Webb Will Attempt To Snare Third Straight Title
Webb will be attempting to become the first player since
Willie Anderson in 1905 to have won three consecutive
David Shefter, Golf Journal
HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Six women put themselves in position
to accomplish one of golf’s rare feats. But in each instance,
they all came up short. Will it be lucky seven for Karrie Webb?
That’s the $3 million question. By the way, that’s the record
purse for the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open (July 4-7), which comes
to Prairie Dunes Country Club for the first time and features
a two-time defending champion looking for the natural hat trick.
Few players in golf history have ever captured three consecutive
United States Golf Association championships. In fact, it’s
only been done once at an Open and you have to go back to 1905
to find Willie Anderson’s name. On the amateur side, it’s been
done 11 times, the last being Carol Semple Thompson, who earned
her third straight U.S. Senior Women’s title last fall on her
home course, Allegheny Country Club, in Sewickley, Pa. Tiger
Woods is the last male to do it, winning three straight U.S.
Juniors from 1991-93, and then taking an unprecedented three
straight U.S. Amateurs (1994-96).
Yet, several prominent lady professionals have had the opportunity
for a three-peat, the last being Annika Sorenstam of Sweden.
Webb hopes she does not suffer the same fate this July as her
chief rival did in 1997 at Pumpkin Ridge outside of Portland,
Ore., when the four-time LPGA Player of the Year failed to make
the cut. Sorenstam entered that event bombarded with the three-peat
questions and never got her normal steady game on track.
Webb, by the way, has had good karma at the Women’s Open. In
six appearances, the Aussie has never missed a cut. She has
two top-10s (seventh in 1999 and fourth in ’97) to go along
with her two victories.
"At the start of the year there are four tournaments that
stick out in my mind, [but] this one probably sticks out the
most and this is the one I want to play the best in," Webb
told an assembled group of reporters at Women’s Open Media Day
on April 22. "I’ve been thinking about this tournament
since the day I left Pine Needles [in Southern Pines, N.C.]."
Mickey Wright, Donna Caponi, Susie Maxwell-Berning, Hollis
Stacy and Betsy King were also thinking about a Women’s Open
three-peat. Stacy, in fact, had won three consecutive U.S. Girls’
Juniors from 1969-71, beating Amy Alcott in a 19-hole thriller
to complete the trifecta. After opening with a 71 in 1979, Stacy
faded and finished nine strokes off the pace. King saw her chances
go awry with a second-round 78 in 1991 in the brutal Texas heat
at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. Caponi closed with a
pair of 77s in 1971 and tied for third, 11 strokes behind winner
JoAnne Carner, while Wright calls her final-round 82 in 1960
at Worcester (Mass.) Country Club one of her career disappointments.
She would win the title again in 1962, making it three Opens
in four years.
"There is a little pressure there and it would be great
to achieve something that nobody has ever done before,"
said Webb, who has yet to win this year on the LPGA Tour, although
she has one non-LPGA Tour win in Australia. "But any time
I tee it up at the Women’s Open, I’m a little nervous on the
first tee. It’s probably the most nervous I am all year. To
me, though, it just shows how much this tournament means to
me and how much I want to do well. Just giving myself a chance
to win is what my goal is."
Although Webb could have taken the time to play the course,
she chose only to peruse the venue, which has hosted six previous
USGA events, including three Women’s Amateurs (1964, 1980 and
1991) and one Curtis Cup (1986). It’s a world-class layout few
players on the LPGA or, for that matter, any tour, see very
often. The father-and-son tandem of Perry and Press Maxwell
— each designed nine holes (Press finished the second nine in
1957) — created a links-style course within the confines
of sand dunes and natural prairie grasses. Imagine playing golf
at Carnoustie or St. Andrews in the heartland of America. The
only thing missing is the ocean or sea.
Hutchinson might annually host the Kansas State Fair and the
national junior college men’s basketball championships, yet
the crown jewel of this rural city is Prairie Dunes, a golf
course that consistently ranks among the country’s top 20 by
all the leading publications.
"Every time we’ve held a championship here, it’s proven
to be a gigantic success," said Cora Jane Blanchard, the
chairman of the USGA’s Women’s Committee.
Judy Bell, the USGA’s first female president and a native of
nearby Wichita, Kan., was one of the driving forces behind Prairie
Dunes landing the Women’s Open, the first for the state of Kansas
since 1955. Bell, who is still undergoing chemotherapy for cancer,
was unable to attend the Media Day festivities due to another
commitment. Webb started hearing about the course two years
ago from Bell.
"She was already thinking about 2002 and how good this
U.S. Open was going to be, and she told me a lot of good things
about the course," said Webb, the LPGA’s player of the
year in 2000. "And just playing in pro-ams with different
amateurs, they’ll always ask where the next U.S. Open is going
to be played. If I said Hutchinson, Kansas, people who have
played here said, ‘Oh, you must be playing Prairie Dunes.’ I’ve
never heard a bad word about the course at all."
Because of Prairie Dunes’ sloping, undulating greens, the USGA
will try to maintain green speeds of 10 on the Stimpmeter. The
course’s true fortress is the wind and tall grasses that await
any errant shot. The primary rough will be grown to 3 1/2 inches,
with knee-high and waist-high native grasses. If the wind howls
during the championship, the world’s best female golfers will
be severely challenged. Some have hinted that scores could be
as high as in 1998 at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., when the
winning score for 72 holes was 6-over 290, the highest total
by a Women’s Open champion since 1984 at Salem Country Club
in Peabody, Mass.
"The one factor that we have no control over is how much
the wind will blow," said Kendra Graham, the USGA’s director
of rules and competitions —Women’s Open. "Those who live
here know we could get anything that will certainly be a part
of the excitement."
Webb plans to use the next two months to work on the kinds
of shots necessary to succeed at Prairie Dunes. The practice
sessions likely will include a lot of knock-down and low-trajectory
shots to combat the wind.
"In a few ways, [the course] is pretty similar to The
Merit Club [north of Chicago] where I won my first U.S. Open,"
said Webb, who won’t play Prairie Dunes until the first practice
round the Monday of the championship. "Just from the layout
without [many] trees and the really tall — the waist-deep is
it? — rough. Mostly it was a pretty wide-open course where the
wind was pretty much the sole defense. … The wind just adds
that little bit more of a challenge, but even the person who
is at the top of her game is not going to hit every fairway
or green. I like the sound of that. Hopefully having a little
bit of wind is going to bring the best out of the top players
and we’ll have a great leaderboard."
This will also be the first year the USGA employs a two-tier
qualifying system. Eighteen holes of local qualifying will proceed
a first-ever 36-hole sectional qualifier to determine the final
spots in the 150-player field. Previously, qualifiers only had
to play 18 holes at a sectional to earn a place in the field.
The new format hopes to take out the "lightning-in-a-bottle"
factor while also insuring a higher-quality field.
"I think it’s the best move the USGA has made since I’ve
been playing the U.S. Open, apart from raising the purse,"
said Webb, drawing laughter from the media. "It may eliminate
a few people entering into the qualifying because it eliminates
that person who thinks they’ll never qualify, but says ‘What
the heck, it’s only 18 holes’ and then plays the round of their
life and makes the U.S. Open. Then when they get there, they
shoot in the mid-80s, high-80s, and hopefully not 90s. That
just adds to the slowness of play out there. It does cause some
of the slow play. But over three rounds, you’re going to find
the best 80 or so players."
Webb won’t relinquish the Women’s Open trophy without a gritty
fight. A group of players led by Sorenstam, who is the only
player with a shot at the Grand Slam having already captured
the Kraft Nabisco Championships, 1998 Women’s Open champion
Se Ri Pak and rising American star Cristie Kerr, who has placed
in the top five at the last two Opens. And Nancy Lopez, given
a special exemption by the USGA, likely will be competing in
her final Women’s Open.
"It’s an appropriate time to say thank you," said
Blanchard of Lopez’s exemption. "She has brought thousands
and thousands of fans to the women’s side of the game. She knows,
she’s accepted and she’s thrilled."