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Believe it: Pettersen charges to Safeway Classic triumph

NORTH PLAINS - Improbable? Yes.

Unbelievable? Pretty much.

"I really thought I had no chance," Suzann Pettersen said after charging to the LPGA Safeway Classic title Sunday at Pumpkin Ridge.

Pettersen made up nine shots on second-round leader Na Yeon Choi and then beat her with a par on the first hole of a playoff at the Ghost Creek course.

"I I just tried to grind," said Pettersen, who was tied for 16th after two rounds. "I definitely didn't think I was going to be sitting here (in the interview room as the winner) when I started the day."

The 30-year-old Norwegian fired a 7-under 64 - the best round of the tournament - to post a 6-under 207. Then she waited about two hours for Choi to finish her round.

"That was probably the tough part," Pettersen said. "I saw the chiropractor, had a few cracked, popped a few joints."

Choi, who was 8-under when the day began, bogeyed the 54th hole, sending the two players back to the par-4 18th.

After both began the playoff with drives in the fairway, Pettersen hit first, and knocked an 8-iron boldly at the flag with her "go-to shot," a mild fade. The ball bounced slightly over the green and into the rough, but the crowd reaction from her aggressive line may have had an impact on what was to come.

Choi pulled out a 9-iron and figured she needed to get the ball close to the pin, which was guarded by water on the right.

"I thought I needed birdie to win," she said.

The shot didn't come off. Her approach sailed weakly into the drink, and Pettersen wound up needing only a bogey to win. Pettersen went one better, rolling in a 4-foot par putt to take the victory decisively.

"I had a little miss (on the second shot)," Choi said. "That's my fault. I tried a little fade, but I hit it a little thin. Maybe a little greedy."

Pettersen claimed the $225,000 first prize in the 40th annual Portland tourney, with Choi netting $135,702 for an at least partly disappointing second-place finish.

Hee Young Park was third at 208 after a closing 67 and earned $98,442. Paula Creamer was alone in fourth at 209 after a 68, and she picked up $76,153 from the $1.5 million purse.

Announced tournament attendance was 88,100 - an event record.

Pettersen became the ninth different player to win the Safeway Classic since Annika Sorenstam's second win in a row in 2003 at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.

Pettersen, who has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, teed off Sunday thinking that a big round might catapult her back to No. 2, ahead of Cristie Kerr and behind Yani Tseng. That was her major motivation.

She wound up with a 64 that matched the lowest score posted since the Safeway Classic moved from Columbia Edgewater Country Club to Ghost Creek in 2009. Beth Bader opened the '09 tourney with a 64, and Song-Hee Kim shot 64 in the second round last year. Both those rounds came when the course played to par 72. This year, par was 71, and given the heat, firm greens and changes in some tee boxes, the course might have played a little tougher than in the previous two years.

On Sunday, Pettersen ripped off a 5-under-par 30 on the back nine. She caught Choi with a couple of holes to go in her round and with Choi bogeying the 9th to fall to 5-under.

Pettersen took the lead with a birdie on No. 17, but Choi responded down the stretch. Choi birdied Nos. 15 and 17 to reclaim the lead at 7-under, only to bogey the 18th after her approach went into the rough behind the green and she failed to get up and down.

Choi shot 73 on Sunday, after leading basically the entire tourney and going 65-69 in the first two rounds.

"I never thought 6-under was going to do it," Pettersen said. "But if you miss greens, with the greens this firm, it's hard to get up and down."

Pettersen hit high gear on the back nine. She nearly made double eagle at the 10th, knocking her 240-yard 3-wood to within tap-in distance for eagle.

"Left it two inches too short," she said, with a big smile.

She birdied the 11th and made a nice par save on 12, before adding birdies on 15 and 17 herself.

Choi said she took notice of Pettersen's move.

"She's a little intimidating," said the 23-year-old from Seoul, South Korea.

Two weeks ago, Pettersen had won the Ladies Irish Open by six shots. She came into the Safeway Classic ranked fourth on the LPGA in season money earnings, with a win in the Sybase Match Play Championship in May.

Choi was 13th on the 2011 earnings list and ranked No. 5 in the world, but she was without a win this year and had only one top 10 finish since the Sybase.

"I got great experience from this, so I'm fine," Choi said. "Of course I missed my opportunity to win, but I can't control that. Suzann had a great round. So it's OK, no regrets.

The final round began with Choi leading Stacy Lewis by three shots. What could have been a Choi walk in the park or merely a Choi-Lewis match play-like battle turned into a tournament for the taking.

Lewis wasn't sharp from the start, bogeying the first two holes and never catching fire. She wound up with a 75 and tied for eighth at 1-under 212.

Pettersen said she didn't watch the leaderboard during her round.

"I never thought it was going to be close," she explained.

When Choi missed the fairway at the par-4 9th and failed on a 4-foot par putt, her lead was gone. At that moment, about 3:45 p.m., she had fallen from 8-under to 5-under and into a tie for first with Pettersen. Paula Creamer and Hee Young Park both were one shot back at minus-4. Three players - Lewis, Brittany Lang and Vicky Hurst, were on the back nine at 3-under.

Moments later, Pettersen holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 17th to take sole possession of the lead at 6-under.

Choi quickly birdied the par-5 10th to reclaim a share of the lead, but her momentum stalled.

Pettersen saved par on the 18th with a nice chip to four feet from the rough left of the green, and Park birdied her 15th to get to 5-under and join the fray for real.

Next, Choi faltered at the par-4 13th with a loose iron shot into a bunker and then a 4-foot par putt she pulled left. The result left her needing to play the final five holes in 1-under to force a playoff with at least Pettersen.

Park briefly made things more interesting when she birdied the short par-4 17th and got to 6-under, with the difficult 18th remaining.

Park, 24, pulled her approach shot onto the bank left of the green. She went long out of the high grass, leaving her another chip from the tall grass. Needing to hole it to tie with Pettersen, she hit a good shot that was right on line but came up a few inches short.

Choi showed she had some fight left in her, though. She finally got a putt to go down, rolling in a birdie from 6 feet on the final par-5 at No. 15.

With that, she stepped to the 16th tee square with Pettersen. Choi made a routine par and then took aim at the shortish 17th, a birdie opportunity. After a long wait due to a hold-up ahead of her, Choi drove an iron just left of the green. She nestled her chip to within three feet and made that to take the lead at 7-under.

After a good drive on 18th, though, Choi sent her 142-yard approach just over the back of the green and into the rough, leaving her an up-and-down for the crown that was doable but not easy. She wasn't able to accelerate smoothly through the dark green grass and left the shot 12 feet short.

Choi's putting had been spotty all day. And now her chance to win the Safeway Classic came down to making a pressure-packed par putt on the 18th. It wouldn't go down.

Pettersen went on to her the eighth LPGA victory of her career.

"I'm trying to chase down Yani (in the world rankings)," she said, "and to chase her down you've got to win tournaments."

LPGA SAFEWAY CLASIC

TOP FINISHERS

(final-round score, 54-hole total)

* - Suzann Pettersen 64 - 207

Na Yeon Choi 73 - 207

Hee Young Park 67 - 208

Paula Creamer 68 - 209

Vicky Hurst 67 - 210

Ryann O;Toole 70 - 210

Brittany Lang 69 - 211

Ai Miyazato 68 - 212

Stacy Lewis 75 - 212

Alison Walshe 70 - 213

Gerina Piller 72 - 213

Sarah Kemp 71 - 213

Karen Stupples 71 - 214

Anna Nordqvist 73 - 214

Yani Tseng 72 - 214

Grace Park 74 - 214

Mika Miyazato 75 - 214

* - Pettersen won on first playoff hole.