It was only an elevator ride, 10 seconds tops, but the chill in
the air said everything about the cold war between Annika
Sorenstam and Karrie Webb. Two days before the start of last
week's Australian Ladies Masters, Sorenstam was in an elevator
in the clubhouse of the Royal Pines Golf Course, on her way to
the pressroom. Just before the doors closed, Webb, heading for
the same place, slipped in.
Silence. No smiles, no nods of recognition, not even any eye
contact. In a weird sort of prison-yard challenge, Webb moved to
the back of the expansive elevator and stood directly behind
Sorenstam. It was an awkward ride.
Only after they had escaped the elevator did Sorenstam and Webb
remember their manners--the former in her press conference with
Australian reporters, the latter in a series of phone interviews
in an adjacent room. Standing in the doorway between the two
rooms, one could listen to both players.
"We do not compete against each other," Sorenstam said. "We
compete against the golf course. Karrie is a great player, and I
don't worry about how she plays because I can't control it."
At that moment Webb was spouting what has been the party line
for more than two years. "It's made up by the media," she said.
"Annika and I are friends, and we respect each other's games. I
don't think there is a rivalry."
Well, after what went down Down Under the ruse is up, and even
Sorenstam and Webb know it. The Australian Masters was the most
compelling clash yet between these rivals, and their pitched
battle finally spilled out from behind closed doors. Going into
the weekend separated by a stroke, Webb dropped a course-record
64 on Sorenstam last Saturday to open a five-shot lead and then
stared down the Swede in a tense final round. Twice Sorenstam
shaved the spread to two strokes--the last time with a birdie at
the 12th--but she could draw no closer as Webb played
brilliantly down the stretch. "I kept telling myself, I'm not
going to lose this thing," Webb said. "I'm not going to let her
Sorenstam was gracious in defeat, but she couldn't hide her
disappointment, especially after she double-bogeyed the 71st
hole (she would finish with a 70 and four-round score of 11
under, five back of Webb). "Annika's hot," Sorenstam's husband,
David Esch, said as he watched her skulk toward the 18th green.
"I've never seen her this pissed."
Webb was so stoked with her victory that she bragged that she
was going to do some celebrating. This was the first time she
had won on her home soil as a professional, and it happened in
front of about 45 friends and relatives who had made the 10-hour
trek from her hometown of Ayr, the tiny farming community in
northern Queensland, to Gold Coast. Webb's bravura performance
also purged the memory of last year's Masters, when she coughed
up six strokes over the last 12 holes to lose by one to Gail
Graham, a turn of events that left her a quivering mess of
tears. "This is probably the best day of my life," Webb told the
raucous crowd assembled around the 18th to watch her accept the
winner's crystal and $105,000 (U.S.). Was it all the sweeter
because she had trumped Sorenstam? "Definitely," Webb said.
Webb's fortitude was even more impressive because Sunday marked
only the second time that she and Sorenstam had squared off in
the last pairing of a final round. The other occasion had been
similarly epochal--the season-opening Tournament of Champions in
1997. Webb was coming off her stunning rookie year, during which
she had won four times, led the money list and almost stolen the
spotlight from Sorenstam, who in '96 had won her second straight
U.S. Open as well as the scoring title. On that fateful day at
the Weston Hill Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Sorenstam blew
away Webb with a 66, ringing in a year during which she would
win six times (Webb won three tournaments), set an earnings
record with more than $1.2 million and put a stranglehold on the
No. 1 spot in the world rankings.
Last week's showdown in Australia was the first time since then
that Webb has eclipsed Sorenstam. "She told me earlier in the
week that if she could get this one, it would free her soul,"
said Evelyn Webb, Karrie's mom. "It would be in her homeland, it
would be in front of the family, and then she could move on to
bigger and better things."
Like the No. 1 ranking? "That's definitely one of my goals,"
says Webb. On Sunday, though, all she wanted to do was savor her
hard-fought victory. Webb said she was so crestfallen after last
year's Masters because she was sure she had let down all her
supporters, chief among them Kelvin Haller, who has been her
coach since she was 11. Haller, a paraplegic since suffering a
stroke in 1990, gets to see Webb play only when she's in
Australia. On Sunday, after Webb had putted out on 18, received
a champagne shower from her kid sister, Katie, and run a gantlet
of hugs and kisses from the official Webb site behind the green,
she finally worked her way to Haller.
They hugged for what seemed like an eternity, Haller struggling
to stroke Webb's back with his frail right arm. Tears streaming
down his cheeks, Haller was so overwhelmed he could get out only
a single word. "Legendary," he said. Webb squeezed him a little
bit harder. She, too, was crying, but these were a very
different sort of tears from a year ago.
The premier of Queensland, Bob Borbidge, was so moved by Webb's
victory that he proclaimed her "the finest golfer in the world"
during the trophy presentation that followed.
"Last I checked she's still Number 2," muttered Esch. His better
half isn't quite so blunt, but later that night she issued some
fighting words. Sorenstam was parked in her suite high atop a
casino, with a view that seemed to take in all of Gold Coast. A
small gathering of friends was enjoying a last supper in
Australia of beer and pizza. Reminded that Webb longs to be the
top player in the world, Sorenstam mouthed the usual platitudes
about how unimportant that is, insisting her only goal is to
So she's willing to cede the top spot to Webb? "Oh no, I'm not
going to give it to her," Sorenstam said with some heat. "If she
wants it, she's going to have to take it from me."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GILBERT ROSSI BEST LICK Webb almost lapped the field with a third-round 64. [Karrie Webb]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GILBERT ROSS "If she wants [to be No. 1]," Sorenstam says, "she's going to have to take it from me." [Annika Sorenstam]