2005: Top names no match for Baena

By Chuck Stogel

Gladstone, N.J.

There was a time, little more than a year ago, when Marisa Baena seriously thought about giving up tour life.

It was her sixth year as a professional, and the promise that came with winning the 1996 NCAA Division I Women’s Championship and finishing as runner-up in the U.S. Women’s Amateur the same year was largely unfulfilled.

“After June of last year, I said I was going to give myself two more years, and that was it,” said Baena, a 28-year-old native of Colombia and three-time University of Arizona All-American who not only was winless on tour but was hardly even coming close.

Frustrated, lacking confidence, depressed and eventually finishing 132nd on the money list last year to lose her LPGA card and her corporate sponsor, Baena vowed to approach 2005 differently. For one, she switched coaches, to South African Robert Baker, and that necessitated learning and adopting a number of swing changes. For another, she got married in February to longtime boyfriend Juan Aristizabal. But most of all, she decided to change her attitude.

“This year, I came very relaxed,” Baena said. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to enjoy it.’ ”

Even starting out the season as a Monday qualifier who needed four events before gaining exempt status didn’t daunt Baena.

With the changes finally paying off, she made eight cuts in her first nine events, and earned enough money to get into the LPGA’s 64-player inaugural $2 million HSBC Women’s World Match Play Championship at Hamilton Farm Golf Club as the No. 60 seed.

In a format where top-ranked golfers often fall by the wayside – No. 1 Annika Sorenstam was ousted in the quarterfinals – Baena was the last woman standing. Knocking off higher seeds every step of the way through six matches, Baena was near perfect in defeating South Korean rookie Meena Lee, 1 up, in the championship match July 3 to pocket $500,000.

Baena’s first five victims, in order, were Natalie Gulbis, Grace Park, Jennifer Rosales, Karrie Webb and Candie Kung – with all except Gulbis, at No. 19, entering the event in the top 10 in the Golfweek/ Sagarin Performance Index.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment since I turned pro,” said Baena, who never trailed in the final match while making seven birdies. “I’m starting to see the changes in my game. I understand a lot more of what’s going on.”

Baena reached the final with a 2-up victory over Kung in the morning semifinals. Lee, seeded No. 47, downed Wendy Ward, 1 up, in the other semifinal.

“My goal, coming into the tournament, was just to get through (the first two rounds),” said Lee, who also was runner-up at the Corning Classic May 29.

Down three holes with four to go in the final, Lee, 23, made a stirring charge. She dropped putts of 9 and 15 feet for birdies at Nos. 15 and 16 to narrow the margin to 1 down, then got up-and-down from over the green on No. 17 to halve the hole and extend play. Baena won with a conceded par 4 on the 18th hole.

“After I was 3 down, I kept repeating to myself, ‘Try to get back one hole at a time,’ ” said Lee, who earned $300,000. “I tried to play aggressively on every hole. I was so close to winning. I am disappointed, but I gained a lot of confidence.”

Baena, whose back was bothering her and was tired from playing two rounds each on Saturday and Sunday, remained cool despite the enormous stakes as Lee made her late rally.

“I kept reminding myself to stay in the present and not think ahead,” said Baena. “I knew if I was able to par some of the holes coming in, I would be OK.”

Baena, who earned only $35,594 last season, said the best prize was the three-year tour exemption that came with winning.

“That means a lot,” she said. “Now I can relax and play a lot of tournaments, and not worry so much.”

In a consolation match, Ward, the lone American semifinalist and a 10th-year pro with four victories, defeated Kung. Ward, who won 2 and 1, earned $200,000, while Kung collected $150,000.

It was Kung who produced the most stunning upset. The 23-year-old native of Taiwan rallied from 2 down with four holes left to unceremoniously oust the heavily favored Sorenstam, 1 up, in a Saturday afternoon quarterfinal.

Admittedly struggling with greens slowed earlier in the week by rain, Sorenstam bogeyed two of the final three holes with missed putts, while Kung birdied No. 15 to get to 1 down, then won by parring two of the last three holes.

“I thought I was doing really good. I mean, I was up 2 with four to play,” said Sorenstam, a six-time winner this season who failed to win in two consecutive events she had entered for the first time in 2005. “I’m very disappointed.”

– Chuck Stogel is a freelance writer from New York.

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