Publish date:


For four days the NCAA Women's Championship had been a survival
test in blistering heat and desert winds strong enough to whip
up whitecaps on the ponds dotting the Dunes Course at La Quinta
(Calif.) Resort & Club. But in the end, one very cool shot
determined which team would win the title.

The deciding blow was struck by Arizona's Marisa Baena, a
pint-sized freshman from Pereira, Colombia, on the first hole of
a playoff against San Jose State. Baena had already secured the
individual crown by seven strokes. Playing in the second of the
two split fivesomes in sudden death, which started at the
363-yard 18th, Baena figured that a par would not be good enough
because her two teammates in the first group had stumbled. As it
turned out, a birdie would only have kept Arizona even,
extending the playoff. Baena went one better. She holed a
147-yard eight-iron shot for eagle, sending the gallery of about
500 around the green into a celebratory spasm. Ultimately, that
stroke gave the Wildcats their first NCAA title.

"It was the greatest shot I've ever seen under that kind of
pressure," said a jubilant Rick LaRose, the Arizona coach.
"There have been a lot of great golf shots, but under these
circumstances, with a team victory on the line, nothing's bigger."

When asked later about what she was thinking when the ball went
in, Baena, who had done a two-step around the fairway after her
knockout punch, revealed a far more pragmatic reaction. "I
thought, Good, now I don't have to hit again," she said.

Baena's final 73--her 296 total was eight over par--was one of
the best rounds of a long, tiring day for all the players, who
had to contend with wind that blew chairs across tee boxes and
separated coolers from golf carts. To add to the chaos,
inaccurate--sometimes even grossly misleading--leader boards
made it difficult for the players to keep track of who was where
during a tight stretch-run battle among Arizona, San Jose State,
Texas and UCLA. They had to rely on word of mouth.

"Coach told me on the last regulation hole that I needed a
birdie for us to win," Baena said, "but I thought he was joking,
that he just wanted me to make a great finish. I was shocked
when I missed the birdie putt and we really were tied."

For some teams the championship had been lost a hole earlier, at
the 17th, a 378-yard serpent of a par-4 that twists 180 degrees
around a devilish water hazard. The Wildcats escaped without a
bite, but Texas, which finished third, only a stroke out of the
playoff, went down there. The Longhorns had a par, three bogeys
and a double at 17 in the final round, and in the play five,
count four format that led to a three-shot swing with Arizona.
Even worse was the fate that befell Stanford, one of the
pretournament favorites, which went seven over on 17 in the
second round and wound up in fifth, eight strokes out of the

"That hole killed us," said Texas freshman Kelli Kuehne, the
reigning U.S. Women's Amateur champ, who tied for 10th.

What killed UCLA, which came in fourth, three shots behind
Arizona and San Jose State, was not saying yes to Baena a year
ago. Something of a national hero in Colombia, where she
finished second in that country's All-Athlete competition three
times, Baena spent her senior year at Dixie High in St. George,
Utah, as an exchange student. She then decided she wanted to
play for UCLA and placed a call to Bruins coach Jackie Steinmann
to tell her the good news.

"She didn't call me back for a month and a half," says Baena,
still miffed. "When she did, she said she didn't have a place
for me. If they had me, they would have won."

LaRose offered Baena close to a full ride, and the deal was
done. Since arriving in Tucson, Baena has provided a good
return, winning the Pac-10 championship and then the NCAA West
Regional. The NCAA crown makes it three straight wins, and this
week Baena will play in the U.S. Women's Open in Southern Pines,

The drama of Baena's shot and Arizona's victory overshadowed a
gritty performance by San Jose State, another favorite heading
into the championship. The Spartans struggled early and appeared
to be out of contention until they came roaring back with a
tournament-low 300 in the final round despite having hit bottom

Two weeks earlier Mark Gale, who had won three national titles
in 19 years at the school, announced he was retiring from
coaching to spend more time with his family, specifically his
infant granddaughter, Rachel, who was born with a heart defect.
An hour after the first round, Gale abruptly left La Quinta and
drove to a hospital in Loma Linda, Calif., where the baby was
undergoing emergency surgery. Gale missed the second round,
getting back that evening when he informed his players that the
baby had died. "It was a struggle for all of us," said sophomore
Monica Stratton. "We were trying so hard, maybe too hard. "

Arizona State, which won the last three NCAA titles, finished
sixth. The Sun Devils probably would have made a more serious
run had All-America Heather Bowie not transferred to Texas (she
placed 19th) and had her replacement, freshman Jody Niemann,
heeded a flight attendant's warning about opening overhead
compartments. Niemann, who tied for second in the Pac-10
tournament, saved teammate Kellee Booth from being hit by a book
bag that fell out of a compartment on the way home from the
regional. But in the process she tore cartilage in her shoulder
and was knocked out of the NCAAs. Arizona State coach Linda
Vollstedt scrambled to find a replacement, summoning Tui
Selvaratnum, who had already gone home to Sri Lanka for the
summer. "It was a wild end to a wild year," said Vollstedt.

Almost as wild as the finish at La Quinta. San Jose State had
lost the only other playoff in the history of the championship,
in 1991 to UCLA. Gale thought the 25-foot birdie putt that won
that title for the Bruins had been pretty special--until Baena's
shot last Saturday.

"I didn't know my name is Greg Norman," he said.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Wins in her last three starts made Baena the hottest player going into this week's U.S. Women's Open. [Marisa Baena golfing]