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THERE IS change afoot on the LPGA tour, and at the Kraft Nabisco Championship this new reality was brought to life by Cristie Kerr's final-round wardrobe: red cap, white shirt, blue shorts. For years the face of the LPGA has been increasingly international, but the story of 2009 has been the resurgence of American talent. The hottest player on tour has been Angela Stanford, of Saginaw, Texas. The consensus best player never to have won a major is Paula Creamer, of Pleasanton, California. The three most intriguing rookies are Vicky Hurst of Melbourne, Florida; Stacy Lewis, by way of the Woodlands, Texas; and Honolulu's Michelle Wie. In Rancho Mirage, California, five of the top seven finishers were from the U.S., including the three in the final pairing, all fair-haired Floridians: Miami's Kerr, Kristy McPherson of Tampa, and Brittany Lincicome, the pride of Seminole. Each held the lead at some point during the final round, and over the closing holes they put on a show for the ages.
McPherson, a 27-year-old looking for her first LPGA victory, was clinging to a one-stroke lead over her playing partners as she stepped to the tee at the exacting 173-yard par-3 17th hole. All she did was doink her tee shot off the flag. But she missed the ensuing 10-footer for birdie, sending the action to the 18th at Mission Hills Country Club, which in recent years has been the site of some of the sport's most compelling drama, including Karrie Webb's instantly famous hole-out for eagle in 2006.
On Sunday the tees of the watery, do-or-die par-5 18th were moved up, so the hole played to 485 yards. Seeing where they had been placed, Lincicome's father, Tom, blurted out, "This is what we need, green-light special!" His 5'10" daughter promptly pounded a drive and then, after her shorter-hitting playing partners laid up, Brittany sized up her shot: 190 yards to carry the water, 210 to the pin, a perfect yardage for her 19-degree hybrid. A prodigious talent who has never been known for her preparation or her practice habits, Lincicome recently began working with the new-agey sports pyschologists at Vision 54, and a trick they taught her for dealing with on-course stress is to burst into song. As she faced the most important shot of her career, Lincicome recounted afterward, "my hands are shaking and my heart is racing." Humming a little Kenny Chesney mellowed her out, and she ripped a majestic shot that landed in the center of the green and then, as planned, funneled down the slope toward the pin, trickling closer and closer until it finished four feet from glory (BIG PLAY, page G6).
But the show wasn't over—Kerr's third shot ran right over the hole, leaving a devilish birdie putt that she walked into the cup. McPherson's long birdie try singed the edge. Finally it was Lincicome's turn, and the bubbly 23-year-old shook in the putt for a victorious eagle. Even before she putted out for her par, McPherson wrapped her best friend in a long hug, indicative of the good cheer and good sportsmanship that enlivened the round. "It was great golf, a great show," McPherson said. "If you're a young girl out there who's just getting into the game and you watched this on TV in Texas or California or wherever, I don't see how you couldn't be inspired."
Over the last year and a half inspiration had been the missing ingredient in Lincicome's game. She turned pro in December 2004, right out of Seminole High, and came through with a victory at the Women's World Match Play Championship in '06 and then had a breakthrough '07, during which she won the Ginn Open and finished second at the Kraft and sixth at the LPGA Championship. But instead of building on this success, Lincicome was adrift. "I took way too much time off that off-season," she says with a beguiling directness. "I bought a boat and went fishing every day. Just didn't practice as much as I should have." She never found her swing during a disastrous 2008 that saw her miss the cut in half of her 22 tournaments.
Lincicome is a charming character, carrying the memorable nickname Bam-Bam for her length and known on tour for her easy laugh and occasionally ditzy behavior. "She's a typical blonde, put it that way," says McPherson. "One of her best moments was the time she said, 'Hey, guys, what time does that 5:20 movie start?' Uh, Bam, probably around 5:20."
Another close pal is Stanford; she stormed the final green after Lincicome's eagle to offer a congratulatory Budweiser shower. They have a friendly grudge match in Texas hold 'em and are always on the lookout for an available craps table. "You definitely want Bam to have the dice in her hands," says Stanford. "You need a hard 8? Bam, there it is! Need a 4? Bam!"
Lincicome proved nearly as lucky on the putting surfaces at Mission Hills, which were as smooth as green felt. But given the unpredictable contours of her young career, was this merely a four-day run of good fortune or is she ready for a sustained roll? "This victory will only motivate her to keep going," says Stanford. "This will help her find out how good she can be." That self-discovery began in the off-season, as Lincicome took on a new coach, GOLF MAGAZINE Top 100 Teacher Craig Shankland, and toiled to get rid of a shut club face. "It's the hardest she's ever worked," says her father.
The rewards are bountiful—besides the $300,000 winner's check, Lincicome earned enough Solheim Cup points to vault 14 spots to 12th in the standings. Jockeying to make the team helps explain the fine play of so many Americans this season, but there is also something larger going on, and Lincicome's blisters are testament. "The negativity you sometimes hear about the Asian players is sad because by working so hard, they've made everybody better," says Stanford. "They've forced the rest of us to keep up with them, and now you're seeing the results."
Dressed in her red, white and blue, it was left to Kerr to put the thrilling final round in perspective. "It was a great day for American golf," she said. By the looks of things, it won't be the last.