HARVE DE GRACE, Md. - The little underdog took her practice swings between a seven-time majors champion and a three-time Solheim Cup player. A few feet away, watching her hit and consult her caddie, stood a six-time men's major championship winner, arguably the best European golfer of his generation.
Intimidating enough for you? Imagine a first-year art student trying to paint in between Picasso and Rembrandt and you get an idea of what Na On Min went through in the final round of the LPGA Championship today.
Think it's coincidence that Karrie Webb (already in the LPGA's Hall of Fame, with 35 wins, including those seven majors) and eventual champion Suzann Pettersen (four top-10s this season, that Solheim experience and personal knowledge of major nerves coming in) chose to sandwich On Min on a wide-open range as they all awaited their tee times? Nick Faldo knew better.
He stood back, chuckling a little as golf's version of a stare down began.
"No one knows how anyone's going to react until they've been in this position," Faldo said. "You don't know how you're going to react yourself. It all depends on the individual, what you're made of, what have you been through in life. How much strength do you have inside?
"So, of course, everyone tries to rattle the unknown a little."
On Min rattled like an old wooden rollercoaster at times, hit her second shot all of four feet, found three straight bogeys soon after. Then she birdied 13, 14, 15 and 16 to move one back of the lead she took into the round. She found the magic of her third-round 65 maybe one hole too late today. On Min would take Pettersen to the final hole, though, finishing third at 12-under. She fought harder, stuck around longer than Faldo or anyone else expected.
Golf eats its underdogs like no other sport. No one other game hinges so much on the mind. The slightest hitch in a swing that's been honed during years and years of practice can turn that big chance into a mammoth nightmare. All that it takes is the slightest doubt in the head.
And everyone else is willing to help put it there for you.
Almost no one roots for the big underdog in golf. If this was college basketball, the nonexempt rookie (On Min) who struggled to even get into tournaments would be the beloved Gonzaga or George Mason of the day, cheered all the way. In golf, fans almost seemed bummed if a Ben Curtis-type wins.
The feeling's even more severe in the clubhouse.
"I think most of the girls pull for their friends if they're not in contention, to be honest with you," 22-year tour vet Laura Davies said. "Or they root against the girls they don't like. That happens a lot. There's a lot of jealously out here."
On Min has few friends on tour. She hasn't been around long enough to introduce herself. She fought for this major all alone.
Both Morgan Pressel and Webb admitted they had never even heard of On Min before her name rocketed up the leader board on Saturday night. They went back to their hotel rooms and did a little research on the 18-year-old without a home and only six pro events on any level on her resume.
No doubt to see if they could find something to kindle some doubts.
When On Min airmailed her first drive of the day deep into a far right bunker, it seemed to be working the way the lions worked on a Roman sacrifice. On Min's second shot of the final round went all of four feet, never left the bunker, a weekend hacker's delight all the way. You and I have hit that shot.
The crowd groan echoed in On Min's ears. One guy shouted, "Well you can forget about her!" Pettersen had to have a twinkle in her sunglass-shielded eyes across the cloudy fairway.
Only, somehow On Min steadied herself. She launched her second shot out of the bunker onto the green, hit a stomach-flipping 16-foot twisting putt to save par. Still golf is cruel. One nerve brush back does not do it. It takes five hours of them, one after the other.
Faldo can tell you it only builds. The British press dubbed him "Nick Foldo" before he learned to control his head and won more majors than either Greg Norman, Steve Ballesteros or Bernhard Langer. It took Faldo nine years between the first time he was the final day leader in a major (1978) and his first major title in 1987.
He still remembers the '83 British Open final day as his true baptism.
"That was the first time I thought I had a real chance to win one," Faldo said. "I did all right early. ... Then I completely blew up on the back nine."
Faldo shrugs. Some craniums are more stubborn than others.
The 19-year-old Pressel is already a master apprentice at the head games. She breezed around the range, all smiles and near struts, letting everyone how much confidence oozed.
"Pressel is one determined girl," Faldo said, a rare wane near-smile crossing his lips. "She reminds me a little of Tiger Woods in her attitude."
You never know though. After Faldo left the range, but even before he went on the air with the Golf Channel, Pressel found bogeys early, and never really was able to mount a challenge.
On Min never held a real chance against the uncertainty. What she called "the best day of my life" - her third round here - is followed the next day by tentative 12 holes of golf to open Round 4. Some dreams are too heavy.
You don't just go from hotel room to hotel room, the type of efficiency hotels a Michelle Wie will never see, living without a home base to winning one of the sweetest trophies in women's golf.
On Min is one of the shortest, slightest players on the tour, and at times today her caddie just seemed to be trying to hold her up.
Everyone else on this cutthroat tour was more than happy to aid a fall, though. Only the little underdog wouldn't.
See you next time, On Min? The driving range of doubts is always open. Then again, maybe next time, after this finish, On Min does her own stare down.
June 10, 2007
Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Anyone looking back at the final scores of the 2009 Ricoh Women's British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's will almost certainly come to the wrong conclusion that this was a comfortable three-shot win for Catriona Matthew. It was anything but as the seemingly imperturbable Scot struggled to hit a fairway throughout the final round and was only rescued by some superb recovery shots and a bunch of astonishing long putts.
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