Fight to the Finish

In the lead, final round, major championship, with competitors breathing down her neck, Suzann Pettersen had failed before. This time she came through like a champion
June 17, 2007

Many of theelements contributing to Suzann Pettersen's first major championship win werein place long ago. Others were only recently added--some very recently. Forexample, Pettersen started working with Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson, AnnikaSorenstam's longtime mental coaches, seven months ago. Not long after,Pettersen added a new swing coach, Gary Gilchrist, who used to work withMichelle Wie. And with the new year came a new caddie, James Walton. However,the putter Pettersen used to win last week's McDonald's LPGA Championship atBulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Md., came into her possession only two daysbefore the start of the tournament. The Ping Doc 15 ("big enough to brandcattle with," says Walton) had belonged to Tom Elliott, Pettersen's pro-ampartner. And lastly, that odd, yet vaguely familiar victory gyration on the18th green? That was added right before the final round, after Pettersen, a26-year-old from Norway, had watched Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in thefinal of the French Open. "You know how Nadal does that thing when hewins?" said Pettersen, shaking her arms above her head. "I practicedthat on the range before I teed off."

In other wordsPettersen was fairly confident even though she began the round a stroke behind18-year-old Na On Min, a rookie from South Korea who had emerged from obscuritywith a stunning seven-under 65 the day before. Pettersen went out and played anearly perfect round, shooting a bogey-free five-under-par 67, taking the leadwith a birdie on the 8th hole and hanging on the rest of the way in the face oflate charges by Min and 33-year-old Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, who was playingin the group ahead. "She was in control," Walton said of Pettersen."She made the right shots at the right time, and she never got too high ortoo low. That's great for Suzann, because she is quite an emotionalgirl."

Before this yearPettersen was better known for dropping an expletive into a live TV interviewat the 2001 Solheim Cup than for her considerable talent. In 2004 she missedfive events because of elbow surgery, and a year later she suffered a ruptureddisk in her lower back that put her out of action for eight months. Before thisyear she had never finished better than third in an LPGA event. Pettersen had agreat chance to get her first win this spring at the Kraft NabiscoChampionship, but she blew a four-shot lead over the last five holes and leftRancho Mirage in tears.

Though the losswas portrayed as a collapse, Pettersen didn't see it that way. "I looked atit as, What can I do differently when I get to the next tournament and I'm inthe same situation?" she says. To that end Marriott and Nilsson, who own acoaching business named Vision54 (as in, think birdie every hole), analyzed atape of Pettersen from Rancho Mirage and pointed out certain mannerisms on theshots that didn't turn out the way she had planned. Was she unsure of herselfon the shot where she stood over the ball two seconds longer than usual? Didshe react to that bad shot, then let it go, or did she carry it with her?"[The analysis] was very detailed," says Pettersen. "You don't tryto find the weakness. You try to find your strengths and use them as often asyou possibly can."

Six weeks afterthe Kraft Nabisco, Pettersen won for the first time, defeating Jee Young Lee ina three-hole playoff at the Michelob Ultra Open, and by Sunday at Bulle Rockthe Kraft gaffe was so far behind Pettersen that it never crossed her mind asthe competition tightened on the final holes. "I felt different," shesaid. "I wasn't even close to being in the emotions that I was in backthen."

Pettersen was notthe only one in the final group showing steely resolve. In trying to become theyoungest player to win an LPGA major, Min, who has been playing the game foronly six years and was making just her sixth start as a pro, showed remarkablefocus and poise. Before her eye-opening round last Saturday, Min was unknown tomost of the other players. Morgan Pressel, who won the Kraft and came in 14that Bulle Rock, admitted that she didn't recognize Min's name when it popped upon the leader board. Se Ri Pak, Min's childhood idol, said she met the slightteenager for the first time two weeks ago at the Ginn Tribute. "She isdoing so great, trying so hard to speak English," said Pak, who officiallyqualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame last week. "She's doing much better atthat than I did as a rookie. I'm proud of her, and I'm rooting forher."

On Sunday, Minstruggled on the front nine, making three bogeys to fall two shots behindPettersen at the turn. Min rallied coming home, making four straight birdiesstarting at 13 to get back within striking distance. Webb, who began the daytwo strokes off the lead, kept the pressure on as well and was the crowdfavorite. As Pettersen was lining up a birdie putt on 16, a roar rose from the17th green, where Webb had just birdied. Pettersen missed her putt, sank to oneknee and watched her playing partner, Min, make hers. Suddenly Min and Webbwere within a stroke.

But Pettersennever faltered. On the par-3 17th she stuck her tee shot 15 feet behind thehole. As the crowd anxiously waited, she took her time looking over the putt."The line looked as if it wasn't going to break too much, but I went withmy instinct, and it was just perfect," she said.

When the balldropped, Pettersen made like Tiger Woods, her fist pump igniting the crowd, butshe wasn't home free yet. After she teed off on 18, another blast from thecrowd signaled another birdie for Webb. The Australian was still within one."In the back of my mind, I knew what had happened to her at the Kraft and Iknew I needed to keep putting pressure on her," said Webb, who lost lastyear's LPGA Championship to Pak in a playoff. "I knew that if I stayedpretty close, I'd have a chance. She obviously executed very well coming downthe stretch, and she should be very proud of herself. It shows a lot of courageand guts and trust in her ability."

When Pettersen hitthe fairway on 18, she felt relief. "Then I knew I could do it," shesaid afterward. After two-putting for par, the win and a $300,000 check thatput her over $1 million for the year, it was time to break out her bestNadal.

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PHOTOTodd Bigelow/Aurora UPSWING
Pettersen is fourth in the world rankings--and climbing.
PHOTOTodd Bigelow/Aurora MIXEDBAG
Wie played all 72 holes, but finished dead last.
PHOTOTodd Bigelow/Aurora NA ONWHO?
In only her sixth pro start, Min played to the max.