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Park Gets a Fair Shake

Trembling on the final hole, she makes a six-foot birdie putt to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship, her first major title.

March 29, 2004|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Had Grace Park felt calm, she might have been worried, but she didn't have that problem Sunday when she faced a six-foot putt to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Her hands were shaking so much that she nearly froze over the putt on the final hole at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. But with a racing heart and shaking knees, she pulled the trigger and made a birdie putt.

It capped a final-round, three-under 69, gave her a four-day total of 11-under 277 and clinched a one-shot victory over playing partner Aree Song, who moments earlier had made an unlikely eagle on the hole that temporarily tied her for the lead.

"My whole body was shaking," Park said. "I guess it's good, because every time I'm like that, I do well. And I don't get nervous that often."

Moments earlier, the six-foot putt had seemed a mere formality en route to Park's coronation as the LPGA Tour's next big star. But Song reached the par-five 18th in two shots and made a 30-foot putt for the only eagle of the tournament.

With the crowd cheering wildly and Song pumping her fists in excitement, Park sized up the situation.

"I knew that I really, really had to make my six-footer," Park said.

She did, winning her first major championship. Park has been on the LPGA Tour for four years with a victory in each year, but after 19 top-10 finishes last season and a third-place finish on the season money list, she says she is ready to become one of the LPGA Tour's elite.

"I didn't believe in myself in the past," she said. "But after last year's performance, I knew that I can finish in the top on a consistent basis and if I just took it up a notch I could become a top, top player."

Finally winning her first major should help create momentum.

She began the day tied for the lead with Song, but trailed by two after three holes. Consecutive birdies on Nos. 9, 10, 11 and 12 gave Park a two-shot lead. Karrie Webb, playing a group in front of the leaders, made a birdie on the 18th and was one behind Park. Song was still two behind when the final group reached the final hole.

The par-five hole normally plays 531 yards, but Sunday it was only 485 -- a move made to entice players to go for the green in two.

Song and Park hit good drives in the middle of the fairway. Song, facing 210 yards to the island green, chose to go for it. She hit a seven-wood to the middle of the green; the ball bounced to the back and then caught a hill in the green and rolled back toward the pin and stopped 30 feet away, setting up the dramatic eagle.

Park had 199 yards to the flag, but laid up with a pitching wedge.

"I looked at my caddie and he was like, 'It's not worth it,' " Park said. "It's got to be a solid four-iron. If I miss it a little, it's in the water. It's not a good risk to take."

She hit a sand-wedge third shot from 80 yards to within six feet.

"I did expect her to make it," Song said. "I really wasn't disappointed when it went in, because I don't think I could have done any more. I felt like I squeezed a lot out of my shots."

Webb finished third at nine under, and 14-year-old Michelle Wie was two strokes back in fourth. Wie tied the record for lowest finish by an amateur in the 33-year history of the tournament. She wasn't at her sharpest in her final-round 71, hitting only five of 14 fairways and 10 greens in regulation, but saved her round with only 26 putts.

"I think my game has to go to another level," Wie said. "It's one process to get [in contention], but it's a whole different story to get to the top. I think right now I'm easily able to get there and into position, but I need to work on my game a little bit harder to jump to the next level of getting better and then to winning."

For Park, the victory Sunday represented that jump. Making the six-foot putt made her a major champion and allowed her to fulfill a dream of taking the traditional dip in the pond surrounding the 18th green, but those were fringe benefits, she said.

"Standing over a six-footer on the 18th hole, you don't think about what tournament it is," Park said. "It's about making the putt, it's about winning a tournament and it's about becoming a champion. It's like I'm nervous because I want to win. This one just happened to be a major championship."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

TOP FINISHERS

LPGA Nabisco Championship at Rancho Mirage, Par 72

Grace Park...72-69-67-69 277 -11

Aree Song...66-73-69-70 278 -10

Karrie Webb...68-71-71-69 279 -9

Michelle Wie...69-72-69-71 281 -7

Complete scores...D14

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