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 Bogotá, 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 2½ 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 shoulders."
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 Baena grin.