Karrie’s a breath of fresh Ayr

When World Golf Hall of Fame member Karrie Webb added her name to the list of world number ones to win the 2011 HSBC Women’s Champions it wasn’t what she did, but the way she did it that caught the eye of LPGA Tour regulars. Tim Maitland reports on the golf legend’s battle to be nicer to herself.

A year ago, seven-time Major champion Karrie Webb saw off Yani Tseng’s charge and the dogged resilience of Chie Arimura, reeling off four consecutive birdies to turn a three-shot deficit into a victory.

Karrie Webb Karrie Webb

She joined Lorena Ochoa, Jiyai Shin and Ai Miyazato to further strengthen one of the most remarkable rolls of honour in women’s golf anywhere in the world.

The Aussie sealed her first LPGA win since 2009 and, at her next appearance at the RR Donnelly Founders Cup in Phoenix, recorded her first multi-win season on the LPGA since she won five times in 2006.

Yet none of this is what stood out most to the people who know her best. What the players and caddies who have been around Karrie as they travelled the world over the past 15 years noticed was a smile.

It came after the penultimate shot of her 13-under-par, 275 winning score.

Webb guided a putt of around 40 feet to within a few inches and, briefly, allowed herself a grin. That, said the tour veterans, was something Karrie had never done before.

Webb long ago won the fight to prove she is one of the greatest women golfers the world has seen.

By the age of 25 she had met all the criteria to enter the World Golf Hall of Fame except for playing for 10 years on tour.

At the age of 26 she was the youngest member of an exclusive club of five other legends to have won the LPGA’s Career Grand Slam of Majors, joining Louise Suggs (1957), Mickey Wright (1962), Pat Bradley (1986), Juli Inkster (1999) and Annika Sorenstam (2003).

The battle the Queenslander continues to fight is learning to be kinder to herself.

“When I was younger I used to tell myself how crap I was and ‘you’re no good’ and the alter-ego would try to prove myself wrong,” she explained.

“As I got older I just listened to that too much. I want to be on top of that person.

“When I was young it was probably what spurred me on to play really well, but as I got older I didn’t enjoy it. If I had continued on that track I probably wouldn’t be playing anymore; it was making me not enjoy being out there.”

For Webb, the smile that spread over her face as she left herself a six-inch putt to win the HSBC Women’s Champions a year ago was not so much for the fact she had finished at the top of a world-class field nor that she had proved to herself she still has the game to win.

What stays with her to this day is the fact she did all that without being her own worst enemy in the process.

“What I took out of that week, confidence-wise, was I didn’t do that. When my swing didn’t feel that great for two or three holes in a row, I just went and tried to get it up and down as well as I could,” Webb reflected.

“I didn’t really pound myself! That was a good step in the right direction.

“It was one of those events where my short game was probably the best week I’ve had, especially in the past five or six years.

“My ball striking I wouldn’t say was my best, but under the gun, even when it was a little erratic, I hit some great shots and trusted myself.

“I hadn’t won on the LPGA for a couple of years and I always felt I had to be at my best to win; I took away from that week that I didn’t have to be 100 per cent to win, I just need to find a way to get it in the hole.”

Karrie’s ‘Other’ Side

Many reading this will be familiar with the kind of negative inner voice Webb battles.

To those lucky enough never to have heard one, try to imagine a spiteful, hateful, nagging character undermining every move you make.

As Webb concedes, it is someone you would never admit into your circle of friends.

“You wouldn’t. Definitely! I don’t like that side of Karrie Webb, and as much as I can keep that person at bay, the happier I am,” she said, admitting even in her moment of triumph in Singapore the ‘other’ Karrie Webb was doing her best to spoil the moment.

“Oh yeah; I was fighting her all afternoon!” she laughed.

“It doesn’t get any easier. It’s still an everyday battle; it’s easy to be happy and enjoy golf when you’re playing well. When things aren’t going quite right, it’s hard to enjoy that part of it, but it is part of the process.”

To the outsider, to those of us who buy in to the image projected at us of our sports stars being Teflon-coated warriors immune to the fears and doubts everyday people deal with, it must seem inconceivable someone who tasted success almost from the moment she turned professional in 1994 wouldn’t be brimming with self confidence.

After all, Webb was not just the youngest of those legends to complete the career slam; she did it in the shortest time span, going from first major win to fourth in one year, 10 months and 24 days.

She claimed her first, the Du Maurier Classic, in Canada in August 1999, added the US Women’s Open and Nabisco Championship (winning by 10 strokes from Dottie Pepper) in 2000, defended the US Women’s Open the next year (by eight strokes from Se Ri Pak) and completed the cycle by taking the McDonald’s LPGA Championship the same month.

The reality is many of our sporting heroes are driven as much by self doubt as the sense of invincibility we more readily assume they have.

Webb cited the examples of American tennis star Andre Agassi – an eight-time Grand Slam champion and member of tennis’ similarly exclusive Career Grand Slam club – and Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden, considered by some to be his country’s best opening batsman ever and the first man to score 1000 Test runs per year for five consecutive years.

“Before Singapore I had just read Matthew Hayden’s autobiography and in one of his chapters he talked about the terrible feeling and the noises in your head that go on when you’re about to have a big moment in your career,” she said.

“He said as he got older and became a better player he learned to accept those as just part of it.

“He says as a retired player he actually misses that: as bad as the feeling was, he said ‘I can’t do anything in my life that replaces it’.

“So when those feelings were bubbling up I was just telling myself, ‘This is just part of it. This is what you want. You want to be in this position’.

“When you read about another professional athlete who went through a lot of mental ups and downs in his career.” she paused, recalling her feelings that week.

“… I was thinking about that (out there).”

“Golf’s a tough sport. It’s all-consuming and it’s hard to not have it carry over into the rest of your life.

“I’ve tried hard, especially over the past six or seven years, to keep it as two separate things. But it’s always there.

“One of the things I took from Andre Agassi’s interview when he retired was he looked forward to not waking up each day, making plans and then wondering how those plans would affect his tennis preparation.

“That’s how golf is. When you’re in the midst of your career, whatever decision you make you still have to think ‘OK’, deciding to do certain things you think about golf.

“You try to separate it as much as you can and you try to separate the results from defining you as a person.”

The harsh realities of such a results-based individual sport is the primary reason why a sponsor like HSBC insists on the engagement of sports psychologists as an integral part of the junior programs they engage in.

“We have it in the HSBC Youth Golfers Program in Singapore and the HSBC China Junior Golf Program, but not just to help the children with their golf,” Giles Morgan, HSBC Group head of sponsorship, said.

“It would be easy to focus on the psychology of performing at your best, but if these children are going to be the future then the investment has to be a long-term, sustainable future.

“That means giving them, at an early age, the tools to help them be happy in their golf life as well as the tools to be successful golfers.”