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Ecstasy And Agony
April 10, 2006
Karrie Webb's Back in the Swim after Winning a Scintillating Kraft Nabisco Championship
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April 10, 2006

Ecstasy And Agony

Karrie Webb's Back in the Swim after Winning a Scintillating Kraft Nabisco Championship

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After she had holed one of the most memorable shots in major championship history, absorbed the late-game heroics of three of the brightest young talents in women's golf's and finally prevailed in a nerve-jangling playoff, Karrie Webb pulled the most inspired pro move of a memorable Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Tradition compels the tournament's winner to jump into the water surrounding the 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club, a murky proposition that once left Dottie Pepper with an unspecified virus. Overcome by the moment, most champions mindlessly, joyously
heel over into the drink seconds after the winning putt drops. Webb had done that once before, in 2000, the finest season of her Hall of Fame career. In the years since, Webb's steady decline had accelerated into full-blown slump. But on Sunday, following her first LPGA tour victory in 22 months, she took a moment to reflect on what she had learned.

So instead of sprinting toward the water, Webb, 31, leisurely removed one shoe, then the other, daintily peeled off her socks, plucked the glove from her back pocket and carefully emptied the personal effects from the front pockets of her shorts. Then, and only then, did Webb plunge into the pond, washing away years of frustration, to say nothing of the sweat and tears from a thrilling day of golf. Webb's veteran savvy and clear thinking not only kept her socks dry but also carried her to victory on a day of wild momentum swings.

She had begun the last round of the Kraft Nabisco at two under par and in a tie for sixth, seven strokes back of Lorena Ochoa, 24, who was playing in a glamorous final threesome that included 16-year-old Michelle Wie (six under) and 23-year-old Natalie Gulbis (four under). While those three jockeyed for position and fought their nerves-- Ochoa was the only one with an LPGA victory-- Webb began sneaking up the leader board, making three birdies on the front nine to move to five under. "And then I birdied 10 and 11," said Webb, who came into the week with 30 career victories, including six majors, "and I was like, Well, supposedly I've done this before. I'm supposed to be the one who has all the experience, and Michelle and Natalie and Lorena don't. So I was like, They're not going to go out there and blitz the back nine, so try to post a score and see what happens."

On a course choked with rough, Webb spent most of the back nine playing from the fairway, following her birdie burst with six straight pars. Sure enough, the kids came back to her. As Webb arrived at the 485-yard par-5 18th hole, she was tied for the lead with Wie and Gulbis, while Ochoa had slipped to one back. Though she remains one of the game's longest hitters, Webb had planned to play 18 as a three-shotter, so after driving into the rough, she slashed out to the fairway, 116 yards from a pin tucked on the right side of an island green. Webb pulled out her pitching wedge, and that's when all heaven broke loose.

Her approach took one big hop on the green, and then the ball trickled into the cup. It's hard to say what was more shocking-- Webb's tiebreaking eagle or her reaction. In her prime she was a methodical, seemingly joyless player who hid behind wraparound sunglasses as if they were the tinted windows of a limousine. Now, with the world watching, she let loose a cathartic scream, jumped into the arms of her caddie, Mike Paterson, and wrapped her legs around his torso, looking like Yogi Berra embracing Don Larsen after their perfect game. Webb capped the celebration with undoubtedly the biggest fist pump of her career, an exclamation point on a nearly perfect 65. "My heart just about jumped out of my chest because it was aching for five minutes," Webb said.

The palpitations were only beginning. The final threesome was approaching the green of the par-4 16th hole when it heard the roars from Webb's eagle. Moments earlier Wie had almost pulled off her own miracle, her approach stopping inches from the hole, leaving her a kick-in birdie. Ochoa topped Wie with a clutch eight-footer for a matching birdie. When the relentless Gulbis stuffed her tee shot on the par-3 17th for a birdie of her own, all three players headed to the 18th still in the ball game; Wie and Gulbis were one back of Webb, while Ochoa was two down. Each had one hole to alter the tournament, and her reputation.

After three excellent drives Gulbis was the first to play from the fairway. Last year she proved she was more than simply a slice of cheesecake by racking up 12 top 10s and starring at the Solheim Cup. After another off-season working hard to refine her unorthodox swing, she already had three top fives this year. All that's missing is the elusive first victory that will allow Gulbis to be mentioned with Sharapova, not Kournikova. From 240 yards out she elected to lay up, a sound decision given that in five previous Kraft Nabiscos she had gone for the 18th green in two only once, hitting her approach into the water. "I would've had to hit three-wood, and I didn't think I could hold the green with that," Gulbis said. "My thinking all the way was to make birdie with my wedge."

Now it was Ochoa's turn. She had begun the Kraft Nabisco with a spectacular 62, which tied the lowest score in major-championship history, men's or women's. Ochoa's talent and explosiveness have never been in question; last year she led the LPGA in birdies. But in her short career she has had eight runner-up finishes against three wins and has earned the unfortunate reputation of a player who often struggles under the gun. At last year's Safeway International she was leading by four strokes with three holes to play only to finish double bogey, par, bogey, allowing Annika Sorenstam to force a playoff. Ochoa then hooked her tee shot into a lake on the first extra hole to lose the tournament. Three months later, at the U.S. Women's Open, she was a stroke off the lead as she stood on the 18th tee at Cherry Hills Country Club. She then made one of the worst pressure swings in recent memory, taking a huge divot with her three-wood and snap-hooking her drive into the middle of a pond, leading to a fatal quadruple bogey.

Ochoa's swing failed her again on the back nine on Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco, as she missed the fairway while bogeying the 12th, 13th and 15th holes. So now, on the 18th, 223 yards from the flag, having frittered away her lead and then some, with her repute resting on one swing, she responded with the prettiest five-wood you've ever seen, a majestic fade that landed softly on the brick-hard green and curled to within six feet of the hole. All of Mexico exhaled, and Rancho Mirage, Calif., fairly shook.

Next up was Wie. Playing in her fourth Kraft Nabisco, she had displayed considerable poise and determination throughout the week, to say nothing of an overpowering game. (She would lead the field in greens in regulation and finish second in driving distance.) The teenager may already be a cross-cultural icon--last week Wie conducted interviews in English and Korean--but she hasn't won anything, anywhere, at any level since she was 13. Her unprecedented career path is forcing her to learn to win at the highest level, and it is a daunting challenge. She took her first, and only, outright lead of the tournament on the 13th hole on Sunday and moments later, seemingly out of her comfort zone, jerked her tee shot at the par-3 14th into a bunker and made a tentative bogey. But she refused to quit, saving par at 15 with a crucial 12-foot putt. "I kept saying to myself, You have to make this no matter what," Wie said. "I guess I willed it in." Her brilliant approach at 16 looked like a difference-maker until Webb's lightning bolt.

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