2004: LPGA - Lady Grace cloaked in victory

Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Late in the afternoon, I stood near the 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club. The caramel sun was dripping all over the top of the magnificent Santa Rosa Mountains. Grace Park, 11⁄2 hours removed from her first major title, still was wearing the white robe that is reserved for winners of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

At Augusta, the winners get a green jacket. Here, they get a white robe. This is necessary, of course, after the traditional victory leap into the pond at the 18th.

Lady Grace, normally the most stylish dresser on the LPGA Tour, climbed the steps to the clubhouse. Even in this plain robe, she was elegant. Clubhouse patrons burst into spontaneous applause.

Hail to Grace, queen for a day, if not a career.

It seemed to me that the robe made her look like a boxer. All week, the scoreboards and pairings sheets listed her as “Park Gr,” which reminded me of an animal noise. More appropriate would have been Park Grrrrr.

She was so determined to win that nothing would intimidate her: “Get out of my way. Grrrrr.”

Tied for the lead after the third round, Park was asked about winning the next day. “I’m ready,” she answered resolutely. “I’ve been ready. I’ll be ready.”

I guess you could say she was ready. “I’m really craving it,” she said.

These comments reminded me of the conspicuous contrast between men’s and women’s golf. Men usually don’t talk like this. They are seldom so straightforward, so honest about their feelings.

I have become a huge Grace Park fan, not to mention a big fan of women’s golf. This Kraft Nabisco Championship was one of the most dramatic golf tournaments I have ever seen.

Sad but true, women’s golf does not get the respect it deserves. On the same day that the best female golfers in the world played a major championship for a winner’s check of $240,000, Adam Scott won $1.44 million at the Players Championship.

The purse at the Kraft Nabisco was $1.6 million. At the Players Championship, it was $8 million. Does this mean that men’s golf is five times as good? Or five times as interesting or compelling?

No way. In fact, if Tiger Woods is not in contention, golf’s most prominent television broadcasters hardly know what to do with themselves. So they talk about Tiger anyway.

LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw wasn’t about to take on men’s golf, so he danced around the issue by saying, “We don’t necessarily compare ourselves, or feel the need to have benchmarks against the men. We have benchmarks against our own goals and objectives. We’re not only meeting those, but exceeding them in terms of fan growth, viewership, prize money and interest in the sport.”

The talent in women’s golf is phenomenal. What’s more, a revolution is occurring in the way women play the game. It is truly an international game (eight of the top 12 finishers at the Kraft Nabisco were born outside the United States). It is a power game (Annika Sorenstam averaged 290.2 yards off the tee while hitting 75 percent of the fairways). It is a youth game (two of the top four finishers at the Kraft Nabisco were teen-agers).

“I don’t think the average golf fan recognizes how well these women play,” said Terry Wilcox, tournament director for the Kraft Nabisco.

Wilcox deserves praise for inviting young amateurs to play in the event. He has taken his share of criticism, but hasn’t backed down. As a result, Aree Song and Michelle Wie first played in this major championship when they were 13. Lady Grace made her debut at 16.

“I’ve been dreaming of that jump (into the pond) ever since my first invitation,” Park said. “You can’t imagine how important that (invitation) was to me.”

As much as I admire Park, I have to offer some friendly criticism: Get a life on the greens. Her putting routine is ponderous. She takes forever to putt. She plays quickly in every other phase of her game, but her putting is poetry in slow motion. A spectator could take a nap between the time she starts this little ceremony and the time she actually strokes the putt.

As part of her preshot routine, Park and her caddie survey the putt. Then she stands over the ball with the caddie behind her. In effect, they rehearse aiming the putter. Then they rehearse the stroke.

While all this is done, a coin still marks the ball. Finally she picks up the marker. Then she stands behind the ball and looks once again at the putt. Finally she addresses the putt.

In the final round, she took more than one minute on several putts. Her threesome fell more than a hole behind the group in front.

What’s with all this caddie interaction on the LPGA? I’m a loyal supporter of caddies, but I firmly believe the caddie should be an adviser and not an aimer. LPGA caddies line up everything from drives to putts. Maybe they should get half the winnings.

What happened to self reliance on the golf course? What happened to the concept that the golfer is responsible for proper alignment?

Anyway, Park won this tournament with consistent play. She hit 71.4 percent of the fairways and 73.6 percent of the greens. She averaged 28.75 putts per round.

If you ask me which hole was most important, I would choose 15 during the final round. Park pushed her drive into the trees, then hit a tree with her second shot, the ball ricocheting farther right. She chunked her next one and came up 10 yards short of the green. She faced a tricky pitch shot.

She got up-and-down for bogey, allowing her to maintain a one-stroke lead over Song. A double bogey would have been devastating.

“Yes, I chunked it,” she admitted, “but I put it behind me. I’m pretty good at that.”

That and many other things. Lady Grace, wearing sparkling jewelry in her hair, shot 33 on her last nine holes. She is the real deal, and she has the white robe to prove it.

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