Pettersen, Kingsmill Championship have aged gracefully

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Competitors in the LPGA Kingsmill Championship spent Tuesday practicing for the first round that starts Thursday.

WILLIAMSBURG — Like the LPGA Tour, Suzann Pettersen debuted at Kingsmill in 2003. She was 22, bold and brash, fueled by a sterling amateur career in her native Norway and by instant professional success on the Ladies European Tour.

LPGA rookie status notwithstanding — she already was a Solheim Cup veteran — Pettersen lurked one shot off the lead after two rounds, three strokes back entering Sunday. Only a closing 75 relegated her to a 15th-place tie, seven behind winner Grace Park.

Suffice to say, Pettersen and the Kingsmill Championship have aged quite well.

As a stout field prepared for the tournament's 10th edition this week — the event was dormant in 2010 and '11 — Pettersen held court Tuesday with media for more than 20 minutes, opining on the micro and macro, the Tour and herself.

Could it be? Could the player her peers overwhelmingly voted the LPGA's most intimidating in a recent Sports Illustrated poll be doubling, at age 33, as a sage elder?

"I consider myself one of the older ones," Pettersen said cheerfully.

Age, she has learned, brings responsibility, perspective and, yes, aches and pains.

Pettersen has grown to love Kingsmill and its tournament. She earned her first LPGA victory here, in 2007, charging from four back on Sunday and defeating Jee Young Lee in a playoff. She lost a playoff here last year to Cristie Kerr.

But it's more than the par-71, Pete Dye-designed course and the $600,000-plus she has banked that draws Pettersen back to Kingsmill. It's the resort, amenities and ambience.

"If you can't find peace here," she said, "I don't think you'll find it anywhere."

Which left her all the more distraught when an injury threatened her return.

Pettersen won four times last season and finished second on the money list, a benchmark year eclipsed only by Inbee Park, who notched six victories, including the season's first three majors. But just as Pettersen believed she was approaching 2013 form this year, she felt sharp pain in her lower back.

Nine years ago, a ruptured disk shelved Pettersen for much of the season. This discomfort was eerily familiar.

"The good thing this time was it didn't go down my legs," she said. "It was more local. At the same time, you're so paralyzed. You can't move, you can't sit, you can't bend, you can't get in and out of cars, you can't dress. So for me to play golf … it wasn't even on my mind. I couldn't even stand up."

But MRIs showed minimal structural issues. Doctors told Pettersen her pain was mostly muscular and required the most basic therapy: rest.

The world's fourth-ranked player, Pettersen missed about a month of competition before returning to the Tour in late April. She's since tied for 28th and sixth in two appearances. She practices less frequently and rigorously and considers herself poised to add to her haul of 14 career victories, which include two majors.

"It's been very painful being out," Pettersen said, "but at the same time very inspiring."

Inspiring because Pettersen appreciated not only her good fortune — making millions on the golf course is good work if you can get it — but also the state of the Tour, replete with veteran talents such as herself, Kerr and Karrie Webb and teens Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson.

Indeed, the contrast was striking Tuesday as Pettersen followed the 17-year-old Ko into the interview room.

"They are kids. I could be their mom," Pettersen joked.

Morphing into parental mode: "I wish I knew what I know today 15 years ago, but it's kind of part of the journey. … I think that's the great thing with golf. You kind of mature with the game. I'm very proud of the way Lydia, Lexi, all these girls carry themselves. It's a lot on their shoulders. Not just on the golf course, but everything that comes with it."

Pettersen insisted that she was unaware of the Sports Illustrated online poll that ranked her, Kerr and Webb as the LPGA's most intimidating players — Pettersen the landslide choice at 66 percent.

"Well done," she laughed, patting herself on the back.

Indeed, with a 14-9-6 record, Pettersen has become a European stalwart in the Solheim Cup, a match-play event in which "I know Americans hate me."

"She likes to try and intimidate people out there," Kerr said after playing with Pettersen for 20 final-round holes at Kingsmill last year, "but I'm not really that easily intimidated, so I just took care of my own game. …

"She's amazing to play with, and in Solheim, she's fierce. You can never count her out. I can't say enough about her, she's a great player."

As much as Pettersen excels at match play, she bogeyed the second playoff last year at Kingsmill, gift-wrapping the tournament for Kerr. The result chafes her still.

"I've been looking forward to this tournament," Pettersen said, "since that last putt dropped."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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