Laura Davies was cruising along in the final round of the last major championship of the LPGA season as no other woman golfer can, making a big course seem small and her challengers even smaller. Leading the du Maurier Classic by a comfortable three strokes, Davies made par after safe par at Priddis Greens Golf and Country Club, outside Calgary, avoiding trouble by using a three-iron off nearly every tee. But when she failed to two-putt from 50 feet for birdie at the par-5 12th hole, something told her that she had created a crack just wide enough for a special player to wiggle through. "That was a big mistake," Davies said to her caddie as she walked off the green. "You watch Webbie make a move now."
True to Davies's dark vision, Karrie Webb, in the group ahead, holed a vital 20-footer for par a moment later. That propelled Webb, the 24-year-old Australian, to a succession of flawless shots that produced birdies on the next three holes and put her into a tie with Davies. "I could feel that I was going to hit it close," Webb said. "When I think about it, I can't believe I do those things. But when I'm playing, I know I can."
That sort of confidence explains why Webb had no trouble sinking a slippery six-footer on the 72nd hole for birdie, which a stunned Davies failed to match, to cap a second straight 66 and conclude one of the most brilliant finishes in the history of the women's majors. Webb's closing rush—she made 16 birdies over the final 40 holes—brought her a coveted prize. "We won a major!" she said, tearfully hugging her caddie, Evan Minster, when Davies's last-gasp attempt to tie slipped past the hole. "Finally," he replied, speaking for all of golf.
Such is the breadth of Webb's talent that, after 3� years on the LPGA tour, the world wanted to know why none of her 14 victories had come in a major. The questioning only intensified this year as Webb won five times in a 17-tournament stretch, during which she had 16 top 10 finishes. Still, she hadn't shaken her habit of going soft in the big ones. In 15 previous majors Webb was in serious contention on the final nine only once, at the '96 du Maurier, in which Davies closed with a 66 to beat her by two strokes.
This year Webb had been a respectable third at the Dinah Shore and seventh in the U.S. Open, but her worst performance of the year had come in the LPGA Championship, in which she missed the cut for only the second time in her 91 starts on the LPGA tour. Webb logically insisted that she was far too young to go into majors with extra urgency, but the questions were getting more nettlesome, and the pressure was starting to build.
Why the walls came down at the du Maurier is another of golf's imponderables, although Webb said she simply put into practice some of the lessons she has learned since turning pro. After trying to deconstruct her swing and putting stroke during her frustrating opening rounds of 73-72, Webb decided to eschew all mechanical thoughts on the weekend. She also overcame a habit of dwelling on mistakes. When Webb missed what seemed to be a crucial three-foot putt for birdie on the 9th hole on Sunday, she put it behind her by focusing on how the ballstriking groove she was in would create more birdie opportunities. Sure enough, they came in a cluster, and she capitalized. "I don't ever try to think of myself as the best player in the world," said Webb, "but I played like I was."
The breakthrough victory ensures that she is indeed the top player in women's golf. Juli Inkster's wins at the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Open temporarily surpassed Webb's seasonlong brilliance, but the 39-year-old Inkster's renascence is more akin to Mark O'Meara's opportunistic 1998 season. Webb and Inkster, who finished third last week, were running neck and neck in player of the year points and on the money list before the du Maurier, but now Webb is well ahead in both.
Webb's most formidable rival remains Annika Sorenstam, the ice maiden from Sweden whom Webb has supplanted this year atop the women's ranking. Sorenstam, 28, had 16 victories, including two majors, during her first five years on tour, the most productive start since Nancy Lopez burst onto the scene with 17 wins in her first two years, 1978 and '79. Sorenstam seemed to be mentally tougher than Webb, but Webb has clearly improved in that department. Their rivalry could take a similar arc to that of tennis players Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. The more physically gifted Navratilova lost to the more steely Evert early in their careers but eventually dominated the rivalry.
Webb has the finest swing in the women's game—a fluid, powerful and classic motion evocative of Mickey Wright's. "I've never seen a woman swing a club as beautifully and athletically as Karrie," says Steve Elkington, who has one of the best swings in the men's game. Although not physically imposing at a roundish 5'6", Webb generates tremendous power by quickly and compactly clearing her hips on the downswing, a move few LPGA players can approximate. "It's a man's move," says Elkington. "It's really a gift."
Webb's only weakness had been her putting, but last January, while having her stroke tested by putter-maker Scotty Cameron, a high-speed camera revealed that she produced a truer roll with a crosshanded, or left-hand low, grip. Last year, putting conventionally, she was the 49th-ranked putter on the tour; this year she's 16th.