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Meunier-Lebouc Is a Real Major Player

French native outplays Sorenstam on back nine to win Kraft Nabisco Championship by one shot. Wie, 13, finishes in a tie for ninth.

March 31, 2003|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

The way things looked after 12 holes Sunday, the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship was going to end the same way it had the last two years: With world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam hoisting the trophy and taking the traditional plunge in the lake.

That was before Patricia Meunier-Lebouc came along and gave that ending a French twist.

Meunier-Lebouc shot one-over-par 73 in the final round at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, good enough to finish at seven under for the tournament and a stroke in front of Sorenstam, who shot 71. It is the second LPGA Tour victory and first major championship for Meunier-Lebouc, a native of Dijon, France.

Sorenstam was trying to become the first to win three consecutive Nabisco Championships, but bogeyed the 13th and 14th and became runner-up at the tournament for the second time. She was second to Patty Sheehan in 1996.

Meunier-Lebouc, 30, earned $240,000, her largest paycheck, and took over the top spot on the season money list. She also became the first Frenchwoman to win a major since Catherine LaCoste in 1967. More important, she established herself as a rising star on LPGA Tour after wining five times on the European Tour between 1994-2000.

"It's an achievement, I think that's how you call it," Meunier-Lebouc said. "I really work hard and give a lot to be able to be coming here, competing on the LPGA."

Not just competing, but knocking off the tour's all-time leading money winner to do it. Sorenstam began Sunday three shots back and was one back at the turn. She stuffed an eight-iron to within six feet on No. 10 and made the putt to tie, then pulled ahead by a stroke when she made a 12-foot birdie putt at No. 12.

At that point, most expected the unheralded Frenchwoman to wilt from the pressure. Instead it was Sorenstam, who has won four majors, who fell apart. After Meunier-Lebouc made an 18-foot birdie putt at No. 13 to tie, Sorenstam three-putted for bogey to fall one back.

On the next hole, Sorenstam hit a pitching wedge and the ball slammed into the stone wall surrounding the green. She caught an apparent break when the ball bounced backward across the lake in front of the green and came to rest in the thick rough, but she failed to get up and down and made another bogey to fall two behind.

"I felt like I was putting a little pressure on Patricia ... and then unfortunately I made two mistakes at 13 and 14," Sorenstam said. "I've focused and tried until the last putt went in. I give myself a lot of credit for that. However, I wish my game would have been a little better."

Still, Meunier-Lebouc wasn't counting her chicken cordon bleu with a two-shot lead. She was well aware that Sorenstam hadn't won 42 times by giving up on the final three holes. She made routine pars at No. 15, 16 and stood over a birdie putt on 17 when a negative thought flashed into her brain.

"I thought, wow, if I make it, I'm three ahead, and I just -- I would go on 18 the same as Jean [Van de Velde]," Meunier-Lebouc said. "Then I didn't make it, so maybe that was good I didn't make it. I don't know."

Van de Velde, a countryman of Meunier-Lebouc, made one of the most infamous blunders in major championship history when he blew a three-shot lead on the final hole of the 1999 British Open.

Meunier-Lebouc three-putted the 18th for a bogey, but it didn't matter after Sorenstam missed a 20-foot birdie attempt from the back fringe.

"It's a major, playing with Annika, it was quite a lot to end on," Meunier-Lebouc said. "I didn't think about it on the course. If I would think too much about it I would not have won this tournament."

Michelle Wie, the 13-year-old from Hawaii who played in the final group with Meunier-Lebouc and Sorenstam, was done in by a balky putter Sunday. Wie hit 16 greens in regulation Sunday, but needed 38 putts and shot 76. She finished in a tie for ninth, seven shots behind Meunier-Lebouc.

Wie reached the par-five 11th hole in two and had a 15-foot putt for eagle that would have pulled her to within one of the lead. She three-putted for par, then followed with three-putt bogeys on Nos. 12, 14 and 16.

"I had a chance to eagle on No. 11, and I three-putted. That just brought me down," Wie said. "I had a really short eagle putt and I was thinking oh, maybe I can win this tournament."

But it was Meunier-Lebouc who won, and afterward she took the traditional plunge into the lake at the 18th green.

A French dip.

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