On the drive down Georgia's Interstate 20 three Sundays ago, Karrie Webb sat in the passenger seat of a rented Toyota Tercel and forlornly gazed at the miniature television resting in her lap. Webb, the Australian phenom who finished 2-1-2 in her first three LPGA tournaments, had left Augusta National that day crestfallen because her childhood idol, Greg Norman, had been unable to seize the moment and win the Masters.
On the TV screen Webb watched Nick Faldo walk up the 18th fairway. For a moment Webb wished that the Pinkerton security guard who earlier in the day had confiscated the TV—such devices are a no-no at Augusta National—had kept it. Tears welled in her eyes. She turned off the set and rode in silence back home to Orlando. "I'd fall asleep and wake up wondering if it really happened," she says. "I couldn't believe it."
Fast forward to Sunday in the parking lot of LPGA International in Daytona Beach. Webb is again in the passenger seat of a rented Tercel, but this time she is going home with a smile on her face. One of those large cardboard checks—made out for $180,000—is in the trunk, and she is wearing the dark-green blazer that goes to the winner of the Sprint Titleholders Championship. This blonde Australian did what that other one couldn't: win a green jacket.
Although Webb started the final round of the $1.2 million Titleholders three shots behind the leader, Catrin Nilsmark of Sweden, a Normanesque burst of birdies—including one in the clutch on the final hole—allowed her to finish one stroke ahead of Kelly Robbins, two in front of defending champion Val Skinner, three clear of Nilsmark, Tina Barrett and Laura Davies, and five better than Annika Sorenstam, the 1995 LPGA Player of the Year.
The 21-year-old Webb now has two wins, two seconds and $462,388 in earnings this year. That is more than enough to pay off the new house in Orlando and buy a car. No more rented Toyotas; Webb has her eye on a BMW. "I'm not used to having this much money," she says. Nor is she used to her sudden success. In one year Webb has gone from being an anonymous spectator at the Titleholders to a shoo-in for rookie of the year. And if the season ended tomorrow, Webb would be the clear choice as player of the year. That's a long way from where she was 12 months ago, when she won her first tournament as a professional, a Future's tour event in Ocala, Fla., that paid $4,500. Buoyed by that victory, Webb moved to the European tour, on which she won the Women's British Open last August. In the fall she returned to Florida to try to qualify for the LPGA. She finished second at Q school, shooting a four-under 284—with a cracked bone in her right forearm. "It was an absolute miracle that she even ended up playing," says Todd Haller, her fiancé and caddie.
A few weeks before Q school a London doctor fit Webb with a plaster cast, and she figured that was that. But another doctor intervened and suggested that she might be able to play with a special brace, and within 2½ weeks Webb was back hitting balls. "Maybe it was fate that my wrist healed so fast," she says.
Maybe so, because Webb's roll began as soon as the new season started. In January she made a long putt on the 72nd hole to finish second in the Tournament of Champions and followed that up the next week with a playoff win over Jane Geddes and Martha Nause in the HealthSouth Inaugural. In her third tournament, Webb shot 69 in the final round of the Hawaiian Open but was beaten by Meg Mallon's closing 68. Webb did not make a double bogey or finish out of the top 10 until her seventh start. "If she could sustain that kind of play for the rest of her career, it would be pretty amazing," says Skinner. "It's pretty incredible already."
Webb's 66 on Sunday at the Titleholders was a cool display of flawless golf on a broiling day. At one point on the back nine, five players were tied for the lead. None closed the way Webb did. She hit all 18 greens in regulation and made birdie with a searing three-iron to the 18th green after Robbins, playing in the group in front of her, had made eagle to tie.
The finish cemented her reputation as a player who can't wait for Sunday. Her final-round stroke average is 69.1, lowest on the LPGA tour, and as she has proved, Webb has no shortage of carpe diem. "She's playing great, and I don't see it ending too quickly," says Davies. Neither, for that matter, does Skinner. "When she gets going, she's not afraid to go lower," she says. "For a young player it's important to have that ability."
Skinner was paired with Webb at last summer's Women's British Open. Webb was 14 under and won by six strokes, with Sorenstam finishing tied for second and Skinner tied for fourth. Webb had finished second to Davies late in 1994 in the Australian Masters, but the British Open was the first indication that she could become this year what Sorenstam was last year—a dominating presence. What impresses her peers most is Webb's flat-line disposition. She has the game, but more important, she has the head.