Back in January, the first rookie to play in the LPGA's Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions was heading for the right side of the range at Orlando's Grand Cypress, the best place to practice in the left-to-right wind, when she spotted Nancy Lopez already at work there. Twenty-one-year-old Karrie Webb, whose fast start in the 1996 LPGA season would in the weeks to come leave her blushing at comparisons with Lopez's record-setting rookie year, is seldom intimidated, but the sight of Lopez hitting balls and the prospect of doing the same beside her gave Webb pause. She retreated to the opposite side of the range and, despite the wind, had an effective practice session. By the end of the week Webb had beaten Lopez by 10 strokes and was the runner-up to tournament winner Liselotte Neumann.
"Karrie's still young and somewhat new to the pro game, and it amazes her to see players like Laura Davies and Jane Geddes on the range, but once on the course it doesn't daunt her," says friend and fellow Australian Stuart Appleby, himself a rookie on the PGA Tour. "She's got a very solid game and is strong mentally. Off the course she's not a complicated person, very nice, very down to earth and very humble."
Off the course the wide-eyed Webb is astonished by the fact that in the space of 11 days in January, in seven rounds of golf, she produced three years of job security and enough money to purchase a spacious three-bedroom house in one of Orlando's better neighborhoods. Pretty neat for a young woman from Ayr, Queensland, a town of 9,000 about 10 miles inland from a beach protected by the Great Barrier Reef. But on the course the worldwide Webb—she is currently the only player so young with victories on three continents—isn't surprised. She intends to win every week, and has nearly done so.
A week after finishing second at the Tournament of Champions, Webb defeated Geddes and Martha Nause in a playoff at the HealthSouth Inaugural. When the LPGA resumed play in the third week of February, Webb was second at the Cup Noodles Hawaiian Open. Last week, at the Ping/Welch's Championship in Tucson, the tour's fourth event of the season, she finished tied for seventh, five shots behind Neumann's winning score of 12-under-par 276. Webb won $11,321, which gives her $208,176 for the season, $17,006 more than Neumann. She already has virtually locked up the rookie-of-the-year award, which was her goal for this year. Webb was named the top first-year player in Europe last season, so if she does go on to win the LPGA version of that award, she will follow in the footsteps of Sweden's Annika Sorenstam, who was the last player to put together back-to-back rookie-of-the-year campaigns, in 1993 and '94. But while Sorenstam didn't become the LPGA's overall player of the year until one season later, Webb could win the rookie and overall titles simultaneously, something that hasn't been done since Lopez's smashing, nine-win rookie year in '78.
Sorenstam is pulling for her, in part for selfish reasons. "I'm glad everybody's talking about her. It takes some of the pressure off me," says Sorenstam, whose sixth-place finish in Tucson marked her first appearance this season. "I've played with her a lot in Europe, and Karrie is a very impressive player. I'm not surprised by what she's done." While Sorenstam already says she has "achieved in one year what I hoped to achieve in a lifetime" and speaks dreamily of children and the life she will lead after golf, Webb remains firmly focused on the game. The only family concern is whether to keep her maiden name once she marries fiancé-caddie Todd Haller. (Webb says yes, Haller no, and that's all they really want to say about it.) Unlike Sorenstam, Webb will not be a reluctant superstar. With Greg Norman as exemplar, she long ago realized that the competitive success she wants shares a circulatory system with the time-consuming demands of popular attention.
Right now she is the golden girl of the Australian media, which celebrate her relentlessly, while some announcers mispronounce her name (the first syllable of Karrie rhymes, appropriately, with star). The volume of coverage at home—even her arrival at an Australian airport is considered newsworthy—has made Webb wary of the seemingly inevitable day when the press will turn on her. "It happens to everyone after he or she gets successful," she says. "The media have been really rough on Greg, and someday it will happen to me. When you fall short in any way, they attack you, or if you get too successful, they try to knock you down."
While not particularly enjoying the intrusions of the media, Webb is already adept at offering pithy summations of the stages of her life. As an eight-year-old tomboy who played every sport she could on boys' teams, Karrie took up golf with her parents. At about the same time Jan Stephenson, Australia's most famous woman golfer, was having her best year, winning the U.S. Open and two other tournaments. But her accomplishments failed to inspire that eight-year-old in Ayr. "I knew she'd won the U.S. Open, but I didn't realize she'd done anything else," Webb says. "I thought she was just a pinup. Now that I know her record, I'm much more impressed."
Three years later Webb had found her idol, Norman, a fellow Queenslander who came home the British Open champ and the No. 1-ranked player in the world. She saw him when she went to her first tournament, the 1986 Queensland Open. Amid the excitement and the applause and the shotmaking, the cement was poured on her life's path. She soon began to shed nongolf activities, giving up other sports, the guitar and tap dancing. And her nascent game was put into the hands of the Ayr Golf Club's green-keeper and Todd's uncle, Kelvin Haller, who has been her coach ever since. A paraplegic since angioplasty triggered a stroke 5½ years ago, Haller has been advising Webb by phone since her departure from Australia. "Karrie was very determined," he says. "You didn't have to chase her down to practice; she'd be there before you. She was winning tournaments from the beginning, beating girls much older than she was."
Webb's game has steadily improved, without a single setback or slump. Haller has emphasized the basics and good rhythm, and the result, Webb's athletic and fluid swing, has drawn much praise. Yet another Aussie, Steve Elkington, recently paid Webb's action the ultimate compliment: "She reminds me of me."
While a teenager Webb won almost every amateur tournament in Australia, including perhaps her most memorable, a 1991 junior event sponsored by Norman's foundation. The prize for the girl and boy winners was a trip to Florida to spend a week at Norman's house in Hobe Sound. The timing of the visit was perfect. Norman had just broken the worst slump of his career and was in a fine mood. Webb, then 17, arrived in the evening, and though she didn't meet Norman that night, he was there literally to wake her in the morning. Norman intended the week to be pro golf boot camp. "They had to do everything I did, live the life of a professional for a week, to see if they had the dedication required," he says. "If I was up at dawn, they were up at dawn. If I lifted weights, they lifted weights. If I hit 400 balls, they hit 400 balls. Karrie was right there the whole way, whereas the boy couldn't keep up. She had the right attitude. It was obvious that she had the game and the mental toughness to succeed. I would say she's one of the most promising young players, male or female, that I've seen."