts. Hit a good putt on a one, hit a really good eagle putt on a two, and then I chip a four. Not sure if that counts, but it did count on the scorecard. Just a nice swing when you know you’re a bit ahead and you can just play golf for free.
“It’s just one of those rounds I’ve been looking for. It felt easy. It felt like I wasn’t trying, but I also didn’t worry too much if I missed a putt or overplayed it. I had a lot of good chances and my putter was hot at the beginning but then cooled down a bit but I didn’t get upset. It’s really nice to have those rounds under your belt. And I think that’s a big confidence boost to have with me tomorrow because the pressure will be higher tomorrow.”
As you watch Sagstrom hit towering tee shots and crisp, solid irons with a golf swing that should be on a bow in every golf coaching office, you wonder what could possibly be holding her back? This player looks like she should win every year and compete at all the majors.
Ask her what she thinks is holding her back and she hesitates. But there is an answer no one wants to admit. She’s smart, and not just in a college degree, and makes smart investments in a way. Sagstrom is the closest thing to an intellectual on the LPGA tour, a deeply curious, deep, honest reader who has just finished a book called The Chimp Paradox. It is a psychological concept developed by Professor Steve Peters that posits how to manipulate the chimpanzee in the brain of every human being. It is also one of many esoteric titles in Sagstrom’s library.
“I have to read nonfiction,” she said. “Because when I’m reading fiction, I can’t put it down and then suddenly I’m up all night.”
Brilliance is not always a disadvantage in golf. In Gee Chun is a mathematical genius and seems to be handling her mind as one would expect – methodically and logically. But Sagstrom will talk to you about everything from comparative philosophies of religion to the impact of Roman imperialism on modern governments. And that can be a problem.
As Byron Nelson helped Tom Watson with his game, Watson, who has an insatiable curiosity, kept asking question after question. Finally, Nelson said, “Tom, there are two kinds of golfers: those who need to know a little and those who need to know everything. What do you think is easier?”
“I think I want to know everything and then like to choose what I want to focus on,” Sagstrom said. “I like to know everything about my own game, especially just from my coach, but when I have it I like to choose what I believe. The more knowledge I have, the better I can be picky and figure out what works for me and what doesn’t work for me.”
Tiger Woods was like that. That was Annika. Dustin Johnson was the extreme opposite.
Where Sagstrom fits into that continuum is yet to be decided. Sunday at Founders might be a good place to find out.