After she hadholed one of the most memorable shots in major championship history, absorbedthe late-game heroics of three of the brightest young talents in women's golf'sand finally prevailed in a nerve-jangling playoff, Karrie Webb pulled the mostinspired pro move of a memorable Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.Tradition compels the tournament's winner to jump into the water surroundingthe 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club, a murky proposition that onceleft Dottie Pepper with an unspecified virus. Overcome by the moment, mostchampions mindlessly, joyously
heel over into the drink seconds after the winning putt drops. Webb had donethat once before, in 2000, the finest season of her Hall of Fame career. In theyears since, Webb's steady decline had accelerated into full-blown slump. Buton Sunday, following her first LPGA tour victory in 22 months, she took amoment to reflect on what she had learned.
So instead ofsprinting toward the water, Webb, 31, leisurely removed one shoe, then theother, daintily peeled off her socks, plucked the glove from her back pocketand carefully emptied the personal effects from the front pockets of hershorts. Then, and only then, did Webb plunge into the pond, washing away yearsof frustration, to say nothing of the sweat and tears from a thrilling day ofgolf. Webb's veteran savvy and clear thinking not only kept her socks dry butalso carried her to victory on a day of wild momentum swings.
She had begun thelast round of the Kraft Nabisco at two under par and in a tie for sixth, sevenstrokes back of Lorena Ochoa, 24, who was playing in a glamorous finalthreesome that included 16-year-old Michelle Wie (six under) and 23-year-oldNatalie Gulbis (four under). While those three jockeyed for position and foughttheir nerves--Ochoa was the only one with an LPGA victory--Webb began sneakingup the leader board, making three birdies on the front nine to move to fiveunder. "And then I birdied 10 and 11," said Webb, who came into theweek with 30 career victories, including six majors, "and I was like, Well,supposedly I've done this before. I'm supposed to be the one who has all theexperience, and Michelle and Natalie and Lorena don't. So I was like, They'renot going to go out there and blitz the back nine, so try to post a score andsee what happens."
On a coursechoked with rough, Webb spent most of the back nine playing from the fairway,following her birdie burst with six straight pars. Sure enough, the kids cameback to her. As Webb arrived at the 485-yard par-5 18th hole, she was tied forthe lead with Wie and Gulbis, while Ochoa had slipped to one back. Though sheremains one of the game's longest hitters, Webb had planned to play 18 as athree-shotter, so after driving into the rough, she slashed out to the fairway,116 yards from a pin tucked on the right side of an island green. Webb pulledout her pitching wedge, and that's when all heaven broke loose.
April 9, 2006
Her approach tookone big hop on the green, and then the ball trickled into the cup. It's hard tosay what was more shocking--Webb's tiebreaking eagle or her reaction. In herprime she was a methodical, seemingly joyless player who hid behind wraparoundsunglasses as if they were the tinted windows of a limousine. Now, with theworld watching, she let loose a cathartic scream, jumped into the arms of hercaddie, Mike Paterson, and wrapped her legs around his torso, looking like YogiBerra embracing Don Larsen after their perfect game. Webb capped thecelebration with undoubtedly the biggest fist pump of her career, anexclamation point on a nearly perfect 65. "My heart just about jumped outof my chest because it was aching for five minutes," Webb said.
The palpitationswere only beginning. The final threesome was approaching the green of the par-416th hole when it heard the roars from Webb's eagle. Moments earlier Wie hadalmost pulled off her own miracle, her approach stopping inches from the hole,leaving her a kick-in birdie. Ochoa topped Wie with a clutch eight-footer for amatching birdie. When the relentless Gulbis stuffed her tee shot on the par-317th for a birdie of her own, all three players headed to the 18th still in theball game; Wie and Gulbis were one back of Webb, while Ochoa was two down. Eachhad one hole to alter the tournament, and her reputation.
After threeexcellent drives Gulbis was the first to play from the fairway. Last year sheproved she was more than simply a slice of cheesecake by racking up 12 top 10sand starring at the Solheim Cup. After another off-season working hard torefine her unorthodox swing, she already had three top fives this year. Allthat's missing is the elusive first victory that will allow Gulbis to bementioned with Sharapova, not Kournikova. From 240 yards out she elected to layup, a sound decision given that in five previous Kraft Nabiscos she had gonefor the 18th green in two only once, hitting her approach into the water."I would've had to hit three-wood, and I didn't think I could hold thegreen with that," Gulbis said. "My thinking all the way was to makebirdie with my wedge."
Now it wasOchoa's turn. She had begun the Kraft Nabisco with a spectacular 62, which tiedthe lowest score in major-championship history, men's or women's. Ochoa'stalent and explosiveness have never been in question; last year she led theLPGA in birdies. But in her short career she has had eight runner-up finishesagainst three wins and has earned the unfortunate reputation of a player whooften struggles under the gun. At last year's Safeway International she wasleading by four strokes with three holes to play only to finish double bogey,par, bogey, allowing Annika Sorenstam to force a playoff. Ochoa then hooked hertee shot into a lake on the first extra hole to lose the tournament. Threemonths later, at the U.S. Women's Open, she was a stroke off the lead as shestood on the 18th tee at Cherry Hills Country Club. She then made one of theworst pressure swings in recent memory, taking a huge divot with her three-woodand snap-hooking her drive into the middle of a pond, leading to a fatalquadruple bogey.
Ochoa's swingfailed her again on the back nine on Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco, as she missedthe fairway while bogeying the 12th, 13th and 15th holes. So now, on the 18th,223 yards from the flag, having frittered away her lead and then some, with herrepute resting on one swing, she responded with the prettiest five-wood you'veever seen, a majestic fade that landed softly on the brick-hard green andcurled to within six feet of the hole. All of Mexico exhaled, and RanchoMirage, Calif., fairly shook.
Next up was Wie.Playing in her fourth Kraft Nabisco, she had displayed considerable poise anddetermination throughout the week, to say nothing of an overpowering game. (Shewould lead the field in greens in regulation and finish second in drivingdistance.) The teenager may already be a cross-cultural icon--last week Wieconducted interviews in English and Korean--but she hasn't won anything,anywhere, at any level since she was 13. Her unprecedented career path isforcing her to learn to win at the highest level, and it is a dauntingchallenge. She took her first, and only, outright lead of the tournament on the13th hole on Sunday and moments later, seemingly out of her comfort zone,jerked her tee shot at the par-3 14th into a bunker and made a tentative bogey.But she refused to quit, saving par at 15 with a crucial 12-foot putt. "Ikept saying to myself, You have to make this no matter what," Wie said."I guess I willed it in." Her brilliant approach at 16 looked like adifference-maker until Webb's lightning bolt.
With a finalchance to respond at 18, Wie ripped a five-iron from 200 yards that covered theflag but raced off the back of the green, leaving her eight feet of fringe tonegotiate and 17 more slippery feet of green. A fossil like Webb would haveknown that the play was to lag it close, make birdie and take her chances in aplayoff. Wie was thinking eagle and the victory, eschewing a more conservativethird shot with her putter in favor of a sand wedge off an extremely tight lie."I thought I had a little more of a chance of making it by chipping,"she said. Instead she gunned it 10 feet past the hole, setting up do-or-dieputts for each of the threesome.
Gulbis was firstup, from 18 feet. To that point she was eight under on the weekend, and onSunday she had been in total control of her game, leading the field by hitting16 greens in regulation. But she misread her birdie putt and missed it on thelow side.
Wie's bugaboo hasalways been on the greens, and she has almost no experience putting with atournament on the line. She made a solid stroke on her comebacker for birdie,but it caught the lip and spun out. Her tap-in for par was her 127th putt ofthe week--among the 70 players who made the cut, only four took more jabs withthe flatstick.
It would havebeen criminal to end with three blown chances, so Ochoa prolonged the drama bymaking her six-footer for eagle, ending a ragged 72. But in sudden death, whichcommenced on the 18th, Webb simply would not be denied. Both players were overthe green in two, but Webb got up and down for the victory with a delicatechip-and-run and a redeeming seven-footer.
It's hard toremember now, in this Age of Annika, but around the turn of the century Webbwas the best player in women's golf. From 1999 to 2001 she won five of eightmajors and two player of the year awards. It was Webb's dominance that inspiredSorenstam to reshape her body and redouble her commitment, and Webb was candidabout her unwillingness to make the same sacrifices. "I'm not going tochange my life drastically to achieve what [Sorenstam] has," Webb said in2002, adding, "I don't know where she finds that motivation to be thatpumped up every week." A year later, when she failed to win at least twotournaments for the first time in her career, Webb all but admitted to burnout,saying, "I think reaching lofty goals like I did can make it a littleharder to focus. I've already achieved more than I ever thought I would in thegame."
Last year wasparticularly bittersweet for the Australian. Her career hit rock-bottom as shefailed to win a tournament and skidded to 27th on the money list, but inNovember she was inducted into the Hall of Fame. That honor inspired her tokeep working to groove swing changes that she had started making in 2004 (BigPlay, page G12). In recent months she had begun to see "unbelievablestuff" in practice sessions, but last week was the first time she feltcomfortable enough to take her new swing to the course. On Sunday she finallylooked like her old self, albeit a happier, more relaxed version.
"Since I havestruggled a little bit in the last couple of years, I realized ... I didn'treally, really enjoy winning and what comes with it," Webb said during herchampion's press conference, in between sips from a can of Foster's. "Iwanted to feel this again and enjoy it and really appreciate it."
Judging by thehuge smile, she already was in full savor. Gulbis and Ochoa and Wie will haveto wait a bit longer to experience that feeling for themselves.
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Webb capped the celebration with the biggest fist pumpof her career. "MY HEART JUST ABOUT JUMPED OUT OF MY CHEST because it wasaching for five minutes," she said.
"Since I struggled a little bit in the last coupleof years, I realized ... I DIDN'T REALLY, REALLY ENJOY WINNING and what comeswith it," Webb said.
Webb's win broke a 22-month drought on the LPGA tour.
Playing in her first major as a pro, Wie saw her 72nd-hole bid to join theplayoff curl out on the amateur side.
Webb, who was playing for a possible birdie at the par-5 18th, went one betterwhen she holed out.
Ochoa (left) started fast but encountered rough going, while a more consistentGulbis continued her fine play.
Ochoa's 62 did a number on Sorenstam's psyche.