BACK IN January, the first rookie to play in the LPGA's
Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions was heading for the
right side of the range at Orlando's Grand Cypress, the best
place to practice in the left-to-right wind, when she spotted
Nancy Lopez already at work there. Twenty-one-year-old Karrie
Webb, whose fast start in the 1996 LPGA season would in the
weeks to come leave her blushing at comparisons with Lopez's
record-setting rookie year, is seldom intimidated, but the sight
of Lopez hitting balls and the prospect of doing the same beside
her gave Webb pause. She retreated to the opposite side of the
range and, despite the wind, had an effective practice session.
By the end of the week Webb had beaten Lopez by 10 strokes and
was the runner-up to tournament winner Liselotte Neumann.
"Karrie's still young and somewhat new to the pro game, and it
amazes her to see players like Laura Davies and Jane Geddes on
the range, but once on the course it doesn't daunt her," says
friend and fellow Australian Stuart Appleby, himself a rookie on
the PGA Tour. "She's got a very solid game and is strong
mentally. Off the course she's not a complicated person, very
nice, very down to earth and very humble."
Off the course the wide-eyed Webb is astonished by the fact that
in the space of 11 days in January, in seven rounds of golf, she
produced three years of job security and enough money to
purchase a spacious three-bedroom house in one of Orlando's
better neighborhoods. Pretty neat for a young woman from Ayr,
Queensland, a town of 9,000 about 10 miles inland from a beach
protected by the Great Barrier Reef. But on the course the
worldwide Webb--she is currently the only player so young with
victories on three continents--isn't surprised. She intends to
win every week, and has nearly done so.
A week after finishing second at the Tournament of Champions,
Webb defeated Geddes and Martha Nause in a playoff at the
HealthSouth Inaugural. When the LPGA resumed play in the third
week of February, Webb was second at the Cup Noodles Hawaiian
Open. Last week, at the Ping/Welch's Championship in Tucson, the
tour's fourth event of the season, she finished tied for
seventh, five shots behind Neumann's winning score of
12-under-par 276. Webb won $11,321, which gives her $208,176 for
the season, $17,006 more than Neumann. She already has virtually
locked up the rookie-of-the-year award, which was her goal for
this year. Webb was named the top first-year player in Europe
last season, so if she does go on to win the LPGA version of
that award, she will follow in the footsteps of Sweden's Annika
Sorenstam, who was the last player to put together back-to-back
rookie-of-the-year campaigns, in 1993 and '94. But while
Sorenstam didn't become the LPGA's overall player of the year
until one season later, Webb could win the rookie and overall
titles simultaneously, something that hasn't been done since
Lopez's smashing, nine-win rookie year in '78.
Sorenstam is pulling for her, in part for selfish reasons. "I'm
glad everybody's talking about her. It takes some of the
pressure off me," says Sorenstam, whose sixth-place finish in
Tucson marked her first appearance this season. "I've played
with her a lot in Europe, and Karrie is a very impressive
player. I'm not surprised by what she's done." While Sorenstam
already says she has "achieved in one year what I hoped to
achieve in a lifetime" and speaks dreamily of children and the
life she will lead after golf, Webb remains firmly focused on
the game. The only family concern is whether to keep her maiden
name once she marries fiance-caddie Todd Haller. (Webb says yes,
Haller no, and that's all they really want to say about it.)
Unlike Sorenstam, Webb will not be a reluctant superstar. With
Greg Norman as exemplar, she long ago realized that the
competitive success she wants shares a circulatory system with
the time-consuming demands of popular attention.
Right now she is the golden girl of the Australian media, which
celebrate her relentlessly, while some announcers mispronounce
her name (the first syllable of Karrie rhymes, appropriately,
with star). The volume of coverage at home--even her arrival at
an Australian airport is considered newsworthy--has made Webb
wary of the seemingly inevitable day when the press will turn on
her. "It happens to everyone after he or she gets successful,"
she says. "The media have been really rough on Greg, and someday
it will happen to me. When you fall short in any way, they
attack you, or if you get too successful, they try to knock you
While not particularly enjoying the intrusions of the media,
Webb is already adept at offering pithy summations of the stages
of her life. As an eight-year-old tomboy who played every sport
she could on boys' teams, Karrie took up golf with her parents.
At about the same time Jan Stephenson, Australia's most famous
woman golfer, was having her best year, winning the U.S. Open
and two other tournaments. But her accomplishments failed to
inspire that eight-year-old in Ayr. "I knew she'd won the U.S.
Open, but I didn't realize she'd done anything else," Webb says.
"I thought she was just a pinup. Now that I know her record, I'm
much more impressed."
Three years later Webb had found her idol, Norman, a fellow
Queenslander who came home the British Open champ and the No.
1-ranked player in the world. She saw him when she went to her
first tournament, the 1986 Queensland Open. Amid the excitement
and the applause and the shotmaking, the cement was poured on
her life's path. She soon began to shed nongolf activities,
giving up other sports, the guitar and tap dancing. And her
nascent game was put into the hands of the Ayr Golf Club's
greenkeeper and Todd's uncle, Kelvin Haller, who has been her
coach ever since. A paraplegic since angioplasty triggered a
stroke 5 1/2 years ago, Haller has been advising Webb by phone
since her departure from Australia. "Karrie was very
determined," he says. "You didn't have to chase her down to
practice; she'd be there before you. She was winning tournaments
from the beginning, beating girls much older than she was."
Webb's game has steadily improved, without a single setback or
slump. Haller has emphasized the basics and good rhythm, and the
result, Webb's athletic and fluid swing, has drawn much praise.
Yet another Aussie, Steve Elkington, recently paid Webb's action
the ultimate compliment: "She reminds me of me."
While a teenager Webb won almost every amateur tournament in
Australia, including perhaps her most memorable, a 1991 junior
event sponsored by Norman's foundation. The prize for the girl
and boy winners was a trip to Florida to spend a week at
Norman's house in Hobe Sound. The timing of the visit was
perfect. Norman had just broken the worst slump of his career
and was in a fine mood. Webb, then 17, arrived in the evening,
and though she didn't meet Norman that night, he was there
literally to wake her in the morning. Norman intended the week
to be pro golf boot camp. "They had to do everything I did, live
the life of a professional for a week, to see if they had the
dedication required," he says. "If I was up at dawn, they were
up at dawn. If I lifted weights, they lifted weights. If I hit
400 balls, they hit 400 balls. Karrie was right there the whole
way, whereas the boy couldn't keep up. She had the right
attitude. It was obvious that she had the game and the mental
toughness to succeed. I would say she's one of the most
promising young players, male or female, that I've seen."
Webb is amused by Norman's description. "I don't think it was as
strenuous as Greg made out," she says. "We played golf nearly
every day, but 400 practice balls? I don't think so. We also
went fishing and to Universal Studios."
Webb turned pro a month before her 20th birthday, whereupon she
and Todd Haller, backed by a $5,000 loan from her grandparents,
set off for the European tour. They were fully prepared to
scrape by for two or three seasons before attempting the LPGA.
But there never had to be any scraping. Webb has made every cut,
27 to date, as a pro. In 1995 she played five mini-tour events
in the U.S. while waiting for the tour in Europe to start. She
won one and left America as the tour's leading money winner. In
Europe she had the rookie-of-the-year season in which she
finished third on the money list (more than $200,000) and was
eight times in the top 10, including a six-stroke victory in the
Webb knew that she was ready for the LPGA, but because she
wasn't a member of the American tour, her prize for winning the
British Open included a berth in the Tournament of Champions but
not an exemption from qualifying school. Webb wasn't too
concerned about Q school until she cracked a bone in her right
forearm in a fall down some steps at her manager's home a few
weeks before the competition was to take place last October. Her
doctor warned that if she knocked her club against a stone or
tree or something else hard, the bone could snap. Despite going
in underprepared and a bit unnerved, she placed second and
earned her exemption.
Any anxiety about playing in the U.S. evaporated after Webb
started the season by going second-first-second. During the gap
in the LPGA schedule between Hawaii and Tucson, she bought the
house in Florida, which contains little more than the
HealthSouth trophy, a very large television set, exercise
equipment and a fireplace, the latter still sealed in plastic.
It's a fine start to Webb's new life in America, and the
furniture will come. Her new life on the LPGA tour is much the
same: A fine start, with more to come.
"Ever since I turned pro, all I've wanted to do is compete,"
says Webb. "I just love it. I love the pressure and being in
contention. I love it much more now as a pro than I did as an
amateur. And the amazing thing is that I'm on the LPGA tour and
I've had that pressure every week."
Webb so thrives on competition that she rarely plays well in
practice rounds, usually losing up to 20 yards in distance no
matter how hard she tries. That is why her week in Tucson began
so ominously: She had an alarmingly good practice round on
Last Thursday and Friday she did not strike the ball to her
satisfaction and was amazed to be two under par after 36 holes.
On Saturday her game returned, and at one point during her round
of 69, she was briefly within a stroke of the lead. Webb never
contended on Sunday, closing with a 70.
It didn't really matter that her streak of firsts and seconds
had ended. Webb was happy to be back in her element, competing.
"This is the start of four tournaments in a row," she said
later. "I'm looking forward to it so much, I can't wait." She
has never had to.
COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK Having conquered Europe, Webb has moved to Orlando and the LPGA tour. [Karrie Webb holding trophy]
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS O'MEARA/AP PHOTO Webb and Haller came close in the T of C and won the next week. [Karrie Webb hugging Todd Haller]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS Although she had never placed worse than second, Webb wasn't bent out of shape in Tucson. [Karrie Webb bending golf club over her head]