By Jay A. Coffin
Karen Stupples proved that bad things can happen for a good reason.
After a second-place finish to Annika Sorenstam three weeks ago at the Australian Masters, Stupples boarded an airplane bound for Sydney where she was expecting to play in the Australian Open. Upon arrival, she discovered she never entered the event. With luggage in hand, she then flew to Tucson early and began preparations for the LPGA’s season-opening Welch’s/Fry’s Championship, an event Stupples originally wasn’t sure she’d enter.
The extra work paid off March 14 in the form of a five-shot victory at the Randolph Golf Complex’s Dell Urich Course. The well-spoken Englishwoman shot 63-66-66-63 for a 22-under-par 258 total to claim her first LPGA victory and the $120,000 top prize. Jung Yeon Lee and Grace Park finished second at 263, with Stacy Prammanasudh fourth at 265 and rookies Aree Song and Shi Hyun Ahn tying Laura Davies for fifth at 267.
Stupples’ 258 set an LPGA record for low total score, clipping Wendy Doolan’s mark of 259 set here last year. Sorenstam’s 27-under 261 at Phoenix’s Moon Valley in 2001 is the tour’s best score in relation to par.
“This is something that, as a golfer, you dream of happening,” Stupples said with tears trickling down her face. “But for me, I was never really sure if I could do it, if I had it in me. I knew that I could play a good game of golf, but I didn’t know if it would ever be good enough.”
That’s no longer a concern. In fact, Stupples’ performance should serve notice to European Solheim Cup captain Catrin Nilsmark that she has another powerful player to watch for 2005 at Crooked Stick outside Indianapolis.
In Tucson, Stupples, 30, used a combination of strength and precision to carve up the defenseless, 6,167-yard municipal layout, recording an eagle, 23 birdies and three bogeys for the week. In the final round, Stupples drained a 30-foot eagle putt on the 13th hole to get to 21 under, good for a three-shot lead over Park and a stroll to the finish.
After a birdie at No. 16, Stupples approached the 18th green fighting back tears, a battle she lost after holing an 8-foot putt to save par.
“I really struggled emotionally to keep it all under control,” Stupples said. “My caddie was telling me, ‘Keep it under control.’ But every time I gave myself a second to think about what was happening, it just overwhelmed me every time.”
Stupples’ 5-foot-5 frame often deceives those who think height is equal to distance off the tee. Stupples packs a mean punch, ending the week at 296 yards in average driving distance, 10 yards longer than Davies, her childhood idol.
Davies and Stupples were paired together for the first time in the third round and again in the fourth, a thrill for Stupples, who remembers growing up in England watching Davies at her best in the mid-1990s. But Stupples wasn’t too awestruck, shooting 66-63 to Davies’ 66-71. Davies battled a balky putter in the final round and never was a factor. However, at 40 and two points shy of induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame, she proved there is plenty of fuel left in her competitive tank after winning the Australian Open March 7 and following it with a steady performance at the Welch’s.
“When I turned 40 everyone said, ‘When are you going to stop playing?’ ” Davies said. “I’ve never heard such rubbish.
“I’m playing some of the best golf of my life and I hope I’m still playing when I’m 50, let alone 40.
I just need to play well enough so people stop asking that question.”
Lee flirted with 59 in the opening round. She shot a front-nine 29 and was 10 under through 16 holes, needing only one more birdie on the par-70 layout to secure a place in LPGA history alongside Sorenstam. After near misses on the final two holes, the 25-year-old Korean ended with 60, good for the first-round lead by three over Stupples. Lee, 25, followed with 70-67-66 to tie for second, matching her career-best finish recorded last year at the Longs Drugs Challenge.
Park, 25, vaulted into contention Saturday with a flawless nine-birdie 61 and later announced that this is the year she intends to compete for a major championship and become a more consistent force on the LPGA. She closed with a final-round 67 that included a three-putt bogey on the final hole.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing the way I finished,” Park said. “Karen was awesome. She didn’t make a single mistake and I couldn’t hang in there.”