Park's first major exciting to end

Karrie Webb folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the scoring trailer near the practice green at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, weary from a final-round 69 that required seven up-and-downs to save par. She watched on the giant TV screen as Grace Park and Aree Song played the 18th hole of the Dinah Shore Course at Mission Hills CC Sunday knowing a bogey by Park and a birdie by Song would put her in a three-way playoff for the first major championship of the LPGA season. Lorie Kane walked past, slapped backhanded at Webb's shoulder, smiled and said, "Good to have you back," a reference to the strong effort by Webb, who is coming off her worst year as a pro. Then Kane turned and watched as 17-year-old Song rolled in a 30-foot eagle putt followed by Park, 25, knocking in a six-foot birdie to win her first LPGA major championship. "That is the future of our tour right there," Kane said. Indeed it is, and apparently the future is now.

A week that started with talk of a SorenSlam -- Annika's bold admission that she wanted to win all four majors this year -- ended with a Kiddie Jam atop the leader board with two teenagers in the top four (Song and Michelle Wie), a 20-year-old (Christina Kim) and two 22-year-olds (Lorena Ochoa and Candie Kung) in the top eight and 12 of the top 15 under 30. Webb, at the ripe old age of 29, was the oldest player among the top four finishers. And if Sorenstam, who tied for 13th, does pull the trigger on retirement in the next year or two, it is clear there will be a mad scramble for the top spot in women's golf. It also is clear the special exemption LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw gave to Song to allow her to join the tour before her 18th birthday will not be the last he grants, and eventually Wie, 14, will test how low Votaw is willing to go. This much is clear: If Wie, who finished fourth in the Kraft Nabisco, turned professional right now she would have no trouble making a living.

"I keep getting asked if she is overrated," said Park, wrapped in a white robe after the traditional champion's dip in the pond next to the 18th green. "None of it is overrated. She is more than that." Wie closed with a 71 in the final round to finish at seven-under-par 281, four strokes behind Park whose winning birdie gave her a 69 and put her at 11-under-par 277. Song's eagle got her in at 278 and Webb finished third at 279. "Our tour, we have a great group of rookies and other young players," Park said. "It is so exciting. What Michelle is doing is awesome. Michelle, Aree Song, Paula Creamer are making this game more exciting."

Major championship finishes don't get more exciting than this. The final round started with Park and Song tied for the lead at 208, with Jeon Yeon Lee one stroke back and Wie and Webb at 210. Only Lee faltered, closing with a 75. The other four -- Wie and Webb were playing in the group in front of Park and Song -- all broke par in a five-hour showdown that was full of clutch shots and big putts, most impressively by the two teens. How about Song hitting a 7-wood from 210 yards over water to 30 feet on the final hole and then making the eagle? How about Wie making five consecutive par-saving putts of five feet or longer beginning on No. 12? And how about the fact that both were able to draw on their experience in pressure situations because both have played in the final group of the Kraft Nabisco before -- both at the age of 13? That's just what veterans on the LPGA need -- teenagers with experience.

Votaw has made it clear the LPGA will maintain its 18-year-old age limit and that exemptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis. To qualify, a teenager must show the ability to compete and must be able to finance life on the tour. Unspoken, but also clearly considered, is the maturity of the individual. Talk about maturity, listen to this: "Standing in the fairway, I had 210 yards to the hole and I knew I had to make a 3 to have any chance of catching Grace," said Song, sounding like anything but a 17-year-old. "I hit a solid 7-wood up there and it caught the slope and went down near the pin. And that putt was, I just read it perfectly. I just hit it where I wanted to and it just went right in." Give that kid a card. No, wait. She already has one. And how about this for mature?

"I feel kind of drained right now," Wie said. "It's just been four long, hot days, and today I think it was more tiring because every putt I had to make was a par putt and that's a lot harder mentally than a birdie putt. I was tired, but I made a promise to myself today even if nothing works out that I'm still going to fight until the end. And I did." Give that kid a card. No, wait. She hasn't asked -- not yet anyway It is part of the endearing nature of the LPGA that it can start a major championship with a 44-year-old player announcing she is homosexual, end with a 14-year-old stealing the show and in between have a 64-year-old -- JoAnne Carner -- make the cut. The competition began on Thursday, which was one of those rare days when the wind did not roar across the desert and the scores reflected the conditions.

Song, who finished fifth in last year's U.S. Women's Open, once again reminded everyone that Wie is not the only teenager on the scene. Song shot a six-under-par 66 that was good enough for the first-round lead. One stroke back was Ochoa, Catriona Matthew and Rosie Jones, who shot a 67 in her first round despite the attention that came with her announcement. Dottie Pepper joined Webb in finding her lost form and both posted 68s. Wie was three back after a 69. Sorenstam hit only seven of 14 fairways but still managed to shoot a 71.

The wind that gusted to 35 mph on Friday had Sorenstam once again scrambling and this time her putter couldn't save her as she used 35 strokes on the greens to shoot a 76 that dropped her nine strokes off the halfway lead shared by Pepper and Jung Yeon Lee at 138. Webb, Song and Wendy Doolan were at 139. Jones was at 140 with Wie, Park and Mi-Hyun Kim at 141. Wie, who got blown off the leaderboard with a 77 on a windy Sunday a week earlier at the Safeway International, showed a sharp learning curve, shooting a 72 in difficult conditions.

Saturday's third round was played in breezy but calmer conditions, and Park once again proved she is one of the most explosive players on tour, shooting a 67 to tie for the 54-hole lead. Sorenstam, with a 69, trailed by eight shots on the very compelling leader board.

Wie started the final round with a birdie on No. 1, knocking her approach to nine feet. Webb responded with a birdie on the second hole, chipping to two feet on the par 5, then the two players matched seven consecutive pars to close a tense front nine tied at seven under par.

Meanwhile, in the group behind, Park made a three-putt bogey on No. 3 to join Wie and Webb at seven under. Song seemed to take control of the tournament with birdies on Nos. 2 and 9 to head to the back with a two-stroke lead over Park, who also made a birdie on No. 9, at 10 under par. But Park opened the back nine with three consecutive birdies -- a 15-footer, a two-putt birdie from 30 feet and a six-footer. The key hole, however, was a one-putt bogey on No. 15. Park drove into the right rough, hit a tree with the next shot, chunked her third shot 15 yards short of the green and then made an up-and-down to save a 5.

"I knew I had to get it up and down," Park said, nodding her headed defiantly. "I had to."

That pretty much summed up the attitude of Song, Webb and Wie as well as Park. The faces of all four were clearly etched with exhaustion from a day in which the shotmaking did not always come easy. Park hit only seven fairways and 12 greens and still shot a 69. Webb was a magician with her wedge and required only 24 putts in the final round. Song missed nine greens but saved seven pars.

But no one's resolve was more tested than Wie's and the improvement in her short game is staggering. Last year, playing in the final group of the Kraft Nabisco with Sorenstam and eventual winner Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, Wie had a 15-foot eagle putt on No. 11 that would have moved her within a stroke of the lead. She left it five feet short, missed the next putt, pouted like the teenager she is and three-putted four of the next five greens. This year, she made a seven-footer for a birdie on No. 11 and then saved pars with putts ranging from five to eight feet on the next five holes.

"She has learned not to make careless bogeys," said Wie's coach, Gary Gilchrist. "She's learned how to grind to save pars." Gilchrist says the improvement in Wie's short putting comes in part from being a year older, in part from a condensed and slightly speeded-up putting routine, and in part from a drill in which he holds her head in place while she putts. "When she is missing those short ones it is because she is moving her head," Gilchrist says. A putting track in her Honolulu home has also helped. "We worked on those seven-footers all winter," said her father, B.J. Wie.

Wie came to No. 18 Sunday at seven under and trailing Park by three strokes. Instead of playing aggressively on the hole -- which had been shortened to 485 yards to lure players into taking a gamble -- Wie was cautious and admitted she was trying to meet her goal of completing 72 holes at eight under and in the top five. Similarly, in try to cement the victory Park had 199 yards to the green for her second shot but, perhaps remembering a couple of her past failures under pressure, decided to play safe with a pitching wedge and then a sand wedge even after Song knocked a 7-wood on the green, wisely saying she felt it was not worth the risk.

"I watched Aree putt," Park explained of what happened once she got to the green, "and I watched it go into the hole, and I knew I really had to make my six-footer. My knees, my arms, my whole body was shaking. I didn't know if I could start the club."

But this time Park was more than a match for the pressure of the moment. Her putt was true, providing a victory she had fantasized about since she was 16 years old. "I've been dreaming about that jump [into the pond] ever since I got my first invitation [to the Kraft Nabisco in 1995]," Park said. "I've heard people got sick [from the water]. You know what? It's all worth it. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment."

For Park, the major-championship victory could be the breakthrough she needs to move to the next tier. In four full seasons she has won four times, but never more than once a year -- despite finishing second or third nine times in 2003 -- and never in a major. Last year she was T-3 at the Weetabix Women's British Open -- fighting back from an opening-hole double bogey Sunday -- and lost the McDonald's LPGA Championship in a playoff to Sorenstam after she hit a bad pull-hook with her approach shot on the first extra hole. "I don't remember what it was like out there," she said with a smile after Sunday's victory. "I know that I won, and I am going to enjoy the moment."

Saturday afternoon, a girl of about 10, her long blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail, watched Song putt out on the 18th green and said to no one in particular, "I want to play." Mom gently rested her hand on the girl's shoulder in a soothing gesture and Dad replied, "I know how you feel." The next day the same girl was standing next to the first hole watching the final-round threesomes tee off. Votaw, noticing the girl and being the good marketing man that he is, said: "We should get a photo of her." In a few years he may have to get a tour card for her. Or maybe sooner, for the future of the LPGA, it appears, is now.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine

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