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 alter 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 pre-tournament favorites, which went seven over on 17 in the second round and wound up in fifth, eight strokes out of the playoff.
"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."