When the Dinah Shore begins today — sorry, make that the Kraft Nabisco Championship — most of the focus will be on the obvious favorites: Lorena Ochoa, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, with Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer as definite darkhorses. I’ll be keeping my eye on Suzann Pettersen. She has been one of my favorite players going back to the 2002 Solheim Cup, when she dropped an F-bomb live on NBC. Unlike Sergio Garcia’s recent act of churlishness, Petterson’s profanity was born of pure joy and excitement, a young woman momentarily overwhelmed by her excellent play.
(Petterson shot an even-par 72 Thursday. She trails leader Shi Hyun Ahn by four shots. Go to LPGA.com Leaderboard.)
Somewhere along the way Pettersen, 25, lost most of that spunk. Elbow surgery compromised her 2004 season, and in ’05 she played only nine LPGA events due to a back injury. In an effort to play through the pain she developed one of the weirder swings in big-time golf: she would get to the top of her backswing and pause for what seemed like an eternity, as if deciding whether to go through with it.
Pettersen was miserable muddling through a spotty ’06 season, so in December she reinvented herself. She joined forces with Gary Gilchrist to retool her swing, and with Sorenstam’s coaches, Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, to clear her mind. In three short months, “She’s like a new person,” Pettersen’s mom, Mona, told me at last week’s Safeway International. “She has so much spirit. She loves playing golf again.”
That passion was evident during her weekend shootout with Ochoa. Paired with her on Saturday, Pettersen made nine birdies and routinely blew her drives past the LPGA’s most explosive ballstriker. On Sunday Pettersen birdied five of the first seven holes to surge into the lead. Ochoa has more experience at winning, and she eventually caught her at the finish line, but Pettersen’s play was an eye-opener, even to those close to her.
“Gosh, she’s a really raw, really amazing physical talent,” Marriott said while watching Pettersen play during the third round. “She had become too mechanical, now she’s more athletic and natural. There’s no limit to how good can she be.”
It is a measure of Pettersen’s physical gifts that in less than three months with Gilchrist she has already lost the hitch in her swing. Growing up, Pettersen was a standout in soccer and tennis and a competitive equestrian. A native of Norway, she can also shred a mountain on skis. Her competitive fire was stoked growing up with two older brothers.
“In that situation you can play with Barbie or you can learn to fight,” says Mona Pettersen. “Suzann learned to fight.”
She’ll have to brawl her way past a host of top contenders if she is to prevail at the Dinah. But Pettersen has always been a streaky player, and she roars into Mission Hills with a ton of momentum and fewer expectations than the other favorites. “I’m just going to go play and not put too much pressure on myself,” she says of the Dinah. “But it’s exciting to know my game is there.”
Marriott puts it another way: “Watch out — she’s coming on strong.”