Maybe, maybe not, but on Saturday morning Sorenstam's machinations were old news. By then center stage belonged to a pair of American kids with big games and bigger personalities: Cristie Kerr, 21, and Kelli Kuehne, 22. On the strength of a second-round 64, Kerr was tied with Inkster and two others for the lead at 134, while Kuehne, who had battled Inkster down to the wire at the Open, was just a shot back.
Kerr and Kuehne are best friends and frequent practice-round partners, and even go out on an occasional double date. (Kuehne introduced Kerr to her boyfriend, Evan Whitenight, who is a good buddy of Kuehne's fiancé, Jay Humphrey.) Kerr and Kuehne have known each other since they were preteens, when they were what Kuehne describes as "little fireballs" tearing up the amateur scene, and they still needle each other with old nicknames—Punky for Kuehne, Boomer for Kerr. "We didn't exactly hit it off so well when we first met," says Kuehne. "I remember it one way, and she remembers it another, to put it mildly."
"I'll give you her side of the story, because I really don't remember it," says Kerr. "Supposedly I walked up to her at a tournament when we were 10 and said, 'I'm going to beat you.' I probably did, because when I was 10 I thought I could take down the world."
While Kuehne was battling her brothers, Trip and Hank, back in Texas, Kerr made headlines as a gender-bending pioneer at Miami's Sunset High, where she competed against—and usually beat—the boys. In 1994, as a sophomore, she became the first girl to win the boys' division of the Dade County Youth Fair tournament. Playing from the same 6,700-yard tees as the boys, she whipped Ray Floyd's son, Robert, 72 to 76. Afterward, a shell-shocked Robert said, "It's a bit surprising for a girl to have that much attitude."
Like Moses Malone, Kerr went pro straight out of high school, but by comparison Malone was a shrinking violet. A well-circulated story had Kerr, as a rookie in '97, bursting into the locker room at the Tide-holders and saying, "Ladies, you better get used to me because I'm going to be around for a long time." Asked about this yarn last week, Kerr offered a vehement denial: "I may have been young, but I wasn't stupid." Regardless, her reputation was such that almost no one doubted the story.
Kerr acknowledges that she has done some much-needed growing up over the last two years. "I used to be a little bit of a brat. That's no secret," she says. "But I'm proud of where I am now and how I have turned things around for the better. You know, golf puts you in your place. You go on, and you learn from it."
Kerr's game has matured in kind. She has always been a powerful player with the ability to go low (she had shot a 64 once before at Du Pont Country Club, at a junior tournament when she was in high school), but with the help of a sports psychologist she has reined in the stampeding emotions that used to be her ruin. She now talks of "getting inside my own private bubble before every shot," a mental exercise that in Wilmington helped shield her from the weekend pressure. While Kuehne faded over the final two rounds, shooting 72-73 to finish 26th, Kerr had a stout 69 on Saturday to earn a spot in the final group.
On Sunday she never found her her rhythm, hitting only six fairways, but still tied for fifth. With her career-best check of $54,596, Kerr shot up to 32nd on the money list, and she has never looked more ready to get her first professional victory, just as Kuehne did a month ago at the Corning Classic.
"I got to experience the pressure of a final round in a major, and I hung in there, which is all you can really ask," Ken-said. "I'll learn from this week, and that'll help me. It seems like the majors are all about experience."
Inkster is a case in point. While Kerr was holding forth from the scorer's tent, Inkster was down on the 18th green collecting her trophy and basking in the adoration of the raucous crowd. Both Kerr and Inkster had tears in their eyes, but for different reasons.