Local knowledge is to golf what having the combination is to safecracking: a big edge. Se Ri Pak reaffirmed that last week when she won her third major championship, the Weetabix Women's British Open, on a course so foreign to her that she almost expected to see water run uphill and doves fly out of the cups. "I don't have any idea how to play this kind of golf," she said on Sunday after coming from four strokes back in the final round at Sunningdale Golf Club to win by two over fellow Korean Mi Hyun Kim. "But he knew."
He was Colin Cann, Pak's caddie. Cann lives just up the road in breakfasty-sounding Egham, and he's probably the guy you want on your bag when you play for big bucks in Surrey. "It's a very different style of golf from what you have in America," Cann said on Sunday. "Look at how this course changed every day. First it was bone-hard, then soft and wet, the wind kept moving around...."
That's England for you. Three years ago, in her only previous appearance at the British Open, Pak slogged around Royal Lytham and St. Annes in wind, rain and bewilderment. "I played so bad," she recalled on Sunday night. "I said to myself, I can't come back, because it was so hard."
It was startling, then, to see Pak light up Sunningdale's 6,277-yard Old Course with a final-round six-under-par 66. "Colin said English golf is fun," Pak would say later—and yeah, the gnarly heather and goofy bounces are a treat when you're winning $221,650 and the champion's crystal bowl. The hardest part was the waiting. Pak spent a nervous 50 minutes behind the 18th green, under the famous Sunningdale oak tree, while 10 other players dragged themselves up the final fairway. Meanwhile, Pak's mother, Jeong Sook Kim, patted Cann on the back and said, "Good job!"
Good timing, too. This year the British became one of the four major championships of women's golf, replacing the defunct du Maurier Classic, and winning it left Pak only one title (the Nabisco Championship) short of a career Grand Slam.
Did the Open feel like a major? Yes and no. At a major the players act as if winning is more important than life itself. They show up a week early to study the greens with a transit and level, or cut out activities that don't directly contribute to victory, such as dining out or reading bedtime stories to their children. By that standard this Open seemed minor. Free-spirited Laura Davies, needing only two points to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame, hosted a 12-team soccer tournament in the yard of her Surrey mansion, complete with painted lines, regulation goals and a food-and-drink van. More shocking was the late arrival of Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb. The tour's two best players deplaned blinking on Tuesday night, hung over from their Battle at Bighorn exhibition involving Tiger Woods and David Duval. "It was not the ideal way to prepare for a major," conceded LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw, but "it showed an enormous commitment on their part to expose the LPGA to millions of viewers."
Votaw's opinion was not shared by David Davies of The Guardian, who considered Webb's first-round 74 at Sunningdale insufficient punishment for having agreed to play under floodlights in front of yelling yahoos. "For Webb to put such a hollow occasion ahead of trying to win her third successive major championship is simply baffling," Davies wrote.
To be fair, Webb had more than Bighorn to blame for her lack of form. Her grandfather, to whom she was very close, died in Australia a month ago, leaving her unsettled emotionally. Webb's swing was also out of sync at Sunningdale, and her disposition wasn't much better. She threw her putter on one hole, pounded her driver on the ground on another. Asked how many putts she had taken on Thursday, Webb snapped, "You can count them." (Headline in The Daily Telegraph: WEBB HER OWN WORST ENEMY.)
Even the infrastructure seemed to conspire against Webb. Sunningdale's spacious practice range was being used for tournament parking, so the players had only a warmup range with limited tee space. "This isn't a driving range where I can set up a camera and look at my swing," Webb said after rebounding with a 67 on Friday, "so I have to count on feel. My swing hasn't felt right in a while."
By Saturday, though, it was apparent that method of attack, not mode of preparation, would determine the outcome. Sunningdale is a heathland course with many of the properties of a links course, including hard, fast fairways and capricious weather. It opens with two easy par 5s but closes with three long par 4s. "The finish is a tremendous test," says Cann. "Birdies are rare."