NCAA women's golf champion Marisa Baena has reduced her choices
in life to two. Option one is to take her dazzling smile and
stunning length off the tee to the pro tour next summer. She has
been told, she says, that she can "turn pro, make history and go
out and do things no one has ever done." Option two is to throw
her clubs in the closet and take off for Europe.
"I really want to go to Europe with a friend of mine for a month
this summer," she says. "Just have a big rest."
It is this maddening lack of concern for the big picture that is
Baena's unique charm. Mention that his sophomore star might turn
pro, and her coach at Arizona, Rick LaRose, launches into a
sermon on the perils of turning professional at 19. Meanwhile,
over at Texas, Baena's archrival Kelli Kuehne is no doubt doing
what any upwardly mobile young golfer should be doing:
performing deep-breathing exercises and visualizing 12-foot putts.
But Baena (by-EE-na) remains cheerfully unconcerned. On the
dusty desert plains outside Tucson, she continues to practice
the strength of her game--a smile that would melt a telephoto
lens. "I never take golf as an obsession," Baena says, her
English accented with the Spanish of her native country. "My
life and my golf game I like to keep separate. If I win or lose
on the course, I like to live like everyone else."
After her stunning freshman season, in which she not only won
the NCAA individual title but also led Arizona to its first team
championship, Baena should be deeply into a five-step master
plan to greatness. Instead, she admits to slacking off. "I am
not somebody who spends four hours on the driving range," says
Baena. "When the coach says, 'Take a day off,' I will. I'm gone."
Golf doesn't rule her life. "Back in Colombia I had a boyfriend,
a tennis player, who had never played golf," she says. "He tried
but wasn't very interested. You like to think that golf will be
important, so you will share it with someone you love, but it
The rest of women's college golf doesn't know what to make of
her. She's small (5'4" and 116 pounds), but at the U.S. Open she
led everyone--including powerhouse Laura Davies--in driving
distance (249 yards) for the first three days and uncorked the
longest tee shot of the tournament (270 yards). She's wide-eyed
and chipper, the polar opposite of Kuehne, who appears to be
attempting to become the first smash-mouth golfer.
"You can't beat me," Kuehne announced to one and all at the U.S.
Amateur, "especially in match play. Every time I put my peg in
the ground, I am ready to play." Kuehne, who's also a sophomore
but is expected to turn pro at the end of the current semester,
met Baena in the championship round of the Amateur and the
35-hole seesaw battle is already considered a classic. Kuehne
won, successfully defending her title, but Baena, with her NCAA
individual championship, was named the college player of the
year. The two met again this fall, in a first-round match at the
Rolex National Intercollegiate. Kuehne prevailed again, one up.
Bluster is not Baena's style. She is unflappably good-natured.
When the team title at the NCAA championships in La Quinta,
Calif., went to a sudden-death playoff, almost everyone was in a
panic. Staring at a 147-yard approach to the 18th green, Baena
had to step away from her ball four times while TV crews
scrambled into position. After the fourth interruption she froze
them with that famous smile, stepped up to the ball and knocked
it into the hole for an eagle 2. It was, in the not-objective
opinion of the Tucson Citizen, "probably the greatest clutch
shot in collegiate golf history."
Baena views her success with a bit more equanimity. "It is such
a strange feeling for me," she says. "When I came here, I didn't
know how good I could be. I was working to do it in my junior
and senior years. It all happened so soon."
It began happening even before she arrived at Arizona. When
Baena was growing up in Pereira, Colombia, a town about the size
of Tucson in the hills 100 miles from Bogota, her parents,
Eduardo, a psychiatrist, and Maria Mercedes, encouraged her to
get involved in sports, including volleyball. But she was
fascinated by one activity: playing golf at the local country
club. "I could tell right away, when I was seven years old, what
I was going to do," she says. "I would say I was going to finish
high school, go to the United States, play four years of college
and then go pro. People would say, 'Lots of things can happen
between now and then.' I'd say, 'No, that's what I want to do.'"
What she didn't realize was that something more than a good long
game was needed to fulfill her dream. "I found out that if I
didn't speak English, there would be no scholarship," she says.
Lack of English was no handicap at home in Colombia, where Baena
says she was "something like Tiger Woods" while still in high
school. She won the Junior World in 1991 at Singing Hills in El
Cajon, Calif., and again in 1993 at Torrey Pines in La Jolla,
Calif. She won the Colombian Open and twice finished second in
the Colombian athlete of the year voting. But Baena never
changed her mind about moving north. For her senior year she
attended Dixie High in the small town of St. George in southern
Utah as a foreign exchange student.
"It was the toughest thing I've ever done," she says. "I didn't
know English. I didn't know anybody. For the first 2 1/2 months
I cried a lot. I called home and would say, 'I can't talk. I
can't talk.'" Hearing her nonstop chatter now, one can imagine
what a hardship that must have been. Even LaRose had his doubts
when he spoke to her the first time, in the spring of her year
at Dixie. "She was kind of shy," LaRose says. "She would say,
'Thank you,' and that sort of thing. We weren't high on her
because we didn't think she could handle the English."
"People would laugh," Baena says. "I would say, 'I no can play
golf.' Instead of saying, 'I missed the bus,' I would say, 'I
lost the bus.' I was doing three hours of homework every night,
looking up every single word three times in the dictionary. Then
I was able to speak."
When he met with her again, LaRose told Baena that "your English
is as good as mine." That might have been an exaggeration, but
her 270-yard drives needed no translation.
To look at Baena on the tee, with her slender legs and slight
build, no one would guess that she is one of the longest hitters
in women's golf. Yet there's a moment, as she takes the club
back, that her jaw sets with a steely clamp and the force she is
capable of exerting in every shot becomes apparent. In
tournaments Baena has regularly hit drives more than 270 yards,
yet she does not rely on brute force. "I am not strong," she
says. "I used to come to the weightlifting room and eat ice
cream while I watched everyone lift." Nor does her power come
from an extended shoulder turn. "I am so inflexible, it's a
joke," she says, proving it by trying, and failing, to touch her
toes. "I spent the whole year at St. George trying to turn my
Like Woods, Baena generates club head speed with a powerful whip
of the hips. She says she recently saw a picture of Woods after
he hit the ball and couldn't help but notice that her hips clear
in almost exactly the same way as his.
Baena has won eight of 14 tournaments at Arizona and so
dominated the NCAAs that she won the individual title by seven
strokes. Many wonder what more she can accomplish in college.
Although she will certainly play through next spring's NCAAs,
Baena could turn pro shortly thereafter. LaRose hopes not. "When
the time's right, the time's right," he says, "and it certainly
isn't right now. To put a 19-year-old lady on the road, living
by herself, going from city to city, that gets old. We are
hoping she stays four years." Best of luck, Rick.
Last June, a week after the NCAAs, Baena was one of two amateurs
to make the cut in the U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles in
Southern Pines, N.C. Baena's driving ability got everyone's
attention, and once she had them watching, she celebrated her
last birthday with a 68 in the third round. Opening with a 32 on
the front nine, Baena attracted such a large gallery that her
parents, who had flown up from Colombia, had trouble seeing her
in the crowd. "It was so funny," says Baena. "The fans were
making noises. I would hit it, and they would go 'Oooooooooooh.'
I was like, Wow, these people are glad to see me."
Baena faltered in the final round with a 79, but she had
established a bond with the fans. "The last day on the 18th
hole, they all clapped so hard," she says, "I didn't know what
to do. My caddie said, 'Wave at them,' but I was shaking." So
she gave the fans--whom her mother told her "clapped as much for
you as the good players"--something else. She gave them that big
At that moment the idea of turning pro seemed appealing. As she
arrived at the 18th green, bathed in applause and smiling back
happily, the tour didn't seem like a joyless existence. This is
cool, she whispered to herself. Maybe Europe can wait.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KEIICHI SATO An instant success as a freshman at Arizona, Baena isn't resting on her laurels in her sophomore year. [Marisa Baena]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KEIICHI SATO Neither strong nor flexible, Baena's surprising power comes from a Tiger Woods-like hip turn. [Marisa Baena golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KEIICHI SATO As members of Arizona's football team learned, Baena doesn't view lifting the way most athletes do. [Four University of Arizona football players holding Marisa Baena]