On the drive down Georgia's Interstate 20 three Sundays ago,
Karrie Webb sat in the passenger seat of a rented Toyota Tercel
and forlornly gazed at the miniature television resting in her
lap. Webb, the Australian phenom who finished 2-1-2 in her first
three LPGA tournaments, had left Augusta National that day
crestfallen because her childhood idol, Greg Norman, had been
unable to seize the moment and win the Masters.
On the TV screen Webb watched Nick Faldo walk up the 18th
fairway. For a moment Webb wished that the Pinkerton security
guard who earlier in the day had confiscated the TV--such devices
are a no-no at Augusta National--had kept it. Tears welled in her
eyes. She turned off the set and rode in silence back home to
Orlando. "I'd fall asleep and wake up wondering if it really
happened," she says. "I couldn't believe it."
Fast forward to Sunday in the parking lot of LPGA International
in Daytona Beach. Webb is again in the passenger seat of a
rented Tercel, but this time she is going home with a smile on
her face. One of those large cardboard checks--made out for
$180,000--is in the trunk, and she is wearing the dark-green
blazer that goes to the winner of the Sprint Titleholders
Championship. This blonde Australian did what that other one
couldn't: win a green jacket.
Although Webb started the final round of the $1.2 million
Titleholders three shots behind the leader, Catrin Nilsmark of
Sweden, a Normanesque burst of birdies-- including one in the
clutch on the final hole--allowed her to finish one stroke ahead
of Kelly Robbins, two in front of defending champion Val
Skinner, three clear of Nilsmark, Tina Barrett and Laura Davies,
and five better than Annika Sorenstam, the 1995 LPGA Player of
May 12, 1996
The 21-year-old Webb now has two wins, two seconds and $462,388
in earnings this year. That is more than enough to pay off the
new house in Orlando and buy a car. No more rented Toyotas; Webb
has her eye on a BMW. "I'm not used to having this much money,"
she says. Nor is she used to her sudden success. In one year
Webb has gone from being an anonymous spectator at the
Titleholders to a shoo-in for rookie of the year. And if the
season ended tomorrow, Webb would be the clear choice as player
of the year. That's a long way from where she was 12 months ago,
when she won her first tournament as a professional, a Future's
tour event in Ocala, Fla., that paid $4,500. Buoyed by that
victory, Webb moved to the European tour, on which she won the
Women's British Open last August. In the fall she returned to
Florida to try to qualify for the LPGA. She finished second at Q
school, shooting a four-under 284--with a cracked bone in her
right forearm. "It was an absolute miracle that she even ended
up playing," says Todd Haller, her fiance and caddie.
A few weeks before Q school a London doctor fit Webb with a
plaster cast, and she figured that was that. But another doctor
intervened and suggested that she might be able to play with a
special brace, and within 2 1/2 weeks Webb was back hitting
balls. "Maybe it was fate that my wrist healed so fast," she says.
Maybe so, because Webb's roll began as soon as the new season
started. In January she made a long putt on the 72nd hole to
finish second in the Tournament of Champions and followed that
up the next week with a playoff win over Jane Geddes and Martha
Nause in the HealthSouth Inaugural. In her third tournament,
Webb shot 69 in the final round of the Hawaiian Open but was
beaten by Meg Mallon's closing 68. Webb did not make a double
bogey or finish out of the top 10 until her seventh start. "If
she could sustain that kind of play for the rest of her career,
it would be pretty amazing," says Skinner. "It's pretty
Webb's 66 on Sunday at the Titleholders was a cool display of
flawless golf on a broiling day. At one point on the back nine,
five players were tied for the lead. None closed the way Webb
did. She hit all 18 greens in regulation and made birdie with a
searing three-iron to the 18th green after Robbins, playing in
the group in front of her, had made eagle to tie.
The finish cemented her reputation as a player who can't wait
for Sunday. Her final-round stroke average is 69.1, lowest on
the LPGA tour, and as she has proved, Webb has no shortage of
carpe diem. "She's playing great, and I don't see it ending too
quickly," says Davies. Neither, for that matter, does Skinner.
"When she gets going, she's not afraid to go lower," she says.
"For a young player it's important to have that ability."
Skinner was paired with Webb at last summer's Women's British
Open. Webb was 14 under and won by six strokes, with Sorenstam
finishing tied for second and Skinner tied for fourth. Webb had
finished second to Davies late in 1994 in the Australian
Masters, but the British Open was the first indication that she
could become this year what Sorenstam was last year--a
dominating presence. What impresses her peers most is Webb's
flat-line disposition. She has the game, but more important, she
has the head.
"When I won my third tournament as a pro [in 1975] and set the
rookie earnings record with $26,798, everybody said it could
lead to a rookie jinx," says Amy Alcott, who first won at age
19. "But Karrie seems like she's really in control of herself.
Now it's a matter of how she uses this to grow as a player."
Webb is already $200,000 ahead of Helen Alfredsson's rookie
earnings record set in 1992 and could become the first player
since Nancy Lopez in 1978 to be both rookie and player of the
year. The Titleholders was her seventh top-10 finish in nine
1996 events. As solid as he was last year, not even Norman was
that consistent. "I told her to go home, her family misses her,"
says Dawn Coe-Jones. "She's too good."
She certainly was too good on Friday. Webb started with five
straight birdies, made the turn in 29 and was eight under
through 12 holes. Two bogeys ended the momentum, but Webb saved
the round with a closing birdie to shoot 65 and tie the course
record. Saturday night, after a 70, she went to dinner at a
small restaurant across from Daytona International Speedway with
Haller, his parents and the couple who hosted them last April in
Ocala, and nobody recognized her. That will end soon.
In Australia--Webb grew up in the tiny Queensland town of Ayr
(pop. 9,000)--she already is recognized as a national hero.
"She's quickly becoming a sporting legend," says her father,
Robert. Webb's name was all over the papers Down Under after the
Titleholders. What she needs to get that kind of attention in
the U.S. is a catchy nickname. Some of the Aussie women have
tried calling her Spider, but Webb doesn't like that.
Webb will play in Japan after this week's McDonald's LPGA
Championship and will return for the U.S. Women's Open. A major
championship is on her list of goals, although the Titleholders
is the next closest thing. To know she needed birdie at the last
to win, and to hit a three-iron onto the 18th green to set it
up, showed what kind of game Webb really has.
Now her name is engraved on a trophy beside those of Patty Berg,
Babe Zaharias, Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth. And she gets a
green jacket, size 6, to keep forever. That's all because she
didn't pull a Norman. She pulled a Webb.