Laura Davies was cruising along in the final round of the last
major championship of the LPGA season as no other woman golfer
can, making a big course seem small and her challengers even
smaller. Leading the du Maurier Classic by a comfortable three
strokes, Davies made par after safe par at Priddis Greens Golf
and Country Club, outside Calgary, avoiding trouble by using a
three-iron off nearly every tee. But when she failed to two-putt
from 50 feet for birdie at the par-5 12th hole, something told
her that she had created a crack just wide enough for a special
player to wiggle through. "That was a big mistake," Davies said
to her caddie as she walked off the green. "You watch Webbie
make a move now."
True to Davies's dark vision, Karrie Webb, in the group ahead,
holed a vital 20-footer for par a moment later. That propelled
Webb, the 24-year-old Australian, to a succession of flawless
shots that produced birdies on the next three holes and put her
into a tie with Davies. "I could feel that I was going to hit it
close," Webb said. "When I think about it, I can't believe I do
those things. But when I'm playing, I know I can."
That sort of confidence explains why Webb had no trouble sinking
a slippery six-footer on the 72nd hole for birdie, which a
stunned Davies failed to match, to cap a second straight 66 and
conclude one of the most brilliant finishes in the history of
the women's majors. Webb's closing rush--she made 16 birdies
over the final 40 holes--brought her a coveted prize. "We won a
major!" she said, tearfully hugging her caddie, Evan Minster,
when Davies's last-gasp attempt to tie slipped past the hole.
"Finally," he replied, speaking for all of golf.
Such is the breadth of Webb's talent that, after 3 1/2 years on
the LPGA tour, the world wanted to know why none of her 14
victories had come in a major. The questioning only intensified
this year as Webb won five times in a 17-tournament stretch,
during which she had 16 top 10 finishes. Still, she hadn't
shaken her habit of going soft in the big ones. In 15 previous
majors Webb was in serious contention on the final nine only
once, at the '96 du Maurier, in which Davies closed with a 66 to
beat her by two strokes.
This year Webb had been a respectable third at the Dinah Shore
and seventh in the U.S. Open, but her worst performance of the
year had come in the LPGA Championship, in which she missed the
cut for only the second time in her 91 starts on the LPGA tour.
Webb logically insisted that she was far too young to go into
majors with extra urgency, but the questions were getting more
nettlesome, and the pressure was starting to build.
Why the walls came down at the du Maurier is another of golf's
imponderables, although Webb said she simply put into practice
some of the lessons she has learned since turning pro. After
trying to deconstruct her swing and putting stroke during her
frustrating opening rounds of 73-72, Webb decided to eschew all
mechanical thoughts on the weekend. She also overcame a habit of
dwelling on mistakes. When Webb missed what seemed to be a
crucial three-foot putt for birdie on the 9th hole on Sunday,
she put it behind her by focusing on how the ballstriking groove
she was in would create more birdie opportunities. Sure enough,
they came in a cluster, and she capitalized. "I don't ever try
to think of myself as the best player in the world," said Webb,
"but I played like I was."
The breakthrough victory ensures that she is indeed the top
player in women's golf. Juli Inkster's wins at the LPGA
Championship and the U.S. Open temporarily surpassed Webb's
seasonlong brilliance, but the 39-year-old Inkster's renascence
is more akin to Mark O'Meara's opportunistic 1998 season. Webb
and Inkster, who finished third last week, were running neck and
neck in player of the year points and on the money list before
the du Maurier, but now Webb is well ahead in both.
Webb's most formidable rival remains Annika Sorenstam, the ice
maiden from Sweden whom Webb has supplanted this year atop the
women's ranking. Sorenstam, 28, had 16 victories, including two
majors, during her first five years on tour, the most productive
start since Nancy Lopez burst onto the scene with 17 wins in her
first two years, 1978 and '79. Sorenstam seemed to be mentally
tougher than Webb, but Webb has clearly improved in that
department. Their rivalry could take a similar arc to that of
tennis players Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. The more
physically gifted Navratilova lost to the more steely Evert
early in their careers but eventually dominated the rivalry.
Webb has the finest swing in the women's game--a fluid, powerful
and classic motion evocative of Mickey Wright's. "I've never
seen a woman swing a club as beautifully and athletically as
Karrie," says Steve Elkington, who has one of the best swings in
the men's game. Although not physically imposing at a roundish
5'6", Webb generates tremendous power by quickly and compactly
clearing her hips on the downswing, a move few LPGA players can
approximate. "It's a man's move," says Elkington. "It's really a
Webb's only weakness had been her putting, but last January,
while having her stroke tested by putter-maker Scotty Cameron, a
high-speed camera revealed that she produced a truer roll with a
crosshanded, or left-hand low, grip. Last year, putting
conventionally, she was the 49th-ranked putter on the tour; this
year she's 16th.
Webb's youth, work ethic and zest for competition--"I love
playing good golf and having a chance to win; that's all I need
to drive me," she says--all point to continued improvement.
"Karrie is going to get a lot of pressure from the media or
whatever," says Lopez, "but that used to make me play better,
and I think Karrie is like me in that. She's got a great game,
and she's got it up here."
Webb's inspired play came at what appears to be a dying
tournament. Because of antitobacco legislation in Canada that is
to go into effect in 2001, Imperial Tobacco, the parent company
of the cigarette brand du Maurier, is not expected to be
permitted to renew its sponsorship of the 27-year-old event.
The du Maurier has long been the LPGA's most minor major, a
designation that was underscored this year when Sorenstam, who
had played in Japan for an appearance fee the week before,
withdrew from the du Maurier citing exhaustion. It was the first
major Sorenstam has missed in her career.
The loss of the du Maurier might provide the LPGA with an
opportunity to bolster the weak link in its major rota. Ideally,
the British Open would be upgraded, giving global scope and an
enriching links presence to the women's game.
Despite the atmosphere of uncertainty, this du Maurier was a
good show from start to finish. The Alberta setting in the
shadow of the Rockies was stunning, prompting many players,
including Inkster, to visit Banff, the world-renowned resort
town 90 minutes away. Although the players needed to wear parkas
and polar fleece in temperatures that hovered in the upper 40s
on some days, the karma was so good at Priddis Greens that 10
holes in one--five in the pro-ams and five in the
tournament--were made. More important, the course was not the
pushover that this year's previous three major venues had been.
Priddis Greens had thick rough, and its multilevel greens
created some diabolical pin positions. The best scoring
opportunities came on the 6,415-yard, par-72 layout's five
par-5s, which is where Davies seized control of the tournament.
Still the longest hitter in the women's game, Davies hit driver
only on the par-5s, reasoning that that gave her "20 eagle
chances," she said. The rest of the time she bumped her
three-iron into the fairway, often leaving herself approach
shots of more than 200 yards. But because Davies can negotiate
that distance with as little as a six-iron rather than the
fairway woods many of the LPGA players employ, she hit green
after green and settled for pars. The strategy worked for three
rounds, after which she had played the par-5s in eight under par
to take a two-stroke lead over Dawn Coe-Jones.
For all its majesty, though, Davies's game is more fragile than
the games of harder-working players such as Sorenstam, Webb and
Se Ri Pak. Davies can't stand up to their relentless consistency
in part because she can't stand to practice. On those rare
occasions when she tees it up at home in England, she plays
lefthanded, off a 24 handicap. Davies's aversion to swing theory
has left her unable to correct flaws in her driving and, more
recently, her putting, undermining her ability to win. Since her
big year in 1996, when she won a couple of majors and two other
tournaments, Davies, 35, has had only two LPGA victories, and
she's winless this year. She played brilliantly for the first 63
holes of the du Maurier, but ultimately a badly pulled five-foot
putt for par on the 71st hole cost her the tournament. Unless
Davies can bring more reliability to her game, she will be
remembered more as a flawed and distracted genius than as the
great player she has often been.
Such a fate seems unlikely for Webb, who, whether or not she
attains greatness, is sure to be most earnest in the attempt.
"Karrie was a serious little girl, and she is a serious young
lady," says her mother, Evelyn, who traveled from Ayr,
Queensland, to watch her daughter in the du Maurier. "That's why
she's able to achieve so much."
Then again, a moment of letting go might have been the key to
Webb's wonderful weekend. After her 72 on Friday she skipped her
postround ball-beating ritual to join her mother at their rented
home for a home-cooked meal of baked chicken, Australian-style.
"It was really, really good," said Webb, who, in what may prove
to be the biggest two days of her career, proved to be even
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN Weekend warrior Webb, who closed fast with a pair of 66s, made 16 birdies on the final 40 holes.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN Oh, so close Davies seemed to be in total control, until a pair of typical putting lapses kept her from her first win of the season.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN Flip side Inkster contended all week but finished third and is still one point shy of the Hall of Fame.
Davies can't stand up to the harder-working younger players in
part because she can't stand to practice.
Webb isn't physically imposing, but, says Elkington, "I've never
seen a woman swing as beautifully and athletically."