2004: LPGA Gamer - Graceful finish

Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Grace Park arrived in Tucson, Ariz., last month and declared this is the year she intends to contend for a major championship. After winning a tournament in each of her first four years on the LPGA, Park knew it was time to take her game to the next level. She already had experienced a major letdown via a playoff loss to Annika Sorenstam at the 2003 McDonald’s LPGA Championship, and had resolved not to let it happen again.

She didn’t. And Park didn’t have to deal with the world’s No. 1 player to claim her first major. With Sorenstam out of contention at the Kraft Nabisco Championship March 28, Park outlasted a former No. 1 player determined to regain that status and two teen-agers whose combined age is 31.

The former No. 1? Karrie Webb. The two teen-agers? Seventeen-year-old LPGA rookie Aree Song and 14-year-old amateur Michelle Wie. Safe to say the present officially collided with the future at Mission Hills Country Club.

And both shone brightly.

It was Park who sparkled most, shooting 72-69-67-69 for an 11-under-par 277 to win the $240,000 first prize. Song (66-73-69-70) was second at 278, Webb (68-71-71-69) third at 279 and Wie (69-72-69-71) fourth at 281.

Sorenstam, outspoken about her attempt to become the first woman to win all four majors in a year, shot 285 and tied for 13th with Hee-Won Han and Stacy Prammanasudh.

“If you want it really, really badly, you can do it,” said Park, who has finished in the top three in all three events this season. “And I guess I was the one that wanted this the most.”

It didn’t appear that way early in the final round. Park, playing with Song and Jung Yeon Lee, battled a balky putter and found herself two shots behind Song through eight holes. But Park, 25, rattled off four consecutive birdies on Nos. 9-12 to take her first and final lead of the week.

Song had opportunities to cut into the lead but three-putted No. 16 for a bogey and left a birdie attempt on No. 17 an inch short. Standing on the tee of the 485-yard, par-5 18th hole two shots behind Park, Song knew she needed to do something special. She opted to go for the island green in two and hit a 7-wood from 210 yards to 30 feet. Song, dressed in her Sunday red and black, drained the eagle putt and fired off a series of fist-pumps that would have made Tiger Woods proud.

Park chose the more conservative route on the final hole. With 199 yards remaining from the fairway, Park laid up with a pitching wedge, then again hit pitching wedge, this time to 6 feet of the pin. With uncontrollable nerves, Park drained the putt for the birdie and the victory ending the 72nd hole theatrics.

“My knees, my arms, my whole body was shaking,” Park said. “I guess it’s good because every time I’m like that, I do well. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.”

The excitement didn’t end there. Park received yet another surprise when former President Bush (No. 41) strolled onto the 18th green to present her with the championship trophy. After the awards ceremony, there remained the traditional dive into creek surrounding the green. Park and her caddie David Brooker took off their shoes and sprinted toward the drink, both performing a leaping, abbreviated-type cannonball.

Song watched and wondered what might have been. For Song – the first- and third-round leader – it was her third top 10 finish in a major championship (tie for 10th at 2000 Nabisco as a 13-year-old and fifth place at the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open). She she is now 7-for-7 in cuts made in major championships.

“Finishing anywhere in the top 10 in a major is good but I’ve done that a few times now,” Song said. “I was really looking for a win today. It’s disappointing that it didn’t happen but I don’t think I could have done anymore. I feel like I squeezed out a lot of shots today with the game that I had.”

Wie burst onto the LPGA scene last year as a 13-year-old at the Nabisco playing in the final group on Sunday and eventually ended ninth. This year, Wie again was in contention from start-to-finish and, although she didn’t play in Sunday’s final group, she wowed the gallery with a game that has matured as much as she has over the last year.

“It’s one process to get here,” Wie said. “But it’s a whole different story to get from here to the top. I think right now I’m easily able to get here and into position but I need to work on my game a little bit harder to jump to the next level of getting better, then to winning.”

Oddly, Webb, who has won 29 times including six majors, seemed to get lost in the teen-age shuffle and received the least attention all week. But she putted beautifully – her 111 putts ranked third – which kept her in the hunt all week and a birdie on the final hole moved her into third place.

Park finished the week near the top of the leaders in fairways hit (40 of 56), greens in regulation (53 of 72), driving distance (279.2 yards) and putting (115). If there was a statistic for mental toughness, Park would rank near the top in it as well.

“It was frustrating for her to start slowly in each round,” said Brooker, a 12-year veteran who previously worked with Carin Koch, Mi-Hyun Kim and Charlotta Sorenstam. “In the past, it would have been difficult for her to get over it. But she has grown up a lot and doesn’t get down on herself like she used to.”

It could be said that Park’s perseverance allowed her to turn the Kraft Nabisco Championship into her own personal Graceland.

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