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Park beats the kids to win her first major

| Monday, March 29, 2004

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- The kids were all right. Grace Park was just better.

Facing the biggest putt of her career, Park calmly stroked in a 6-footer for birdie on the 18th hole to hold off 17-year-old Aree Song and win her first major title in the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Park's putt came just moments after Song rolled in a 30-foot eagle putt to tie Park for the lead, pumping her fist in the air and shouting "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Park backed off her putt twice, then knocked it in the center of the hole to win the tournament she so coveted.

"I did it. I'm shaking like a baby," Park said.

Song's final hole theatrics came on a hole shortened to 485 yards Sunday, so players could take a chance and go for the green in two. She did, hitting a fairway wood on, then made the putt as Park looked on.

If Park had missed, the two were heading for a playoff. But there was never any doubt from the moment the ball left the putter until it rolled gently in the cup to finish off a final-round 69.

"Right in the heart," Park said. "I made it. I did it."

Song said she expected nothing else.

"I wasn't really disappointed when it went in because I felt like I couldn't have done anymore," Song said.

Both Song and 14-year-old Michelle Wie did nothing to diminish their status as stars of the future. Song ended up with a 2-under-par 70 in final-round pressure, while Wie shot a 71 to finish four shots back in fourth place. Wie, though, was never really in contention after Park took command with four birdies in a row beginning at the ninth hole.

Wie began the day two shots off the lead held by Park and Song and played steadily, but could not take advantage of a number of birdie chances on the front side and was never really a threat. Wie, ninth here last year, finished fourth.

"I just promised myself whatever happened, I would fight to the end and I did," Wie said. "I was proud of myself."

Karrie Webb closed with a 69 to finish third, two strokes back.

Park, a 25-year-old in her fifth year on tour, vowed after tying for the lead in the third round that this was her time to win her first major championship. She came close last year, losing in a playoff to Annika Sorenstam in the LPGA Championship.

With Sorenstam not a factor on the weekend, Park still had plenty to worry about. There were the two teen phenoms and Webb, whose 29 LPGA wins include six major championships.

Park started slowly, making bogey on the third hole, and was two shots back of Song when she stood on the ninth fairway with a wedge in her hand. She hit the shot within 3 feet, made the putt and was off and running on a birdie binge.

Park birdied the next three holes to open up a two-shot lead and appeared ready to take command of the tournament. But she had to escape near disaster on the 15th hole when she hit a tree on her second shot and chunked her third before making an up-and-down bogey.

"I got a little frustrated,a little worried," Park said. "It lasted only 50 yards because when I got to my ball I knew I had to get up and down."

Park parred the next two holes before her final clutch birdie.

She then celebrated by gleefully taking the traditional champion's plunge into the pond surrounding the final green before receiving the trophy while wrapped in a white bathrobe.

"If you want it really, really badly you can do it," she said. "I guess I was the one who wanted it the most."

Song, who like Wie first played here as a 13-year-old amateur and finished in the top 10, was in her fifth Nabisco but only her fourth tournament since turning pro.

A 3-putt on the 16th hole, where her first putt went off the front of the green, appeared to end Song's chances, but that was before she smashed her drive 275 yards down the 18th hole and had 210 to the green.

With a 7-wood in hand, the diminutive Song hit a brilliant shot that hit softly and rolled within 30 feet of the hole. When the putt went in, she erupted with more emotion than she had shown all week.

"I knew I had to make a three to have any chance," Song said. "I read it perfectly and hit it where I wanted to. It just went in."

Playing in front of Park, Webb also thought she had a chance on 18 with an eagle chip that finished about 2 feet from the hole.

"I really thought I was going to chip it up and in on the last hole, but it just wasn't to be," Webb said.

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