For four hours, anyway, Karrie Webb had the stage to herself. At
the very moment Tiger Woods was slipping off the 18th green at
St. Andrews to sign his historic British Open scorecard, Webb was
walking to the 1st tee of an eight-year-old golf course built on
a former cattle ranch on the outskirts of suburban Chicago. She
was hoping to make some history of her own, hoping to win her
first U.S. Open. In the locker room at the Merit Club, a half
dozen LPGA players looked at a television, its giant screen
filled with thousands of overseas golf revelers occupying every
cranny and nook around golf's most celebrated green. Thousands of
spectators were at the sprawling Merit Club, too, but there was
no frenzy. Everybody knew what Webb was about to do: firmly
establish herself, in the words of Nancy Lopez, "as the Tiger
Woods of women's golf."
Their similarities are uncanny. Webb is 25 and lives in Florida.
Woods is 24 and lives in Florida. Both won Rookie of the Year
awards in 1996 and Player of the Year awards in 1999. Both have
swings that are wide and powerful, rooted in classical moves but
utterly modern. Both have a remarkable capacity for work and a
healthy ability to get away from the game. Both know how to peak.
It's their ultimate weapon. Woods has won each of the four men's
professional major championships. Webb has won three of the four
On Sunday, she won the 55th U.S. Women's Open by five
shots--that's still considered a lot in any tournament Tiger's not
entered in, by the way--over Meg Mallon and Cristie Kerr, who
turned pro at 18 and is starting to come into her own at age 22.
The ability to win golf tournaments when you most want to and
when you most need to does not fall under that vague and mushy
sports-speak category called "mental toughness." It involves
something far more ancient and meaty and noble: resolve.
The week began inauspiciously for Webb. Her inaugural tee shot in
Thursday morning's first round was a pull-hook that finished in
the rough, 10 yards in back of a spindly tree just wide enough to
block her route to the green. In public, Webb speaks in the
monotone of a shy person who does not want her emotional life
invaded. On the golf course, she cannot hide. As she stood over
her ball, her tight lips and burning cheeks and hard practice
swings gave you a good hint at the words running through her
head: What's this damn tree doing in my way? She had to play an
approach shot to the right of the green, and from there she
pitched on and two-putted for a bogey. Not the start she had in
mind. But after the round, she revealed why she is a golfing
genius and why she does not need the services of a sports
psychologist. "You have to remember that you have 71 holes to
go," she said. "If you lose your patience on the first hole, you
might as well go back to the clubhouse and get a flight home."
That spindly tree--someday it will assume its rightful place as a
first-hole irritant and buffer between the hole and the adjacent
upscale housing development--was a reminder that Merit is not one
of the old USGA standbys, that it is not an Oakmont or a
Broadmoor or a Cherry Hills. It is a sound and fair golf course,
expertly conditioned, with firm fairways, fast greens and rough
that last week was penal without being unplayable. For all four
days the tournament enjoyed the most beautiful weather you can
imagine, better even than the weather in St. Andrews! What Merit
lacked was charm, history, eccentricity, excitement.
Dr. Trey Holland, president of the USGA, was at the Old Course
for the first two rounds of the British Open, flew from Glasgow
to Chicago on Saturday and on Sunday was walking with the last
pairing, Webb and Mallon. He wore a white button-down USGA shirt
and a navy-blue Royal & Ancient vest over it. He said only nice
things about the Merit Club--he was being both honest and
diplomatic--but acknowledged that his organization has struggled
to get the great American clubs with storied courses to take the
women's U.S. Open in the middle of summer. "It would be
exciting," he said, "but it's hard to work out."
Few people thought the timing of the women's 2000 Open, opposite
a British Open at St. Andrews, was ideal. It happened because the
Open needed some separation from the Advil Western Open, a PGA
Tour stop played in early July in Lemont, Ill. Once that decision
was made, a few TV executives came up with the theory that
coinciding with the men's tournament would be a good thing for
the women's tour, that American TV viewers--the greatest couch
potatoes in the world--would watch the British Open in the
morning, break for lunch, then watch the women in the afternoon.
Interesting theory, but the numbers didn't support it. The
overnight ratings indicated that the women got no bounce from the
British Open (SI View, page 36.)
You couldn't really engage Webb in a conversation about the venue
or the timing of the event or even Tiger. She had other things on
her mind, like winning. She opened with a 69, three under par and
one behind Mallon, and was still a stroke behind her after both
women shot par in the second round. On Saturday, Webb closed the
deal, or so it seemed. She shot a businesslike 68, four under
par, without doing anything spectacular. Mallon, much beloved and
befreckled, could manage only a 73, and she trailed Webb by four.
Nobody else was really in the picture.
Around the clubhouse and in the parking lot, Webb's competitors
talked about Webb in a way that brought to mind Tiger's
competitors talking about Tiger. Mallon, winner of the 1991 U.S.
Open, focused on Webb's ability to "smell blood and go in for the
kill," although the numbers don't totally bear her out. Before
last week, Webb had led 20 events going into the final round and
had won 12 of them. A good record, but nothing to make you want
to pack your bags early.
Still, Webb was praised widely, and you had the feeling the
players, without knowing it, were trying to keep pace with the
praise Woods was receiving at St. Andrews. "She's the most
competitive person out here," said Beth Daniel, one of Webb's
close friends. "If you go out to dinner, she'll try to beat you
back to the hotel, like it's a race."
And then an odd thing happened on Sunday. Webb came out nervous,
unsure about her club selections, tentative with her putts.
Through six holes, she was one over for the day and Mallon was
even, and the margin was three strokes. On the 7th hole, a
downhill, cross-breeze par-3 playing at 155 yards, Webb struggled
to settle on a club, hemmed and hawed about starting a backswing
and finally pulled her tee ball into the water. She made a double
bogey. Mallon made a par, and the difference was one shot.
Then came the smelling of blood and the making of a kill. Webb
played the remaining 11 holes in nine pars and two birdies, and
Mallon, tripping on her balky putter, was never again in range.
"I had to remember," Webb said later, "that I was still leading."
She closed with a birdie, reaching the par-5 18th with two
prodigious whacks, and finished with a 73. In victory, she cried.
This is known because she actually removed her wraparounds and
revealed her eyes, which were filled with life. Her winner's
check was for $500,000. (Last year's winner, Juli Inkster, took
home $315,000. This year she finished 23rd, closing with an 80.)
Webb's name goes on a trophy along with those of Patty Berg, Babe
Didrikson Zaharias, Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright, Betsy King and
Annika Sorenstam. Webb won last year's du Maurier Classic and
this year's Nabisco Championship, and now needs only the
McDonald's LPGA Championship to complete a career Grand Slam. Her
victory at the Merit Club gives her enough points to qualify
automatically for the LPGA Hall of Fame. All she needs is the
requisite number of years on tour--10. She's halfway there.
Getting into the Hall of Fame has been a life's dream for Webb.
"Everything from now on is a bonus for me," she said.
A. Sorenstam took the prize for low Sorenstam (tied for ninth,
nine strokes back of Webb but seven in front of Charlotta, who
finished 27th); Mi Hyun Kim, listed at 5'1", took the prize for
low Korean (tied for fourth, ahead of the nine other Koreans in
the field); Beth Daniel took the prize for low
fortysomething-year-old (tied for eighth, at 43); and Naree
Wongluekiet took the prize for low amateur and low 14-year-old
(40th). Naree's twin sister, Aree, who finished tied for 10th in
the Nabisco Championship, wasn't at the Open. She was in La
Jolla, Calif., winning the Junior World Championships by 10
shots. You're looking for the next Tigers? They're already making
noise. At the awards ceremony, Webb worried that she may have
mispronounced the family name--she probably realizes that it
wouldn't be smart to do anything to antagonize those girls.
Webb should be safe for a few years, anyway. Inkster, who is 40,
has suggested to friends that she'll start cutting back her
schedule next year to 15 events, about 10 fewer than she is
likely to play this year. Laura Davies, who tied for ninth last
week, and Se Ri Pak, who finished 15th, will still have their
weeks, but neither has shown herself to be in the class of Webb.
Sorenstam is her main competition. She has won five times this
year, including once in a playoff over Webb. She won twice in the
two weeks coming into the Open but evidently peaked too early and
is No. 2 on the money list again. "I gave her a pretty good run,
and she's answered back," Sorenstam said on Sunday. "I need to go
home and practice a little harder."
In victory Webb showed her subtle wit and indomitable
competitiveness, too. Late on Sunday afternoon, somebody reminded
her that Woods needed six attempts to win the U.S. Open and that
Webb had needed only five. She smiled, licked her right index
finger and made a notch mark in the air. That's how she does her
best public speaking: with actions.
In Port St. Lucie, Fla., Mickey Wright did just what the TV
executives hoped the rest of the country would do. She watched
Tiger in the morning, mesmerized, and Karrie in the afternoon,
deeply impressed. Wright won four U.S. Opens, the same number as
Betsy Rawls. Nobody has won more. "She could break that record,"
Wright said. "From everything I've seen, she certainly could."
One down, four more to go. Things that used to seem ridiculous no
longer do. The old marks in golf are reachable again. It's a
brand new day.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL SHORT-TIMER Her victory on Sunday gave Webb enough points to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame after just five years on the tour.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL MEG TRYIN' Mallon led after two rounds, but she was derailed by a balky putter.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL A tangled Webb gets a helping hand after hitting out of trouble on Thursday.
In the clubhouse Webb's competitors talked about Webb in a way
that brought to mind Tiger's competitors talking about Tiger.
"Karrie's the most competitive person out here," says Daniel.
"If you go to dinner, she'll try to beat you back to the hotel,
like it's a race."