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A classic win for Meg Mallon

Juli Inkster finished her final round as Meg Mallon was getting ready to tee off. Her bags packed, she asked her husband for the green pass that allowed each player to have one guest walk inside the ropes at the U.S. Women's Open, knowing Mallon's large family could use another one.

Inkster could have told Mallon's two brothers what to expect, because she had seen it all before.

Two years ago, Inkster had her own homecoming of sorts in the Women's Open at Prairie Dunes in Kansas. Returning to the scene of her first U.S. Women's Amateur title, she was a picture of poise in the final round and clutch with her putter, closing with the best round of her life to win her second Open title at age 42.

Now, Mallon and Inkster share more than a friendship that spans two decades.

In a tiny New England town about an hour or so from where she was born, Mallon brought a record gallery to its feet at Orchards Golf Club by taking only 24 putts in the best round ever by a Women's Open champion, a 6-under 65 on the way to a two-stroke victory.

``I just can't believe the day that I had,'' Mallon said. ``Today was magical.''

Mallon, 41, joined Inkster and Babe Zaharias (43) as the only women in theirs 40s to win a Women's Open.

And the similarities don't end there.

The runner-up on the plains of Kansas and the quaintness of western Massachusetts was none other than the best player in women's golf, Annika Sorenstam, who played the kind of golf that usually wins the U.S. Open.

Sorenstam played in the final group at Prairie Dunes with a two-shot lead and shot a hardy 70, and still lost. On Sunday at the Orchards, she shot 4-under 67 and again was left with the silver medal.

``It's very similar -- unfortunately,'' Sorenstam said. ``Meg just played extraordinary today. To shoot 6-under on Sunday at the U.S. Open, that's as good as it gets. I thought I played excellent. It just wasn't enough.''

Perhaps it was only fitting that Mallon wound up holding the trophy.

The focus was on youth at this U.S. Women's Open, with a record 16 teenagers in the field. Brittany Lincicome, 18, shot 66 in the first round to take the lead and match the lowest score ever by an amateur. Two of them -- 14-year-old Michelle Wie and 17-year-old Paula Creamer -- got all the attention, and rightfully so.

They played like they belong on the LPGA Tour, both finishing at 1-over 285 and in a tie for 13th.

Creamer played a practice round Wednesday with Mallon, 47-year-old Beth Daniel and 38-year-old Liselotte Neumann, and her game looked every bit as strong.

``It's been fun to watch her game -- definitely in the course management,'' Creamer said. ``The short game is unbelievable. I hit my irons probably just as good as anybody, but if I could make more putts, it would be a big difference.''

She'll learn.

The U.S. Open almost always comes down to putting, and this week -- this year -- has been no exception.

Three weeks ago at Shinnecock Hills, Retief Goosen took only 24 putts in the final round of the U.S. Open to beat Phil Mickelson by two shots. He made every important putt on the back nine, three of them for par and one of them to save bogey and stay in the lead.

Mallon was equally impressive in a final round where she had to make up a three-shot deficit.

It started with a 50-foot birdie putt from the back of the fourth green. She had one-putt greens four times during a five-hole stretch in the middle of the round that staked her to a two-shot lead, and none was bigger than a 25-foot putt from just off the green on No. 15 that rattled the pin and disappeared.

``I was so relaxed over that putt and it goes in, and what are you going to do?'' Mallon said. ``It's your day when things like that happen. I was just seeing the hole like a bucket today, and it was fun.''

Nothing was sweeter than the final walk up the 18th fairway, although Mallon wouldn't allow herself to think about the trophy until she cozied a 25-foot putt to tap-in range.

There could not have been a more popular winner at Orchards.

Mallon is a Massachusetts native, although she moved away when she was 11 months old. But the bond remains strong since her five brothers and sisters were raised in New England and she returned as a kid to spend the summer in Cape Cod. And she is friends with former Boston Celtics coach K.C. Jones, and remains loyal to the Red Sox.

``I just love the culture here,'' she said. ``And it's funny, someone yelled out, 'If the Red Sox can't do it, you can do it today.' And that is so Boston right there to say something like that.

``I figure if I can win the U.S. Open, then the Red Sox can win the World Series.''

The Red Sox have gone 86 years since last winning a World Series title.

Mallon only had to wait 13 years since her first Women's Open victory at Colonial in 1991, still the longest gap in history. But this one was well worth the wait.

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