CHASKA, MINNESOTA | The search often seems fruitless. Who will be the women’s version of Tiger, the dominant figure who ticks all the right boxes and moves the needle in a way that transcends the sport? Nancy Lopez did it to a degree in the late 1970s, putting women’s golf in the minds of sports fans who might not have otherwise paid a moment’s attention. That was a different time, but Lopez, with a big smile, an engaging personality and a great backstory of hardscrabble Mexcian-immigrant can-do-ism, elevated eyeballs and interest in the LPGA.
For the next four decades, great players have filtered through the LPGA ranks with the popularity of the tour ebbing and flowing (there are more fans now than ever before), but there hasn’t been a next Nancy or the women’s version of Tiger.
Former Women’s British Open champion Karen Stupples had a thoughtful perspective on why.
“I think there are needle movers in every country that the LPGA has,” said Stupples, now a Golf Channel commentator. “Brooke Henderson moves the needle in Canada. Georgia Hall moves the needle in the UK, Lexi Thompson will move the needle here (in the US). And then you have Sung Hyun Park, she definitely moves the needle in Korea. Ariya Jutanugarn, she moves the needle in Thailand. The LPGA is made up of a number of different countries. It’s a completely global tour and it has a player that moves the needle in each individual country. But it’s very difficult to put one face on the LPGA Tour as a successful needle-mover across all platforms.
“Michelle Wie could have been that ultimate needle mover had she progressed and had win after win after win. But there hasn’t been a Tiger Woods in the women’s game. Annika Sörenstam was very dominant, but she didn’t quite have that same charisma that Tiger seemed to exude on the golf course. Lorena Ochoa, she had some charisma but there hasn’t been one person that ticked every single box in women’s golf like you had with men. We have yet to find a universal figure.”
Then Stupples thought for a second and threw out a name, one that continues to get repeated in all “next great thing” conversations.
“There is a player that does excite me that does have the potential,” Stupples said. “Whether she produces the wins on the golf course, I don’t know if that’ll happen yet. It’s Maria Fassi. She has that smile; she has that charisma; she has the personality that people just warm toward her. She’s bubbly, she bounces around the golf course. She is competitive yet compassionate. She drives the ball a country mile. And she has the technical skill to get the job done.
“It’s very early days, and this is a lot of pressure to put on her shoulders but Fassi has the characteristics that are required to be that.”
“I just played with a real star. … She’s so strong and hits it so far. And she’s just a delight.” – PGA of America president Suzy Whaley.
Indeed, before she’d struck her first shot in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Fassi, a 21-year-old rookie, was generating the kind of buzz rarely associated with players making only their third professional start.
“I just played with a real star,” PGA of America president Suzy Whaley said immediately after going out on Tuesday with Fassi. “She hit 4-iron 230 yards on one of the holes. She consistently hit hybrid past my driver. But what’s really cool is that she hits it straight. She’s so strong and hits it so far. And she’s just a delight. She was fun to play with. She spoke to everyone, thanked every volunteer she passed, and she just bombs it.
“You think of players like Nancy Lopez and Lee Trevino and others who engaged the crowd and spoke to people between shots, it helped them to relax. She seems to have that. It bodes well for her because she’s authentic.”
Fassi shot 73 on Thursday at Hazeltine National but was one of the stars of the morning wave even though she never led. It didn’t seem to matter. Not yet anyway. With the swagger of a superstar and the look of a movie star, Fassi acknowledged every shout of “Go Maria.” She high-fived every fan that stuck a hand inside a gallery rope. When one of the maintenance workers made a special trip to the area between the 17th green and 18th tee to wish her well in Spanish, Fassi, a native of Pachuca, Mexico, engaged the man in a full-on conversation.
“She is a great player but she is even more awesome person,” said Shauna Taylor, who was Fassi’s college coach at Arkansas. “Maria is the light and the spark that the LPGA needs. She will shake every hand, kiss every baby and sign everything. It was just a matter of time before she came out (on the LPGA) and let her light shine.”
Since turning pro following the NCAA Championships, Fassi has finished T12 at the U.S. Women’s Open and T34 at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, respectable though not exactly superstar performances. But her length, her swing, her look and more charisma than the women’s game has seen in some time has fans betting that the results will follow.
Rarely has a rookie come out so polished. Lydia Ko had plenty of savvy when she burst on the scene but Ko had been giving interviews and engaging with fans since she was a middle-schooler. Thompson got better with age. But Fassi has everything. When she dons her trademark aviator sunglasses she has exotic, movie-star looks. And there is little doubt that she is an athlete. If you saw her away from the course, you might guess all kinds of sports – she played soccer, ran track and swam competitively before focusing on golf – but you would definitely know you were looking at an athlete.
Her mother, Fabiana, was a professional field hockey player and her father, Andres, was a professional soccer player who is now the vice president of the Club de Futbol Pachuca. Maria’s brother, Sebastian, was also a professional soccer player until an injury moved him into the front office with their dad.
“She’s a beautiful kid who is blessed athletically,” Taylor said. “But there’s more to it than that. When you come from a highly competitive background like her family is in soccer, you learn at a young age about the value of fans and having support and connecting with people. That lesson really had an impact on her. But also, she just has a big heart.
“One of the first times I saw Maria play was in a junior event in Florida. Maria had a pushcart and the girl in her group had a carry bag. The other girl hurt her back and Maria, mid-round, gave her pushcart to the other kid to help her. When you’re looking at somebody who is 14 years old at the time, to see that kind of sensitivity to your fellow competitor, I thought that spoke more about Maria than how far she could hit it or anything that she could do with a golf ball. She’s just a good human.”
As for the rest of her game, Fassi won the NCAA individual title in May but burst onto the scene a month earlier in her epic duel with Jennifer Kupcho in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, where she ultimately finished second. As Stupples put it, “Fassi pulled Jennifer Kupcho along at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. It was Maria’s personality that really drove the whole narrative around those two, their friendship and that whole deal there.
“She has the ability to pull people together and to unite them in a way to support not only her but to support the game of golf in a bigger picture. That’s what everybody is really looking for, a needle mover.”
That needle isn’t always easy to quantify. But the golf is. Taylor did that as well as anyone. “Her comfortable swing speed is 108 where we know she can keep her balance,” the coach said. “I’ve seen it get to 111. But 108 is her number where the smash-factor is efficient and where she’s in control.
“When we work on TrackMan with her, we look at PGA Tour numbers, not LPGA Tour numbers. She hits it like a guy. When she hits it, you’re like, ‘Damn, is that a girl?’ Because she totally hits it like a guy. Maria can do things with a golf ball that no one else can. It was so fun to walk by her side and say, ‘Yeah, let’s hit 4-iron over this pond off a downslope.’ You’d let her do things that you wouldn’t let other players do. There were times when she was a couple over for the day, we’d come to a drivable par-4 over trouble and I’d say, ‘Dude, let’s go for it. You need a jump-start, let’s go get it right now.’ She loves that sort of stuff.
“She smokes it but she also has gears. This year (in college) statistically, she hit 68 percent of her fairways, which is amazing to be that long. With speed comes distance but the misses are usually bigger. With Fassi, she is rarely out of play.”
Whaley, who played the LPGA Tour early in her career, saw the same thing. “She certainly has the tools and the determination,” she said. “She’s really long but also straight. And we’ve seen her perform well (at Augusta and in the NCAAs). She has the ability. But we know that there aren’t many who can become superstars. Do I think she can do it? I sure do. There are a lot of young players who can. But with her power, she has an advantage. When you have a 50-yard advantage, the question becomes, can she capitalize on it? We’ll see. She can hit her wedges different trajectories; she can hit draws and fades and knockdowns. She has the tools.
“Will she become the game’s next superstar? That’s up to Maria.”
Fassi didn’t shyly wince at those lofty expectations. She never has. When she was 17 and sat in Taylor’s office for the first time, the college coach asked, “What do you want to do with your life?” Fassi didn’t hesitate: “I want to be the No. 1 player in the world,” she said.
“She and I talk a lot about expectations,” Taylor said. “They can be a hurdle to success sometimes. She’s very aware of it. She works on it in her mental training. She has created a road map and the fame that comes with being great is just a part of it. She knows there is a burden that goes with expectations. She struggled with them in college. But we’ve been very open and honest and talked about it. She’s recognized some of her faults and how we can train and get better. She wants to win like everybody else and she wants to be No. 1 in the world. That’s what drives her.
“She’ll have some pitfalls. She’s really in tune with her feelings and with her body and she’ll get through that. She is complete.”
When asked about the burden of being labeled the next potential superstar, Fassi’s hazel eyes sparkled.
“That’s what I want to be,” she said. “That’s what I want to become and I know I just have to work hard and stay patient and one day that’s going to be it.
“I knew people knew who I was and it’s just been really nice to see their reaction to my game and to my attitude. Having their support has been key.
“I mean (the burden of expectations) is definitely not a light one. But I’d rather have (people) say that than say something else. I mean, someone has got to be the next superstar. Why not me, right?”
Maria Fassi’s charisma and talent showed up in big ways during the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images
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