GLADSTONE, N.J. - Marisa Baena won the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship after convincing herself that winning didn't really matter.
Relaxed and confident playing her favorite format, Baena completed a career-changing run from 60th seed to champion Sunday with a 1-up victory over South Korean rookie Meena Lee.
"The funny thing about it is that I always believed I could do it, but this year I said, 'You know what, I don't care if I win or not,'" Baena said. "This winter, I realized winning wasn't as important to me as I thought.... I'm thinking, 'Why am I so obsessed about winning?' I think once I took that load off, there I am winning."
A year after seriously considering giving up tour play, the 28-year-old Colombian beat six higher-seeded opponents to win in her 152nd start on the LPGA Tour. She earned $500,000 and received a three-year tour exemption.
"I'm sure in Colombia people are going crazy right now," said Baena, the country's first LPGA Tour winner. "I can't imagine the party that's going on at my country club."
Baena closed out the 23-year-old Lee with a conceded par on the par-4 18th after rolling her birdie try within 2 feet of the cup.
"I'm a very good lag putter. I have always been," Baena said. "I was very happy to see the ball getting closer and closer."
In the morning semifinals, Baena rallied to beat eighth-seeded Candie Kung 2-up. The Colombian opened the 64-player event against fifth-seeded Natalie Gulbis and also beat No. 37 Grace Park, No. 21 Jennifer Rosales and No. 29 Karrie Webb.
"It's been amazing. It's been a great week," Baena said. "I love match play.... You just have to take one hole at a time, one match at a time, and you just don't have to worry about the rest of the people."
Baena played four matches the final two days on Hamilton Farm's hilly Highlands Course.
"I'm not in great shape because I don't work out, so it was hard," Baena said. "You know, some of those hills, I'm like, 'Breathe, breathe, give me some water.'... I ate a lot on the course. I was eating bars, eating fruit, drinking water and I think that helped on the last holes to be able to concentrate better."
Baena earned spots in her first four tournaments of the year as a Monday qualifier and made enough money in those events to regain exempt status on the tour. She lost her exempt status last year after making only eight cuts and earning $35,594, and even talked to her father, Eduardo, about quitting the tour. She decided to stick with it for two more years and turned to South African instructor Robert Baker for help.
"Last year, I had a difficult decision in June when everything was going so wrong to change coaches," Baena said. "It's just been amazing to be able to find someone like Robert who was able to help me and understand my golf swing."
Lee won the 15th and 16th holes to pull within one and halved the 17th to extend the match. She made a 9-foot birdie putt on the par-4 15th, holed a 15-footer for par on the par-4 16th and stayed alive with a 10-foot par putt on the par-3 17th.
"After I went 3-down, I just told myself, 'Let me try to get back one hole at a time,'" Lee said through a translator. "I kept repeating that to myself over and over.... I thought I had nothing to lose, so I tried to play aggressively on every hole."
The match was even after seven holes, with Baena winning the first and fourth holes with birdies and Lee taking the third and sixth with birdies. Baena birdied the eighth and ninth to take a two-hole lead, Lee won the 10th with a 12-foot birdie putt and Baena pulled two holes ahead again with a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 11th.
After Lee parred the 12th to pull within a hole, Baena countered with a 7-foot birdie putt on the 13th and pushed her lead to three with a conceded birdie on the par-5 14th. Baena reached the green on No. 14 in two with a fairway wood from 218 yards and hit her first putt to 2 feet.
On Sunday morning, Baena overcame a two-hole deficit with five to play against Kung, the 23-year-old Taiwanese player who rallied from 2-down with four to play to beat top-seeded Annika Sorenstam in the quarterfinals Saturday.
In the other semifinal, Lee beat 14th-seeded Wendy Ward 1-up.
Ward won the third-place match, rallying to beat Kung 2 and 1.
"We all come in trying to win and it's a new game when all of a sudden you have another match," Ward said. "Just getting yourself motivated again is challenging."
Divots: Baena won 10 events at the University of Arizona, including the 1996 NCAA tournament, and lost to Kelli Kuehne in the 1996 U.S. Women's Amateur final. She missed the cut last week in the U.S. Women's Open and entered the week 63rd on the money list with $87,258... Baena also received a gold necklace encrusted with diamonds and rubies.... Lee earned $300,000, Ward received $200,000 and Kung got $150,000.... Baena's sister, Cristina, won the Futures Tour event last week in Ann Arbor, Mich.... Lee earned her tour card in December with a 25th-place tie in the qualifying tournament. She tied for second in the LPGA Corning Classic in late May, closing with a double bogey to finish two strokes behind winner Jimin Kang.
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