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A pain in the neck is what Cristie Kerr woke up with last Saturday at 1 a.m. She tried to turn her head, and the neck said, Don't even think about it. She tried to go back to sleep, and the neck said, Tell Nancy. So at 4 a.m. America's top-ranked woman golfer knocked on the hotel-room door of U.S. Solheim Cup captain Nancy Lopez--who, it turned out, was sleepless in Indiana for reasons of her own--and served up the bad news. She would not be able to play her Saturday morning foursome match, and unless she got some quick, magical therapy, she might miss the afternoon four-balls and the Sunday singles as well. � "It couldn't have happened at a worse time," Erik Stevens said that afternoon, standing inside a gallery rope on the 12th fairway at Crooked Stick Golf Club, near Indianapolis. Stevens is Kerr's agent and boyfriend--"We've been together for five victories"--so he knew all about the bulging cervical disk that betrays Kerr from time to time. "It happens when she plays a lot in one day," he said. "The nerves get inflamed, and the neck goes into spasms." Behind him, meanwhile, Kerr and teammate Paula Creamer marched up the fairway next to a bobbing standard that read usa 1-up. "She's not herself," Stevens said, turning to watch, "but she's hanging in there."
As it happened, after massage therapy Kerr would do more for her teammates and Lopez than simply hang in there. Playing in her third Solheim Cup, the 27-year-old scored two critical points and provided steady leadership as the U.S. women won back the Cup they had lost in Sweden two years ago, triumphing 15 1/2-12 1/2. And the once volatile Kerr did it, everyone agreed, without being a pain in the neck. "It's been wonderful to see the transformation in Cristie," LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw said earlier in the week. "It's probably taken her longer than she anticipated as a 19-year-old, but from the beginning of last year through this year she has arguably been the best American player." He added, "She's always played the game with a joy and passion. That's never been an issue."
What had been an issue was Kerr's prickly personality. In the run-up to the 2002 Solheim Cup, Catrin Nilsmark, this year's European captain, made headlines by calling Kerr "a little brat"--a slight the American dismissed last week with a shrug. "We all say things about people we don't know," Kerr said. "Things we regret after we meet them. If anything, Catrin motivated us." And yes, Kerr said us. "Golf is a very individual sport," she explained, "but it's not about you when you're playing on a team. You have teammates to motivate. You have teammates to lean on." Lopez, had she been in the room, would have smiled.
Whom a given player could lean on was on everyone's mind when the U.S. women pitched camp last week. Lopez had three Solheim rookies on her team--Creamer, 19, a two-time winner in this, her first season on tour; Natalie Gulbis, 22, a fourth-year player ranked sixth on the money list; and boisterous Christina Kim, 21, a first-time winner in 2004. How often those three would play, and with whom, was one of the issues contributing to Lopez's insomnia.
That was one story line. The other involved Kerr, who had already figured prominently in a couple of classic Solheim Cup matches, including a four-ball victory (with partner Kellie Kuehne) over Laura Davies and Sophie Gustafson in 2003 at Barseb�ck, in Malm�, Sweden--a match that had ended on the 17th hole when Kerr hit her approach a foot from the hole. Since then Kerr has won five LPGA events (more than any other player not named Sorenstam).
But she had also shown signs that she was not ready to settle for tour-pro conformity. In 2004 she broke off her engagement to longtime beau and Marine captain Robb Sucher. Kerr then rented an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where between practice sessions at the Chelsea Piers driving range she cultivated friendships with the likes of Donald Trump and former MTV honcho Bob Pittman. "She's very determined," says Bryan Lebedevitch, Kerr's swing coach. "If she doesn't like the way things are going, she changes."
That she does. Kerr's backstory is usually told as a variation of the ugly duckling parable: Unpopular tour player loses 50 pounds, swaps her thick glasses for contacts and swans past the mean girls to golfing glory. The twist is that Kerr, even after her dramatic weight loss, was regarded as flintier than her tormentors. Few dispute that Kerr got a cold welcome when she joined the LPGA in 1997.
The memory of those lonely times makes Kerr eager to play big sister to younger LPGA players like Beth Bauer, Brittany Lincicome and Solheim Cup teammates Creamer and Gulbis. "I wouldn't necessarily call it mentoring," Kerr says. "I simply try to be a friend." Lopez took those friendships into account at Crooked Stick, pairing Kerr with Gulbis in two Friday matches and with Creamer on Saturday afternoon. "Sometimes players who are close friends don't work together well," Lopez said, "but I'm trusting their feelings."
That trust paid off. After losing a Friday morning alternate-shot match to the hot-putting combo of Davies and Maria Hjorth, Kerr and Gulbis rubbed out Gustafson and Karen Stupples, 2 and 1, in the afternoon four-balls. ( Kerr made four birdies on the front side and won the match with another on the par-3 17th.) "Cristie is such a great ball striker," Gulbis said the next afternoon, watching Creamer and Kerr hold on for a four-balls victory over Carin Koch and Catriona Matthew. "If I missed a shot in the foursomes, she'd recover for me and get us back in the game."
Being a game of woe and irony as much as a game of woods and irons, golf then humbled Kerr with a 2-and-1 loss on Sunday to Gwladys Nocera of France. ("My neck was 100 percent today," Kerr said. "She simply played really, really well.") The U.S. rookies, however, led a singles assault that left the Europeans reeling. Creamer devoured Davies 7 and 5. Kim rolled over Ludivine Kreutz 5 and 4. Gulbis, almost breaking a sweat, handled Hjorth 2 and 1. "People questioned why I played my rookies that first day," Lopez said. In fact hardly anyone with an eye for talent had challenged Lopez's strategy. And those who did clammed up when they realized her rookies had scored nine points--almost as many as the entire U.S. team tallied at Barseb�ck.