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Many of the elements contributing to Suzann Pettersen's first major championship win were in place long ago. Others were only recently added--some very recently. For example, Pettersen started working with Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson, Annika Sorenstam's longtime mental coaches, seven months ago. Not long after, Pettersen added a new swing coach, Gary Gilchrist, who used to work with Michelle Wie. And with the new year came a new caddie, James Walton. However, the putter Pettersen used to win last week's McDonald's LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Md., came into her possession only two days before the start of the tournament. The Ping Doc 15 ("big enough to brand cattle with," says Walton) had belonged to Tom Elliott, Pettersen's pro-am partner. And lastly, that odd, yet vaguely familiar victory gyration on the 18th green? That was added right before the final round, after Pettersen, a 26-year-old from Norway, had watched Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the final of the French Open. "You know how Nadal does that thing when he wins?" said Pettersen, shaking her arms above her head. "I practiced that on the range before I teed off."
In other words Pettersen was fairly confident even though she began the round a stroke behind 18-year-old Na On Min, a rookie from South Korea who had emerged from obscurity with a stunning seven-under 65 the day before. Pettersen went out and played a nearly perfect round, shooting a bogey-free five-under-par 67, taking the lead with a birdie on the 8th hole and hanging on the rest of the way in the face of late charges by Min and 33-year-old Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, who was playing in the group ahead. "She was in control," Walton said of Pettersen. "She made the right shots at the right time, and she never got too high or too low. That's great for Suzann, because she is quite an emotional girl."
Before this year Pettersen was better known for dropping an expletive into a live TV interview at the 2001 Solheim Cup than for her considerable talent. In 2004 she missed five events because of elbow surgery, and a year later she suffered a ruptured disk in her lower back that put her out of action for eight months. Before this year she had never finished better than third in an LPGA event. Pettersen had a great chance to get her first win this spring at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, but she blew a four-shot lead over the last five holes and left Rancho Mirage in tears.
Though the loss was portrayed as a collapse, Pettersen didn't see it that way. "I looked at it as, What can I do differently when I get to the next tournament and I'm in the same situation?" she says. To that end Marriott and Nilsson, who own a coaching business named Vision54 (as in, think birdie every hole), analyzed a tape of Pettersen from Rancho Mirage and pointed out certain mannerisms on the shots that didn't turn out the way she had planned. Was she unsure of herself on the shot where she stood over the ball two seconds longer than usual? Did she react to that bad shot, then let it go, or did she carry it with her? "[The analysis] was very detailed," says Pettersen. "You don't try to find the weakness. You try to find your strengths and use them as often as you possibly can."
Six weeks after the Kraft Nabisco, Pettersen won for the first time, defeating Jee Young Lee in a three-hole playoff at the Michelob Ultra Open, and by Sunday at Bulle Rock the Kraft gaffe was so far behind Pettersen that it never crossed her mind as the competition tightened on the final holes. "I felt different," she said. "I wasn't even close to being in the emotions that I was in back then."
Pettersen was not the only one in the final group showing steely resolve. In trying to become the youngest player to win an LPGA major, Min, who has been playing the game for only six years and was making just her sixth start as a pro, showed remarkable focus and poise. Before her eye-opening round last Saturday, Min was unknown to most of the other players. Morgan Pressel, who won the Kraft and came in 14th at Bulle Rock, admitted that she didn't recognize Min's name when it popped up on the leader board. Se Ri Pak, Min's childhood idol, said she met the slight teenager for the first time two weeks ago at the Ginn Tribute. "She is doing so great, trying so hard to speak English," said Pak, who officially qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame last week. "She's doing much better at that than I did as a rookie. I'm proud of her, and I'm rooting for her."
On Sunday, Min struggled on the front nine, making three bogeys to fall two shots behind Pettersen at the turn. Min rallied coming home, making four straight birdies starting at 13 to get back within striking distance. Webb, who began the day two strokes off the lead, kept the pressure on as well and was the crowd favorite. As Pettersen was lining up a birdie putt on 16, a roar rose from the 17th green, where Webb had just birdied. Pettersen missed her putt, sank to one knee and watched her playing partner, Min, make hers. Suddenly Min and Webb were within a stroke.
But Pettersen never faltered. On the par-3 17th she stuck her tee shot 15 feet behind the hole. As the crowd anxiously waited, she took her time looking over the putt. "The line looked as if it wasn't going to break too much, but I went with my instinct, and it was just perfect," she said.
When the ball dropped, Pettersen made like Tiger Woods, her fist pump igniting the crowd, but she wasn't home free yet. After she teed off on 18, another blast from the crowd signaled another birdie for Webb. The Australian was still within one. "In the back of my mind, I knew what had happened to her at the Kraft and I knew I needed to keep putting pressure on her," said Webb, who lost last year's LPGA Championship to Pak in a playoff. "I knew that if I stayed pretty close, I'd have a chance. She obviously executed very well coming down the stretch, and she should be very proud of herself. It shows a lot of courage and guts and trust in her ability."
When Pettersen hit the fairway on 18, she felt relief. "Then I knew I could do it," she said afterward. After two-putting for par, the win and a $300,000 check that put her over $1�million for the year, it was time to break out her best Nadal.