It didn't begin tofeel like a British Open until Sunday's final nine, when the breeze, which hadlain down for the first three days, picked up off the Irish Sea. As the cloudsrolled in and a cool, persistent drizzle began to fall over Royal Lytham andSt. Annes, umbrellas popped open and rain jackets were zippered up by playersand spectators alike-except for one very soggy lady, the eventual winner,43-year-old Sherri Steinhauer. Ignoring the driving drizzle, the pressure and astar-studded leader board, she played as if sheathed in a bubble. "I wasn'tcold, the rain seemed to be repelling off my shirt, and I didn't want to changeanything," Steinhauer said. "You don't think golfers are superstitious,do you?"
Superstitious?Steinhauer? Because she had won only one tournament since 1999, just six in her21-year LPGA career, and hadn't won a major since the 1992 du Maurier Classic?Steinhauer was playing as if a genie had granted her three wishes: play likeHogan, play like Nicklaus, play like Woods. The Madison, Wis., native, who alsowon the Women's British Open in 1998 and '99, before it was designated a majorchampionship, was striping her drives down the center of Lytham's undulatingfairways. While the rest of the field was peppering approach shots into thecourse's deviously positioned bunkers-200 of them were lurking outthere-Steinhauer was hitting 15 of 18 greens. Starting the final round with athree-shot lead over Sophie Gustafson, Juli Inkster, Lorena Ochoa and KarenStupples, Steinhauer coolly reeled off 16 pars and a birdie over the first 17holes. Her lone mistake came after she had driven yet again down the middle ofthe fairway at the 18th, at which time her caddie, Bob Kendall, told her shehad a four-shot lead. "I kind of went limp at that point," Steinhauersaid. "I was in shock."
Only then did shefind a bunker, hitting her final approach into the sand to the right of thegreen, leading to her first bogey in 48 holes. It was the first time she hadbeen bunkered since Thursday. Steinhauer's seven-under 281 (73-70-66-72) wasthree shots better than the scores of Gustafson and Cristie Kerr.
Renowned Britishwriter Bernard Darwin once called Royal Lytham and St. Annes, with itshogbacked greens and hidden bunkers, "a beast ... but a just beast."Just? Just nasty, maybe. Even without wind, this storied course on England'swestern shore humbled many of the best players in the world. Karrie Webb, athree-time winner in 2006, shot 76-82 in benign conditions to miss the cut byseven shots. Top-ranked Annika Sorenstam ballooned to a 44 on her final nine toend up 31st, her worst finish in a major since 2001.
Even the wondergirl, 16-year-old Michelle Wie, who dominated the headlines in the Britishpress earlier in the week, fell victim to Lytham's cunning, making an 8 on thepar-5 15th on Sunday. She was penalized two strokes on Friday for moving animpediment-a clump of moss-in the sand during her backswing, a ruling thatnearly brought her to tears. For the week the long-hitting Wie played the fourreachable par-5s in one over, proving once again that Royal Lytham, whose pastwinners include Bobby Jones, Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros, is not a coursethat can be overpowered. After opening the tournament with three straightbogeys, Wie was never a factor, finishing 26th.
So the book can beclosed on Wie's major championship season, which, like her 2005 campaign, endedwithout a win. Both years are remarkably similar, leading to the question: Isthe young phenom improving or stuck on some sort of plateau? In 2005 shefinished 14th, second, 23rd and tied for third in the majors. In '06 she tiedfor third, tied for fifth, tied for third and was 26th. In 2005 she tied forsecond in two other LPGA events. In '06 she tied for second in one. Playingagainst the men, Wie missed the cut at the Sony Open in her home state ofHawaii in 2005 and '06. At the John Deere Classic she missed the cut in 2005and this year withdrew after 27 holes from heat exhaustion.
Wie hits the ballno farther off the tee than she did as a 15-year-old. Her putting hasn'tmeasurably improved. Nor has her short game, which remains average for a pro.Still, Wie trumpets her dream of competing against men and qualifying for aMasters or a U.S. Open even as she wins a women's major in her spare time, allthe while reaping the financial rewards of marketing herself based on thatdream.
Sweet dream, that.Wie has made an estimated $15 million from her various (Nike, Omega, Sony)sponsorships since turning pro last August and commands a reported $1.5 millionin appearance fees to play in tournaments such as the Casio World Open inJapan, which is one reason she's in no rush to apply for membership to the LPGAtour. As a nonmember Wie is allowed to play in six LPGA tournaments a year onsponsors' invitations, plus the U.S. and British Opens. Were she to apply forand be granted membership-and the LPGA would fall all over itself to waive theage restriction (members must be 18)-she could play only twice a year in eventsthat conflicted with the LPGA schedule. Furthermore, a rule the LPGA added in2003 states that members must play in every LPGA tournament at least once everyfour years. The result would be fewer starts against the men, less income fromappearance fees and a general loss of mystique.
What makes Wieunique is not that she's the world's best woman golfer-she isn't-it's thatshe's young, tall, attractive and the only woman outside of Danica Patrick whowants to play against the guys. It matters not a whit that she loses, whichleaves the LPGA in the awkward position of needing Wie more than Wie needs theLPGA. "Every tournament, every week we would love to have MichelleWie," says LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens. "If somebody put aproposal on the table to change some of our restrictions, we'd consider it. Butwe're a membership organization, and no personality is bigger than thewhole."
A friend close tothe Wies says there's little chance that Wie will join the tour next year."She's an international golfer," the friend says. "She commands thesecond- or third-highest appearance fees in the sport, behind Tiger and maybePhil. She'd be giving up a lot. Michelle thinks playing against men improvesher game."
It was difficultto see how at Royal Lytham, which at 6,480 yards was all about precision andexecution, not power. Steinhauer came into the week averaging only 242.7 yardsoff the tee, 126th best on the LPGA. Yet it was Steinhauer, who uses a longputter and needed 34 putts on Sunday, who tamed the beast. Of Steinhauer'sseven career wins, three have come in England-two at Lytham. "This kind ofgolf suits my game," she said. "I love the imagination it takes to playlinks golf; the hard fairways where you have to run the ball into the pins. Itried to hit fairways and greens and stay out of my own way."
Pretty goodformula, that.
Photograph by Bob Martin
FAVORED NATION Steinhauer's victory was her third at the Women's British.
SITTING PRETTY Because of restrictions the LPGA puts on its members, Wie can earn more by not officially joining the tour.