It was only an elevator ride, 10 seconds tops, but I the chill in the air said everything about the cold war between Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb. Two days before the start of last week's Australian Ladies Masters, Sorenstam was in an elevator in the clubhouse of the Royal Pines Golf Course, on her way to the pressroom. Just before the doors closed, Webb, heading for the same place, slipped in.
Silence. No smiles, no nods of recognition, not even any eye contact. In a weird sort of prison-yard challenge, Webb moved to the back of the expansive elevator and stood directly behind Sorenstam. It was an awkward ride.
Only after they had escaped the elevator did Sorenstam and Webb remember their manners—the former in her press conference with Australian reporters, the latter in a series of phone interviews in an adjacent room. Standing in the doorway between the two rooms, one could listen to both players.
"We do not compete against each other," Sorenstam said. "We compete against the golf course. Karrie is a great player, and I don't worry about how she plays because I can't control it."
At that moment Webb was spouting what has been the party line for more than two years. "It's made up by the media," she said. "Annika and I are friends, and we respect each other's games. I don't think there is a rivalry."
Well, after what went down Down Under the ruse is up, and even Sorenstam and Webb know it. The Australian Masters was the most compelling clash yet between these rivals, and their pitched battle finally spilled out from behind closed doors. Going into the weekend separated by a stroke, Webb dropped a course-record 64 on Sorenstam last Saturday to open a five-shot lead and then stared down the Swede in a tense final round. Twice Sorenstam shaved the spread to two strokes—the last time with a birdie at the 12th—but she could draw no closer as Webb played brilliantly down the stretch. "I kept telling myself, I'm not going to lose this thing," Webb said. "I'm not going to let her beat me."
Sorenstam was gracious in defeat, but she couldn't hide her disappointment, especially after she double-bogeyed the 71st hole (she would finish with a 70 and four-round score of 11 under, five back of Webb). "Annika's hot," Sorenstam's husband, David Esch, said as he watched her skulk toward the 18th green. "I've never seen her this pissed."
Webb was so stoked with her victory that she bragged that she was going to do some celebrating. This was the first time she had won on her home soil as a professional, and it happened in front of about 45 friends and relatives who had made the 10-hour trek from her hometown of Ayr, the tiny farming community in northern Queensland, to Gold Coast. Webb's bravura performance also purged the memory of last year's Masters, when she coughed up six strokes over the last 12 holes to lose by one to Gail Graham, a turn of events that left her a quivering mess of tears. "This is probably the best day of my life," Webb told the raucous crowd assembled around the 18th to watch her accept the winner's crystal and $105,000 ( U.S.). Was it all the sweeter because she had trumped Sorenstam? "Definitely," Webb said.
Webb's fortitude was even more impressive because Sunday marked only the second time that she and Sorenstam had squared off in the last pairing of a final round. The other occasion had been similarly epochal—the season-opening Tournament of Champions in 1997. Webb was coming off her stunning rookie year, during which she had won four times, led the money list and almost stolen the spotlight from Sorenstam, who in '96 had won her second straight U.S. Open as well as the scoring title. On that fateful day at the Weston Hill Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Sorenstam blew away Webb with a 66, ringing in a year during which she would win six times ( Webb won three tournaments), set an earnings record with more than $1.2 million and put a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the world rankings.
Last week's showdown in Australia was the first time since then that Webb has eclipsed Sorenstam. "She told me earlier in the week that if she could get this one, it would free her soul," said Evelyn Webb, Karrie's mom. "It would be in her homeland, it would be in front of the family, and men she could move on to bigger and better things."