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 isn't necessary."
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."