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Force Majeure Patricia Meunier-Lebouc of France outshone golf's best woman and most promising prodigy to win her first major

April 08, 2003
April 08, 2003

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April 8, 2003

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Force Majeure Patricia Meunier-Lebouc of France outshone golf's best woman and most promising prodigy to win her first major

The LPGA is torrid. You've got the commissioner, Ty Votaw, dating
a player, Sophie Gustafson. Hot! You've got the tour's best
player, Annika Sorenstam, getting ready to go up against the boys
at a PGA Tour stop. Right on! You've got a Frenchwoman, the long,
lean and animated Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, matching the
dominating Swede shot for shot for four rounds last week and
loving it. Magnifique! You've got a 13-year-old eighth-grader
from Hawaii, Michelle Wie, playing in Sunday's final group, looking chill and crushing drives. So bling!

This is an article from the April 8, 2003 issue

It was high living last week when the touring women gathered at
the Dinah Shore course at the Mission Hills Country Club in
Rancho Mirage, Calif., for the first major of 2003. Cloudless
skies in the desert, 82° for your daytime high, flagsticks
getting knocked down by seven-wood shots. The good life.

Talk of a Honolulu schoolgirl golfer might seem irrelevant with
everything else that's going on in the world, but the golf last
week was uplifting. The fairways at the Kraft Nabisco
Championship were dotted with affluent retirees and thousands of
women, more than a few of them walking hand in hand. The whole
scene made a silent statement about what is possible in America:
the right to choose one's life partner, to accumulate wealth, to
build verdant golf courses smack-dab in the middle of sandy
wastelands.

Wie, an endorsement-free amateur, packed a Scotty Cameron putter,
four wedges, forged Titleist blades, a Big Bertha three-wood and
a TaylorMade driver with a gargantuan head. She used them all
well, especially the big stick. A well-muscled six-footer, Wie
consistently hit drives of more than 280 yards and led the
tournament with a 286.3 average. The 6,520-yard, par-72 course
was too short for her. She hit nothing but nine-irons and wedges
into the par-4s. On Saturday she shot a flawless six-under-par
66, matching the lowest round of the week. The day before, Wie
had become the youngest player--at 13 years and five months--to
make the cut in an LPGA event. She is 17 weeks younger than Aree
Wongluekiet Song was at the 2000 Nabisco, when Song, too, played
in the final day's final threesome. (Now 16 and still an amateur,
Song shot 293, tying for 21st.)

Wie made the ancient, arduous Scottish game look easy. With her
exuberant father, B.J., a University of Hawaii transportation
professor, caddying for her, Wie hit tee shots that were
sometimes 50 yards longer than those of her playing partners. She
has an upright swing out of the New Age textbook, and she's been
well-schooled by B.J., who's a good golfer; her mother, Bo, a
Honolulu real estate agent and onetime Korean women's amateur
champion; and Gary Gilchrist of the David Leadbetter Golf Academy
in Bradenton, Fla., who advises Wie, mostly over the Internet.
Wie holds the club beautifully, using a completely neutral grip
much like that of her golfing hero, Tiger Woods. She wants to go
to Stanford, where Woods went. It's an excellent university, says
Wie--who's currently taking honors everything at Punahou School in
Honolulu--and Palo Alto has one more thing going for it. "A really
good shopping mall," she said, smiling through her braces.

With her height and radiance, her surfer shorts and sleeveless
shirts, her hang-ten demeanor and spectacular talent, Wie has a
chance to turn the women's game upside down. But that's not her
immediate goal. School first-four years of high school, followed
by four years of college. Excellent plan, the old pros told her
last week. They're in no hurry to have her join them.

On Saturday, Wie played with Leta Lindley, a seven-year tour
veteran whose husband, former University of Arizona golfer Matt
Plagmann, caddies for her. "Michelle Wie hits it better than any
golfer out here," he said of the 13-year-old prodigy. Including
even Sorenstam, who catches almost every shot flush. On the 11th
hole on Sunday, Wie had a 15-foot eagle putt that would have
gotten her to six under and one shot back. But she missed that
and the next one and never recovered from the par, making four
bogeys and finishing with a 76, even par for the tournament and
in a tie for ninth place. If she were a pro, she would have made
$35,000. Someday there will be millions for her. For now there's
eighth grade.

In May, Sorenstam will play in the Colonial, the first woman to
compete in a PGA Tour event in 58 years. If she makes the cut on
the 7,080-yard course, it will be an immense accomplishment.
Years from now, when Wie is playing men's events, it will be with
different expectations. Her ultimate plan, stated diplomatically
last week, is to play both the LPGA and the PGA tours. Her more
immediate goal is to make the Masters. The winner and the
runner-up of the U.S. Amateur--an event open to men and women--are
invited to Augusta. Wie could get to the final of a U.S. Amateur
sometime in the next decade. Why not?

Sorenstam isn't bound by conventional thinking either. Last week
she had an old-school pom-pom headcover, in Swedish blue and
yellow, on her seven-wood. On it was stitched a number, and a
goal: 54-as in, make a birdie on every hole, shoot 54. And though
she's merely 32, she has committed to playing full-time
tournament golf for only two more years. She's won 42 LPGA events
but just four majors--her principal deficiency, as she measures
things.

On Sunday morning, as Sorenstam teed off in the last group at
9:35 a.m., one player was above her on the leader board:
Meunier-Lebouc, at eight under. Sorenstam stood three behind her,
Wie one back of that. A United Nations threesome. "If Patricia's
hungry for the win, I'm starving," said Sorenstam, who had played
with the Dijon native on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Meunier-Lebouc finished 28th on the 2002 money list and has won
only once on the LPGA tour, at last year's State Farm Classic.
She and Sorenstam are friends but couldn't be more different.
Meunier-Lebouc is exuberant and talks incessantly. Sorenstam is
private by nature and relatively quiet. While striding down the
fairways with her perfect posture, Meunier-Lebouc posed questions
to Sorenstam in exquisite English. Sorenstam would respond in
incomplete French, hoping to limit the chitchat. It didn't work.
Only a 6 by Meunier-Lebouc on the par-4 3rd quieted the
Frenchwoman, leaving her feeling, to use her lovely word, "shy."
She was playing in a major against the best woman golfer in the
world, and after three holes her advantage had dropped to a
single stroke.

Sorenstam went up by one after birdieing the par-4 12th. At such
moments Tiger Woods raises his cleated foot and steps on the
throats of his opponents. Sorenstam has no similar move. She
missed a three-footer on the par-4 13th and bogeyed, and she
misclubbed on the short par-3 14th, another bogey. Meunier-Lebouc
made a birdie on 13 and a par on 14, and by the time she reached
the 17th green she faced a 20-foot birdie putt for a three-shot
lead.

At that moment another French golfer dashed through her mind. In
1999, at the British Open at Carnoustie, the inimitable Jean Van
de Velde came to the 72nd hole with a three-shot lead. He made a
stylish 7 on the par-4, then lost in a three-way playoff. "I
thought, If I make this putt, I'm three ahead, the same as Jean,"
Meunier-Lebouc said. "Then I didn't make it. Maybe that was good."

Nursing her two-shot lead, Meunier-Lebouc hit a five-wood off the
tee on the par-5 18th-no style points but a smart play--then
three--putted for bogey and closed with a 73 for 281, seven under
par and one better than the best woman golfer in the world.
Sorenstam has played twice this year. She has a third and a
second. On Sunday she had a chance to win a fifth major, a chance
to win Nabisco for the third consecutive time, but did not.
Still, Sorenstam and only Sorenstam has four majors left this
year. Colonial, in late May, is a bonus major for her, and she
doesn't have to be victorious to win.

On the Golf Channel on Sunday night there were images of Patricia
Meunier-Lebouc staring down Annika Sorenstam. On CNN there were
soldiers staring down gun barrels. "When I see the war on TV, I
feel uncomfortable, because I hate war, like everybody does,"
said Meunier-Lebouc. She and her husband, former European tour
player Antoine Lebouc, have a house in Jupiter, Fla., but Dijon
will always be home. On the course, trying to find her way to
victory, she recalled her 30th birthday party, which she
celebrated in France in November. "I was thinking about all my
family, about all my friends, and from the 13th hole on I was
thinking about all the joy I had there with them then. And that's
exactly what I wanted to feel on the course, that joy. I took
that energy, and it helped me." Helped others, too. On Sunday,
with her win and her exuberance, the French golfer spread joy
wide and far.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK BIG SPLASH Eighth-grader Wie (left) was in the hunt on Sunday,but it was Meunier-Lebouc who took the victory dunk, along withher husband, Antoine.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK FUTURE SHOCK Michelle's massive tee shots--she averaged 286.2 yards to lead the field--are a sign of things to come.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK STRONG FINISH Meunier-Lebouc thought about Van de Velde down the stretch but avoided her countryman's major collapse.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK NOT THIS TIME There were too few celebratory moments on the greens for Sorenstam to achieve the Nabisco three-peat.