U.S. Women's Open: Winning event can change it all

Cristie Kerr's life changed forever last summer when her 263rd professional tournament ended with her smooching a fancy silver trophy on the 18th green at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.

Cristie Kerr's life changed forever last summer when her 263rd professional tournament ended with her smooching a fancy silver trophy on the 18th green at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.

No longer was she Cristie Kerr. She was Cristie Kerr, United States Women's Open champion.

"After Cristie won, things were different," said Erik Stevens, Kerr's husband and manager. "I've told people this a few times, and it really is true. It's like the difference between being Elton John and Sir Elton John. Cristie was good before. But now she was being acknowledged for having achieved the highest honor her sport can offer. She won the hardest championship with the biggest purse."

Kerr won $560,000 and saw her endorsement income immediately increase by the low six figures. She also became a memorable part of history, winning the oldest championship in women's golf more than six decades after Minneapolis native Patty Berg won the firstchampion's prize of $5,600 at the Spokane (Wash.) Country Club in 1946.

Kerr will step to the tee Thursday to defend her title in the first U.S. Women's Open to be held at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn. She will attempt to become the eighth back-to-back winner and 15th multiple winner of the championship that every daydreaming, young golfer with or without a decent swing covets.


"Anyone who knows anything about golf knows the U.S. Open is the tournament that all the women want to win and all the men want to win," said Betsy Rawls, who won U.S. Women's Open titles in 1951, '53, '57 and '60. "It's the tournament with the toughest conditions, the best field and the one that players put the most pressure on themselves to win."

Sometimes, too much pressure.

Disappointment and serendipity

Kathy Whitworth won 88 professional golf tournaments, more than any other person, male or female. Yet in 31 U.S. Women's Open appearances, her highest finish was second place in 1971.

"And it was a very distant second place, too," said Whitworth, remembering her seven-shot loss to JoAnne Carner at Kahkwa Country Club in Erie, Pa.

"I tried everything I could think of to win an Open and couldn't do it. I think I wanted to win too bad. They even played it on courses where I had won before, and I couldn't win one. It just meant so much to me that it became too big for me. I think maybe that's what happened with Sam Snead, too."

Snead won a record 82 PGA Tour events, but he could muster only four second-place finishes in the U.S. Open. That's a combined 170 victories, but not one in 62 U.S. Open appearances for Whitworth and Snead.

Then there is the flip side. The player with the otherwise undistinguished resume who enjoys that one magical week at precisely the right time.


No U.S. Open story, men's or women's, is more improbable than the one belonging to Hilary Lunke, the former Hilary Homeyer of Edina. In 114 tournaments over seven LPGA Tour seasons, Lunke has finished better than 15th once. It came in 2003, when she won the U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge in North Plains, Ore.

"It really was one of those unbelievable Opens," said LPGA Tour veteran Pat Hurst, who then smiled, made a soft, imaginary stroke and compared Lunke's putting that week to Ty Webb, Chevy Chase's character in "Caddyshack."

"Hilary just drew the putter back and, 'Na-na-na-na-na-na-na,' the ball went right in the hole ... every time," said Hurst, imitating Chase's sound effect. "It was a lot of fun to watch."

Putting one of the keys to victory

The winner of this week's championship at Interlachen will have to keep her drives out of the deep rough and place it in the right spots on the fairway to avoid uneven lies. She will have to strike her irons well to avoid penal bunkers and even nastier rough around the greens. But, above all else, she will have to putt extremely well over the humps, bumps and slopes of Donald Ross greens that will be speeding along at a high 11½ on the Stimpmeter.

"I think the reasons I won were patience and putting," said Betsy King, who won in 1989 and 1990. "I was a very good fast-green putter. And the U.S. Open always has fast greens."

Berg was a fantastic putter and reader of greens. It was a strength that helped her win that first U.S. Women's Open and a total of 15 majors, a women's record that still stands 50 years after her last major victory.

The Women's Professional Golfers Association (WPGA) conducted the first four U.S. Women's Open championships. The purse in 1946 was funded with money from the slot machines owned by the Spokane Athletic Round Table, a men's organization.


The total prize money of $19,700 and the winner's share of $5,600 were considered unheard of amounts at the time. In fact, Berg's $5,600 stood as a record for a U.S. Women's Open champion until Susie Berning won $6,000 for finishing first at Winged Foot in 1972.

"I know of one big difference in the sport -- the money," Rawls said with a laugh. "They're playing for a lot more of it today."

Rawls and Mickey Wright each won a record four U.S. Women's Open titles. All eight of them came during a 14-season stretch from 1951-64. Their combined prize money for those eight victories: $14,730 ($7,510 for Rawls, $7,220 for Wright).

Records have stood for decades

The LPGA Tour was founded in 1950 and ran the U.S. Women's Open through the 1952 season. The United States Golf Association took over the championship in 1953.

"I was fortunate enough to win it in 1953," Rawls said. "That was our first real glimpse of what tournaments could be like when they were really run well."

There were no scoreboards, grandstands or ropes lining the fairways in the early days of women's professional golf. There also was no support staff whatsoever.

Players did everything from organizing the purses to preparing the golf courses to cutting their own checks, some of which didn't always clear.


The courses were hardly championship-caliber by today's standards. Sometimes, a course would have only nine holes, so the field would play nine holes, re-cut the pins, and go around again.

Women's golf and the U.S. Women's Open have changed through the decades, here and abroad. When Sweden's Annika Sorenstam won her first of three U.S. Women's Open titles in 1995, it began a stretch in which eight of the next 13 titles were claimed by foreign-born players.

Sorenstam will try to tie Rawls and Wright with a fourth U.S. Women's Open title before retiring at the end of the season. No other active player has three titles.

"You know, a lot of times, you ask a player about a record and they say, 'Ah, records are made to be broken,' " Rawls said. "But I'd kind of hate to see my record broken. I kind of like holding on to that record, to be honest with you."

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