For four hours, anyway, Karrie Webb had the stage to her-Hi self. At the very moment Tiger Woods was slipping off the 18th green at St. Andrews to sign his historic British Open scorecard, Webb was walking to the 1st tee of an eight-year-old golf course built on a former cattle ranch on the outskirts of suburban Chicago. She was hoping to make some history of her own, hoping to win her first U.S. Open. In the locker room at the Merit Club, a half dozen LPGA players looked at a television, its giant screen filled with thousands of overseas golf revelers occupying every cranny and nook around golf's most celebrated green. Thousands of spectators were at the sprawling Merit Club, too, but there was no frenzy. Everybody knew what Webb was about to do: firmly establish herself, in the words of Nancy Lopez, "as the Tiger Woods of women's golf."
Their similarities are uncanny. Webb is 25 and lives in Florida. Woods is 24 and lives in Florida. Both won Rookie of the Year awards in 1996 and Player of the Year awards in 1999. Both have swings that are wide and powerful, rooted in classical moves but utterly modern. Both have a remarkable capacity for work and a healthy ability to get away from the game. Both know how to peak. It's their ultimate weapon. Woods has won each of the four men's professional major championships. Webb has won three of the four for women.
On Sunday, she won the 55th U.S. Women's Open by five shots—that's still considered a lot in any tournament Tiger's not entered in, by the way—over Meg Mallon and Cristie Kerr, who turned pro at 18 and is starting to come into her own at age 22. The ability to win golf tournaments when you most want to and when you most need to does not fall under that vague and mushy sports-speak category called "mental toughness." It involves something far more ancient and meaty and noble: resolve.
The week began inauspiciously for Webb. Her inaugural tee shot in Thursday morning's first round was a pull-hook that finished in the rough, 10 yards in back of a spindly tree just wide enough to block her route to the green. In public, Webb speaks in the monotone of a shy person who does not want her emotional life invaded. On the golf course, she cannot hide. As she stood over her ball, her tight lips and burning cheeks and hard practice swings gave you a good hint at the words running through her head: What's this damn tree doing in my way? She had to play an approach shot to the right of the green, and from there she pitched on and two-putted for a bogey. Not the start she had in mind. But after the round, she revealed why she is a golfing genius and why she does not need the services of a sports psychologist. "You have to remember that you have 71 holes to go," she said. "If you lose your patience on the first hole, you might as well go back to the clubhouse and get a flight home."
That spindly tree—someday it will assume its rightful place as a first-hole irritant and buffer between the hole and the adjacent upscale housing development—was a reminder that Merit is not one of the old USGA standbys, that it is not an Oakmont or a Broadmoor or a Cherry Hills. It is a sound and fair golf course, expertly conditioned, with firm fairways, fast greens and rough that last week was penal without being unplayable. For all four days the tournament enjoyed the most beautiful weather you can imagine, better even than the weather in St. Andrews! What Merit lacked was charm, history, eccentricity, excitement.
Dr. Trey Holland, president of the USGA, was at the Old Course for the first two rounds of the British Open, flew from Glasgow to Chicago on Saturday and on Sunday was walking with the last pairing, Webb and Mallon. He wore a white button-down USGA shirt and a navy-blue Royal & Ancient vest over it. He said only nice things about the Merit Club—he was being both honest and diplomatic—but acknowledged that his organization has struggled to get the great American clubs with storied courses to take the women's U.S. Open in the middle of summer. "It would be exciting," he said, "but it's hard to work out."
Few people thought the timing of the women's 2000 Open, opposite a British Open at St. Andrews, was ideal. It happened because the Open needed some separation from the Advil Western Open, a PGA Tour stop played in early July in Lemont, Ill. Once that decision was made, a few TV executives came up with the theory that coinciding with the men's tournament would be a good thing for the women's tour, that American TV viewers—the greatest couch potatoes in the world—would watch the British Open in the morning, break for lunch, then watch the women in the afternoon. Interesting theory, but the numbers didn't support it. The overnight ratings indicated that the women got no bounce from the British Open (SI View, page 36.)
You couldn't really engage Webb in a conversation about the venue or the timing of the event or even Tiger. She had other things on her mind, like winning. She opened with a 69, three under par and one behind Mallon, and was still a stroke behind her after both women shot par in the second round. On Saturday, Webb closed the deal, or so it seemed. She shot a businesslike 68, four under par, without doing anything spectacular. Mallon, much beloved and befreckled, could manage only a 73, and she trailed Webb by four. Nobody else was really in the picture.
Around the clubhouse and in the parking lot, Webb's competitors talked about Webb in a way that brought to mind Tiger's competitors talking about Tiger. Mallon, winner of the 1991 U.S. Open, focused on Webb's ability to "smell blood and go in for the kill," although the numbers don't totally bear her out. Before last week, Webb had led 20 events going into the final round and had won 12 of them. A good record, but nothing to make you want to pack your bags early.
Still, Webb was praised widely, and you had the feeling the players, without knowing it, were trying to keep pace with the praise Woods was receiving at St. Andrews. "She's the most competitive person out here," said Beth Daniel, one of Webb's close friends. "If you go out to dinner, she'll try to beat you back to the hotel, like it's a race."