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New Champ Can Certainly Talk the Talk

March 31, 2003|THOMAS BONK

First, pronounce her name correctly. Le bouk. You know, one of those things on the shelf in the library. She is Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, from Dijon, France, and she laid it on pretty thick Sunday at Mission Hills.

Until she stood up to Annika Sorenstam and beat her by a shot down the stretch in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, there wasn't much to the book on Meunier-Lebouc.

In fact, her most remarkable aspects were a bucket hat, a ponytail, oval shades the size of saucers and an uncanny ability to express herself in as many words as possible.

Nobody has put a word quota out there yet, so maybe Meunier-Lebouc is just taking advantage of the rules. But her speaking ability, well, it's fairly impressive, more stream of consciousness than filibuster, with entertainment value as well.

Meunier-Lebouc says she enjoys any interaction with the gallery and she always tries to be nice to the fans because that's part of her job. She isn't here just to hit the ball, she says.

No, she's also here to talk. Clearly, Meunier-Lebouc has a few things on her mind and doesn't mind sharing them.

Last week at Phoenix, she had an 850-word response to a question. This week, Meunier-Lebouc talked so long that Michelle Wie turned 14 during the news conferences.

The way the 30-year-old Meunier-Lebouc handled herself on the course spoke volumes about what wins out there. She needed only 112 putts, fewer than anyone in the field except for Catrin Nilsmark, who finished 10 shots back.

Maybe she hasn't exactly been a household name on the LPGA Tour, but Meunier-Lebouc is hardly unknown in Europe, where she has won five times. Last year, her second on the LPGA Tour, Meunier-Lebouc won the State Farm Classic and was fourth at the Tour Championship.

So she deserves rising-star status, even if it's sort of late to arrive. In any event, you have to say that Meunier-Lebouc has at least a portion of the star scene working for her.

Her entourage is strictly big-time. Meunier-Lebouc has a golf coach, a mental coach, a woman for a caddie and a husband for a companion as she plays the tour.

If there is an increasing upside to Meunier-Lebouc, the downside for Sorenstam isn't as slippery as some are probably going to speculate. She showed up at Rancho Mirage to defend her title sort of early in her season, since she started just the week before at Phoenix.

Add up 11 bogeys the last three days and it's easy to say Sorenstam just isn't there yet, even though a third place at Phoenix and a second place at Mission Hills indicate that even when she's not quite all here, whatever she has is still almost good enough to win.

In her last five majors, Sorenstam has a victory, a third, a missed the cut at the British Open, a second and a second again.

In her only other majors that she played before this one, Meunier-Lebouc's best finish was 24th at last year's British Open.

Anyone who expected that she would be the one to hit the water Sunday and take the ritual victory plunge should probably play the lottery more often. Antoine Lebouc picked up his wife and jumped in, along with caddie Jo Berry.

There was no way she was going in alone, said Meunier-Lebouc, because they are a team and wanted to share the feeling.

When she won the State Farm last September, Meunier-Lebouc began with a 64 and closed with a 67. Someone told her during the last round that she seemed so cool. She said that was true, but that she also was even more relaxed in her body.

It's a good relaxation location and it seems to work for Meunier-Lebouc. She and Antoine live in Jupiter, Fla., and they're happy to have established a base after spending a couple of months with paperwork.

After she accepted the trophy, the winner allowed herself a few moments of reflection to think about the moment and to remember how she kept herself together.

She had quite a start, chipping in to eagle the second hole, then hitting her drive out of bounds at the third hole.

Meunier-Lebouc thought to herself, well, OK, you've done the best and the worst on back-to-back shots, what are you going to do?

What she did was recall her 30th birthday party back in France. It relaxed her. She thought if it was going to be her day, then she would let it happen.

More than an hour after her last putt dropped into the hole at the island green at the 18th, Meunier-Lebouc still was having trouble realizing the weight of what she had done.

Maybe that's only natural. When they study the results of the LPGA's first major of 2003, will it be seen as a fluke victory by a largely unknown Frenchwoman when a third consecutive victory by the top player in the world would have been a better result?

If that's the analysis, then so be it.

You can just hear Meunier-Lebouc saying it now.

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