WEST CALDWELL, NEW JERSEY | You live and die with every shot, because you know that at any moment something special can happen. But so can something disastrous. And you know that, too. Maria Fassi remains one of the most dynamic players in the women’s game, a remarkable athlete who hits drives the way lightning strikes a tree – fast, bright, jarring, a blast of energy you can feel from far away. You find yourself flinching on every shot.
She might be from Mexico, but few players have more closely resembled Seve Ballesteros in their swashbuckling style. The only thing missing are the victories. By the time he was Fassi’s age, Seve had a dozen worldwide wins, including two majors. Fassi, at 23, is still looking for her first. She’s getting closer, though. Each week, she learns. For the second straight Sunday, Fassi finds herself going out late in the afternoon within shouting distance of the lead. A low number coupled with a stumble by Jin Young Ko, and this could be the time.
But, again, disaster lurks at ever corner. On Saturday at Mountain Ridge, Fassi played the front nine in one under and then reeled off three birdies in a row to start her back nine. Each time, the fist pump got more ferocious. Then, just like that, Fassi made a bogey on 14 and a par on 15, a par-5 where someone of her length and strength should be picking up shots. After that, it was another bogey on 16 followed by a double bogey on 17. All that good work gone in the snap of a finger. But she bounced back with a birdie on 18. In the end, she shot 2-under par 69, the same score as Ko and Lindsay Weaver, who enters Sunday tied for second, and Caroline Masson, who heads into the final round tied with Fassi in sixth. But Fassi’s round, at turns, looked like a 66 and a 76. To quote Mr. Dickens, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times…in the same round.
“I think I played very solid and I'm very happy with the round,” Fassi said afterward. “Of course, 16 and 17 weren't right where I wanted them. But still very happy with an under-par score. I mean, there have been a lot of changes on my team from my coaches to my caddie. And I’ve been working very hard the last nine, ten months.
“I think it was really just a matter of time for me to start playing like I wanted. It's kind of once you're in a good rhythm it's easier to keep building momentum rather than missing a cut and having to wait until the next Thursday to play.”
When asked how she keeps from getting too high when she gets on a birdie run, and how she keeps from hitting herself in the shins with a 5-iron when she plays four holes four over, Fassi threw out one of the best pop-culture references of the year.
“I'm trying to have, as the great Ted Lasso says, goldfish memory,” Fassi said. “You forget about the good; you forget about the bad and you just move on.”
She does so with such gusto, it’s hard for her fans to follow the same advice. But, if she can work on it, so can those who follow her.
“You’ve just got to hit the next shot,” Fassi said. “I mean, actually on 16 I got myself in a tough spot and ended up making a decent bogey. Then 17 was just a couple of mistakes in a row that got me out of place. But you cannot be thinking too much about the previous shot because this course will get you if you're not focused 100% on the next one.
“You have to trust your process and keep doing what you're doing. I think we have been very good at that this week. I'm very excited for another opportunity to go low tomorrow.”
A lot of people see the talent. A lot know the potential. And a lot of past champions and former world No. 1 players feel compelled to help Fassi. At the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, it was her partner, Stacy Lewis, who coached her through the week and showed her how to save a shot here or there, which at this level makes all the difference. This week, it was Nancy Lopez, who pulled Fassi aside on the patio of the Mountain Ridge clubhouse and gave her a pep talk about patience and remaining in the present every moment of every round.
“I'm very fortunate to have major champions, former No. 1 players in the world and whatnot, interested in helping me and trying to figure out maybe what was going a little bit sideways at the beginning of the year and how we could change things up.
“I'm extremely grateful for all their support and advice, but they kind of all say the same things in different ways. But a lot of it is just getting a little bit smarter on the golf course, playing to my strengths. We know I hit it far, but I been working very hard on my wedges and stuff. That's always been a strength as of late.
“Now, if I get out of position I know if I layup to a good number I can still make an up and down. I think it's just getting a little bit smarter, staying patient, and the one thing that they all definitely say is just to have fun and enjoy. We're so lucky to be doing what we love out here and to get to come to places like this. Doesn't get much better than that.”