High heat: U.S. Women's Open champs know pressure can be intense

CARLSBAD, CA - MARCH 23: Michelle Wie walks off the 1st tee during Round Two of the LPGA KIA CLASSIC at the Park Hyatt Aviara golf course on March 23, 2018 in Carlsbad, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images) Donald Miralle/Getty Images

High heat: U.S. Women's Open champs know pressure can be intense

Golf

High heat: U.S. Women's Open champs know pressure can be intense

Cristie Kerr had a vision before she teed off in the final round of the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open. She had rushed home to take a nap after putting the finishing touches on a weather-delayed, third-round 66 Sunday morning. Kerr stood in front of the mirror and visualized herself shooting an 83 in the afternoon.

“Like I was going to completely blow up,” she said.

Demons are always there, Kerr continued. She let the angel on her other shoulder deliver a firm “No you’re not, Cristie.”

Kerr, 40, has worked with enough sports psychologists over the years to understand how to compartmentalize such self-sabotaging thoughts. She left that vision at the mirror, returned to the driving range at Pine Needles and hit only 10 practice balls, including one crushed driver. That afternoon, Kerr knocked off a relentless Lorena Ochoa to win her first major title.

“A lot of people who aren’t successful give those thoughts so much power that it has power over them,” Kerr said. “When you can detach yourself from that and go and let your true talent shine, that’s when you win an Open.”

Creamer shook off some bad range shots

Paula Creamer also had golf to finish on Sunday morning at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open and led by three at Oakmont heading into the final round. She went home to ice her hand and change clothes. When she returned, the first two shots she hit on the range that afternoon were dead shanks.

“I had my sunglasses on like, ‘Oh just messing around over here, don’t mind me,’” said Creamer, laughing at the memory.

Creamer, of course, went on to win at storied Oakmont in the first week doctors cleared her to hit golf balls off the ground after thumb surgery.

“I believe (USGA events) test golfers in ways they aren’t normally tested,” Creamer said.

Which moment from Michelle Wie’s 2014 victory at Pinehurst made her the most proud? When she drained a putt for double-bogey on the 70th hole. Wie said she’d never felt more in control.

There’s nothing quite like U.S. Women’s Open pressure. And for American women, winning one represents the pinnacle of the sport. Since 2007, winners of the world’s most coveted championship have hailed from either South Korea (seven) or the United States (four).

Past champions refer to it as an elite club, and when Brittany Lang joined in 2016, Creamer was there on the 18th green at CordeValle to welcome her in.
“I think I was more excited for Langer to win than she was herself,” Creamer said. “And that’s saying something.”

American players feel it even more

Wie embarked on a New York City media blitz two days after she won at Pinehurst. Inside NBC studios, Carson Daly rushed over to offer his congratulations.

“Not one three-putt?” Daly said in amazement. The “Today” hosts asked to pose with the trophy before going back on air.

It’s important for American players to succeed at their national open. Lang always believed deep down that she’d put her name on the Harton S. Semple Trophy, something she nearly accomplished as a 19-year-old student at Duke, finishing in a tie for second with Morgan Pressel in 2005.

“That kid at Cherry Hills was not ready to win a golf tournament,” Lang said.
But the 30-year-old woman at CordeValle never felt calmer inside a pressure cooker. Back home in McKinney, Texas, Lang lives with her husband in the same Stonebridge community where she grew up. While driving to a victory party at the club, a nervous Lang said to Kevin: “What if nobody shows up? How stupid will I look?”

It was a packed house. Lang bawled at the sight of it.

Creamer was at home in Isleworth near Orlando during the year’s first major of 2010, her pink cast the very worst kind of accessory. She could only watch two holes of the Kraft Nabisco (now the ANA Inspiration) before turning it off.

That’s when Oakmont almost became an obsession. Creamer gathered all the video footage she could from the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont, won by Angel Cabrera, and studied it religiously while she traveled, taking notes. Not even the fact that she rented the same house as Phil Mickelson in Oakmont could thwart her good karma.

Oakmont required an unusual amount of patience, a trait that’s not often in large supply for Creamer inside the ropes. That wasn’t the case this time.
After her victory, Creamer was given an honorary membership to Oakmont, green jacket and all, but refused to play the course again for fear she’d shoot over par. (She was the only player who finished under par for the tournament, besting Cabrera’s score by eight shots.)

‘Didn’t have anything to prove anymore’

“I think I’m ready to go back now,” Creamer said. “It has been long enough.”
Wie’s U.S. Women’s Open trophy replica serves as the centerpiece of her living room. It’s the first thing she sees when she walks into the house. She sometimes looks at YouTube clips from that week because it’s easy to “forget how good you are.”

“I just felt like I didn’t have anything to prove anymore,” Wie said of winning at Pinehurst.

Kerr still kicks herself for not closing the deal in 2009 at Saucon Valley, a championship she felt was hers to win. Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the oldest to win a Women’s Open, capturing the 1954 staging at the age of 43 years and six days old. Two-time winner Juli Inkster was 42 when she won in 2002, and Meg Mallon claimed her second Women’s Open title at age 41.
Kerr will be 40 when she competes May 31-June 3 at Shoal Creek. For a player who plans to make it to 50 on the LPGA, there’s still time for her to throw “one hell-of-a party,” should she become the 13th American to win multiple Women’s Open titles.

“Can’t really describe it to another player that hasn’t done it,” Kerr said. “Winning a tournament is amazing, but winning a major and a major of that magnitude is something that you take with you to the grave, maybe beyond. I hope beyond.” Gwk

(Note: This story appeared in the April 2019 issue of Golfweek.)

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