2006: Karrie Webb's seventh major victory
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Karrie Webb sat in her plush white bathrobe sipping a chilled Fosters and answering questions with ease. She’d just pulled off one of the most jaw-dropping victories in major championship history, then taken a dip in a nearby pond.
She’d done this 30 times before – sat before a roomful of curious reporters inside the winner’s circle. But this time was different.
For win No. 31 at age 31, Webb didn’t feel like she was seated before a firing squad. She wasn’t worried about publications criticizing her personality (or lack thereof). She was witty, gracious and open. For once, she welcomed the spotlight.
It’s a good thing, too, because Webb’s spectacular eagle on the 72nd hole at the 35th Kraft Nabisco Championship April 2 will be a highlight-reel staple for decades to come. Tied for the lead at 7 under with Michelle Wie, who was playing two groups back, Webb stared down a pitching wedge from 116 yards on the closing par 5 at Mission Hills.
The ball bounced twice, rolled 4 feet, then dove into the hole, sending shock waves throughout the Coachella Valley.
“I think my heart just about jumped out of my chest because it was aching for about five minutes after,” said Webb, whose final-round 65 was the second-best round of the tournament, arriving on a day when only two other players broke 70. “It took me probably 15 minutes to calm down.”
The Aussie’s epic shot kick-started a flurry of events that crescendoed into a playoff with Lorena Ochoa
on the same hole. Ochoa, who had hovered in or near the lead since opening the tournament with a sizzling 10-under 62, forced the playoff by matching Webb’s eagle at 18 to finish 72 holes at 9-under 279.
Two other young hopefuls fell one shot shy. Natalie Gulbis, who birdied the 71st hole to get to 8 under, watched her 18-footer for birdie at 18 miss wide left, and Wie, who knocked her second shot over the green with a 5-iron, failed to get up and down to secure a spot in the playoff. Wie’s bold pitch from just off the green raced 10 feet past the hole, and her birdie effort caught the left edge of the cup and stayed out.
“Unfortunately, it got away from me,” said Wie. “I guess I’ll just win later on.”
Playing the 18th a second time, Webb sank a 7-foot putt for birdie to collect her first LPGA title since June 2004 and her seventh career major.
“It’s really hard to say it’s my biggest victory or what,” Webb said. “It’s definitely one in 30, 40 years, when I’m thinking about my career, it’s definitely one that’s going to stick out in my memory, just with the fashion I won in and just the way I handled myself after having to go back and play in the playoff.”
Webb started Sunday seven shots behind Ochoa, and the stage seemed set for a coming-out party of major proportions. No one playing in the final pairing (Ochoa, Wie and Gulbis) had won a Grand Slam event. In fact, Ochoa was the lone member of the trio who had won a pro tournament.
It seemed a two-woman race for much of the front nine, with Wie chipping away at Ochoa’s lead. When Ochoa bogeyed the par-5 ninth and Wie sank a 15-foot birdie putt to pull even at 9 under, the crowd could sense something historic on the horizon.
The back-nine buzz escalated as Gulbis entered the mix with birdies at Nos. 13 and 15. On the 16th, Wie drilled a wedge inside a foot while Ochoa hit hers to 7 feet for a pair of birdies. Gulbis answered with a 5-iron to 10 feet on the 17th, and all three players headed to the last hole with a chance to catch Webb, suddenly the clubhouse leader at 9 under.
While Gulbis and Wie needed to make birdie to get to 9 under, Ochoa was two shy of the lead. Ochoa showed steely nerves as her 5-wood from 225 yards settled 8 feet from the flag. Wie’s 5-iron rolled off the back edge, leaving a delicate shot. She could have putted, but opted to chip, and had her caddie pull the pin. The aggressive play rolled 10 feet past. First up was Gulbis, whose birdie attempt never had a chance. Wie was next, and she crouched to the ground in disbelief as her putt for birdie caught the left edge.
Had Wie pulled out her putter and nestled her third shot within a couple feet, she could’ve stayed alive and would have had a considerable advantage in length heading back to the 18th tee. Still, she was closer than ever to ending her title drought (nearly three years since her 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links victory). And she’s still smiling.
“I was a little bit nervous,” said Wie, “but I had a lot of fun out there.”Ochoa, who shot 74-72 on the weekend, would not go down without a fight. She willed in her dramatic eagle putt, pumped her fist and headed back to the 18th tee with Webb, who’d had 30 minutes to come down from her emotional high.
Both players hit good drives and attacked the green with their second shots, both finishing over the back edge. Webb flopped to 7 feet, and Ochoa ran her third shot 15 feet past. Ochoa’s magical week ended when her putt curled right and Webb converted.
Ochoa had been the tournament’s big story since Day 1, as her 10-under 62 caused more than one player to look twice at the leaderboard. Defending champion Annika Sorenstam was on the sixth hole when she saw the perfect 10. At the time, Sorenstam wasn’t sure if the number posted was Ochoa’s score or the number of holes she had played.
“I wondered what course she was playing,” Sorenstam said, “because this is a difficult course.”
Wie opened with a more-than-respectable 6-under 66 to trail by four in her first major as a pro, but the round was justly overshadowed by Ochoa. The 62 matched the lowest round in major championship history, male or female.
Then everyone waited for the mighty Mexican to falter.
“When you shoot 62, it’s hard to go out the next day,” said Webb, “even if you shoot 70, you feel like you’ve shot 80.”
Propelled by an eagle on the par-4 15th, Webb shot 68 on Friday to quietly move into a tie for third. Ochoa followed her opener with a 71 to maintain her four-shot advantage. Sorenstam’s grand plans seemed out of reach by the weekend. She trailed by 10 shots after two rounds.
On Saturday, it wasn’t clear what was shorter: Wie’s skirt or Webb’s temper. The 16-year-old prodigy pushed the dress code envelope with a beige pleated number that flew to the heavens with each powerful drive. Wie pulled within three strokes heading into Sunday and declared she wouldn’t be wearing white in the final round should she take the winner’s plunge.
Webb’s mind seemed a long way from victory Saturday evening. She went home “feeling sorry for herself” after a disappointing 76. After hitting only 11 greens and taking a whopping 33 putts, she stood seven shots back.
But Ochoa has had trouble closing golf tournaments, and started missing fairways with her driver on the back nine Sunday.
“I told myself to play my game, make a couple of birdies to be safe,” she said. “But everything happened so fast. I wasn’t worried about Karrie, I was worried about hitting the fairway.”
More than 20 friends and family members flew in to cheer Ochoa over the weekend. Sombreros dotted the fairways along with miniature Mexican flags. Webb had no such fanfare. The only person who faithfully followed her was her caddie of six years, Mikey Paterson. It was his arms she jumped into when her ball disappeared on the 72nd hole.
“She’s so much more comfortable in that situation (being in contention) than teeing off the 10th tee on Sunday,” said Paterson. “It’s what she plays for.”
Webb captured her first six majors in a span of four years (1999-2002), but hadn’t won one since the 2002 Weetabix Women’s British Open – and rarely had been in contention. In 11 major championship appearances since that victory at Turnberry, she had finished in the top 10 only twice.
Paterson had seen the Hall of Famer put in the extra hours in recent years to fix what went wrong. He’d given her pep talks when the demons threatened her confidence.
“I’m a better player than when I was playing really well,” Webb said earlier in the week. “Mentally, I just don’t have the confidence that I had.”