Saturdays rarely define a golf tournament let alone herald a new
era, but history will show that the third round of the Kraft
Nabisco Championship was the first time that Grace Park, 25, and
Michelle Wie, 14, teed it up together. Their age difference is
about two years more than the spread between Nicklaus and Watson,
but together these telegenic, charismatic stars have a chance to
define the future of women's golf in the same way those two giants
lifted the men's game. Park is as pretty as a porcelain doll, while
Wie has the long-limbed grace of a gazelle, but both play a brand
of smashmouth golf that could propel the LPGA into the big time.
During the third round of the season's first major championship,
the stage belonged to Park and Wie, and they did not disappoint.
The game's resident superstar, Annika Sorenstam, arrived at
Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., talking about
retirement and her commitment to a downsized schedule. The one
thing she has left to play for--the Grand Slam--went up in flames
with a stunning second-round 76, and last Saturday she was out of
sight and out of mind. In Sorenstam's conspicuous absence Park shot
the low round of the day, 67, to tie for the lead. She is a greedy
birdie-maker, and her round featured four consecutive birds
beginning on the 7th hole, the kind of burst that has become one of
her trademarks. Said Wie, "She hits the ball super hard, and it
was, I don't know how to explain it, but to see how she played, I
learned a lot."
Wie warmed to the chase with a bogeyless 69. No one on the LPGA
can overwhelm a course as she can, and on Saturday the ninth-grader
from Hawaii averaged 301 yards a drive (while hitting 12 of 14
fairways) and did not need more than an eight-iron into any par-4.
But equally dazzling was her drastically upgraded short game and
palpable poise and resolve. "She is incredible," Park said. "People
ask me all the time if she is overrated. Now, having played with
her, I can say that nothing about her is overrated."
The major difference between these two players--experience--was
evident on Sunday. Park has been hardened by years of winning. She
was a two-time American Junior Golf Association player of the year,
and in 1998 she won the U.S. Women's Amateur and led Arizona State
to the national championship. She has won a tournament in each of
her four previous years on the LPGA tour. Last season she raised
her game, racking up 19 top 10s in 26 starts and finishing third on
the money list. All that was missing on her impressive résumé was a
major championship. "I'm really craving it," Park said following
Saturday's round. "I'm definitely ready. I crave winning one more
April 5, 2004
On the 1st hole on Sunday it looked as if it might be Wie who
would run away with it. She bombed a drive and then stuck a wedge
to gimme-birdie distance. But on the 504-yard, par-5 2nd--"an easy
birdie hole," according to Wie--she drove into the right rough,
hacked out of a nasty lie, then spun her third shot, a 60-degree
wedge, off the front of the green. With a deft chip Wie saved par,
but she seemed spooked by having made a mess of her best scoring
chance. "That was the turning point for me," she said. "From there
it changed from trying to make birdie to keep on making pars. It
was a little shaky." She parred out on the rest of the front nine,
repeatedly missing birdie chances on the low side. "Too
conservative," she said of her putting.
Park, meanwhile, did not panic after an early bogey. She knew that
on a day of perfect conditions the key was to keep attacking. Two
off the lead of her playing partner, Aree Song, on the 9th hole,
Park tore off four birdies in a row. At the end of her burst, Park
led Song by two and Wie by four. With the championship slipping
away, Wie ground out seven pars in a row to finish with a one-under
71, in fourth place.
With Wie out of the picture, the tournament was decided on the
final hole by the last group, in which Song remained two down to
Park. A 17-year-old Rookie, the 5'4" Song is a phenom in her own
right, but is at peace with being overshadowed by her flashier
fellow teenybopper. "I like to keep it nice and quiet," Song says.
"It's nice that no one pays attention. I'm allowed to go out and
have fun and stay under the radar."
On 18, a par-5 that was playing 485 yards on Sunday, Song busted a
perfect drive, leaving her 210 yards to a green surrounded by
water. Knowing that she needed an eagle, Song ripped a seven-wood
to within 30 feet. Park went the David Toms route, choosing to lay
up, then stiffing a wedge to six feet. Song showed no fear on her
putt, pouring it into the cup for her 3 and loosing a series of
uncharacteristic fist pumps. Tie ball game, for the moment.
Back in Scottsdale, Ariz., Park's instructor, Peter Kostis, who
doubles as a CBS announcer, was monitoring the telecast. When they
began working together two years ago, Park, says Kostis, "had a bad
grip, bad posture, and she aimed way left on everything." She also
had a reputation for coasting on her prodigious talent. Kostis's
hectoring helped turn Park into a range rat, and her refined
technique is reliable enough to have produced 12 consecutive top
10s coming into the Kraft Nabisco. With Park facing the most
important putt of her career, Kostis studied her with a trained
eye. "While Aree was getting ready to putt, I could see Grace
walking around the green, looking at her putt from 100 different
angles," Kostis said when reached by phone. "The pace of her steps
was very fast, and I was concerned. But when it came time to putt,
she went through her routine perfectly."
Staring down the barrel of her six-footer, Park says, "my knees,
my arms, my whole body was shaking. I didn't know if I could start
the club." She did, and there was never a doubt. "I don't think
I'll ever forget that moment," said Park, who finished an 11-under
277. "I guess I was the one who wanted this the most."
Now that she has it, Park has her sights on a grander ambition:
usurping Sorenstam as the game's top-ranked player. "I've been
Number 1 at the junior level, I've been Number 1 in college," she
says. "My next thing is to become the Number 1 pro."
She had better hurry because Wie is coming on strong. Over
Thanksgiving her coach, Gary Gilchrist, and his boss, David
Leadbetter, remade Wie's swing. Her backswing is shorter, and a
narrower stance has quieted her head and upper body. The changes
have increased her consistency without robbing her of length. Says
Gilchrist, "It's like if you take a sledgehammer back too far, you
can lose control. All we've done is harness that awesome power."
It is Wie's upgraded play around the greens that has made her a
more dangerous player. The improvement has come through
old-fashioned hard work and a few tips gleaned during her cameo on
the PGA Tour's Sony Open in January. During the first round of the
Nabisco, Wie hit only five fairways but still shot 69, thanks to
creative wedge play and a mere 26 putts. "The biggest difference in
my game is that I can hit it right or left or in the trees, and I
still save par," she says. "Before, those were bogeys."
Though Wie's fourth was her second top 10 in only 12 LPGA starts,
she hardly sounded satisfied afterward. Most 14-year-old girls
obsess about their hair. Wie is concerned only with making history.
"My game has to go to another level," she said. "It's one process
to get [into contention], but it's a different story to get from
there to the top."
For inspiration, and instruction, Wie can always look to her
Saturday playing partner. Wie's time will come, and soon, but it's
nice to know that we'll have Park to enjoy in the meantime.
"Now, having played with her, I can say that NOTHING ABOUT HER IS
OVERRATED," Park said of the 14-year-old Wie.