WILLIAMSBURG — Azahara Munoz was as lost as Tom Hanks and his volleyball. Thousands of miles from her native Spain, she was a freshman at Arizona State, isolated and homesick.
The 2002 Spanish Amateur champion at age 14, she had come to the United States to play collegiate golf and groom herself for the LPGA Tour. But the language barrier seemed insurmountable.
"I remember the first month it was tough," Munoz said. "I remember walking from class to my dorm thinking, 'I don't know why I even go to class because I can't understand anything.' … But then all of a sudden — you learn it so quick because you have to. It's so much easier when you have to. It's not like taking lessons in the afternoon. It's either, 'I learn it or I don't talk,' and I like to talk, so I had to learn it."
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Kingsmill on the James, Williamsburg
Learned it so well that she earned a degree in psychology with a minor in business. Learned it so well that she graduated summa cum laude with a 3.98 grade-point average and was named the Pacific 10 Conference's top scholar-athlete.
Education on the LPGA Tour has been even more challenging, but after Thursday's opening-round 65 gave her a share of the lead at the Kingsmill Championship, Munoz pronounced her game and, most important, her mind as sound.
Few question her talent. Few ever have.
Munoz won the 2008 NCAA championship as a junior in a sudden-death playoff with UCLA's Tiffany Joh and led the Sun Devils to the national title as a senior. She won her first tournament as a professional, the 2009 Ladies Madrid Masters on the European Tour, and was the LPGA's top rookie in 2010.
But her lone LPGA victory is the 2012 Sybase Match Play, where she defeated Candie Kung 2 and 1 in the final. The problem, Munoz believes, was her temper.
Don't misunderstand. Munoz wasn't channeling Spain's golfing treasure, the late Seve Ballesteros. Few, if any, are that demonstrative and emotional. But she did allow poor play to affect her more than necessary.
"I'm going to keep fist-pumping if I make a putt, and I don't care if I look crazy," Munoz said with a smile. "I love it. What I mean is, that if I hit a bad shot, I don't want my whole day to be ruined because of that. If I have a bad round, it is what it is. Obviously I want to play good golf, but I don't want to be miserable every time I have a bad round because you're going to have so many of those in your life. I don't want to be like that."
Munoz was like that, and the fix wasn't simply maturing with age. Rather, she consulted with Peter Crone, a renowned sports psychologist whose clients have included golfers Fredrik Jacobson and Charles Howell III, and baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks.
"He's helped me so much," Munoz said. "I have been working with him since last September, and I'm just like a different person. I have bad days still. Sometimes I just really fall off. I've never been awful, but like on the inside, I don't really show it. Like I'm pretty well behaved.
"But this year I've been just so much better. It's just so much easier to have good rounds. And when you have a bad round, it's not so bad."
Emotional stability has produced consistent performance. Earlier this season Munoz finished 11th or better in six consecutive tournaments, vaulting her to 20th in the latest world rankings.
She tied for seventh at the Kraft Nabisco, her best finish ever in a major. She lost a playoff in Singapore when Paula Creamer made a 75-foot eagle putt, and she tied for second in Phoenix, a stroke behind Hall of Famer Karrie Webb.
Weather permitting, Munoz will begin play Friday atop the leaderboard with Austin Ernst, the 2011 NCAA champion from LSU. Munoz opened with a 65 here two years ago and tied for ninth, so she likes not only the state of her game but also the course.
The Tour was idle last week, and after seven straight weeks on the road, Munoz was ready for a break at home in Florida — so much so that she scrapped plans to practice at Pinehurst No. 2, site of next month's U.S. Women's Open.
"I was tired," Munoz said. "You always get back to your bad habits (then)."
True enough, but her worst habit appears to be in the rear-view mirror.