Karrie Webb is nowhere near being done
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Karrie Webb wasn't prepared to be so good. How could she have been? When she took the LPGA by storm as a 21-year-old in 1996, she was as surprised as anyone. She didn't envision so quickly becoming the face of the tour.
"You know, I didn't handle the off-course stuff very well at all," Webb reflected Wednesday on the eve of the LPGA Championship. "[It] made me not appreciate and enjoy what I was doing."
Yet here we are, 17 years later, and Webb is not only still playing, but winning. She got her 39th LPGA victory Sunday at the ShopRite Classic in New Jersey, and she actually wasn't surprised by that.
"I don't feel it came out of the blue," Webb said.
It didn't. Webb won twice in 2011, had seven top-10 finishes in 2012 and then won a non-LPGA event in her native Australia at the start of this year. At the LPGA tournament in Mobile, Ala., in mid-May -- which young American Jennifer Johnson won -- Webb tied for fourth after four rounds in the 60s.
As the second of five majors for the women gets under way, Webb is one of the names to keep in consideration. And that points to her being not just one of the best female golfers of her generation, but ever.
"I think she's also one of the most underrated that have ever played and [among] the most overshadowed," American Meg Mallon said.
If that's the case, it's in part because Webb was more at ease in the shadows earlier in her career.
Webb has been "stuck" on seven majors -- if you can say such a thing -- since the spring of 2006, when she won the Kraft Nabisco Championship. If she snares her eighth, she'll move into a tie with Betsy Rawls for sixth most in LPGA history and have the most of any active player. Webb is tied in that regard with American Juli Inkster, who also has seven majors but isn't likely to add to that at nearly 53 years old.
Webb is 38 and already in the LPGA Hall of Fame. She never had a majors "number" that she was shooting for, like Tiger Woods always has had with Jack Nicklaus' 18. What motivates Webb is that she really loves to play. She always did. It was just the accompanying baggage that bugged her.
That's why when she heard young star Yani Tseng say she was essentially relieved to lose the No. 1 ranking earlier this year, Webb understood why Tseng felt that way. But with the clarity of hindsight, Webb also sent out a gentle warning of sorts to Tseng.
"I was, in the back of my mind, saying, 'Be careful what you wish for,'" Webb said. "I would like to have continued to play the [great] golf I played. But I think, subconsciously, I backed off the pedal a little bit because I wasn't really enjoying everything that came with it."
Webb was naturally shy, and even though she didn't have to learn a new language coming to the United States the way Taiwan's Tseng has, she did have to adjust to a different country far from home. And Webb never seemed at ease in the spotlight.
In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, Webb and Sweden's Annika Sorenstam -- along with South Korea's Se Ri Pak -- were the dominant players on the tour. But when Sorenstam firmly established herself as No. 1, Webb wasn't really motivated to take that status back.
"It was overwhelming," Webb said of what it felt like to be in the top spot. "My desire to play golf got me through most of those years. But at some point, I started wishing to be No. 2 and not No. 1."
Webb is still considered an LPGA legend. But even she wonders what would have happened if she'd been better suited, personality wise, to adjust to the attention she got and the time demands that come with being the top player.
Sorenstam didn't have that personality at first, either, but she worked hard to get more comfortable -- to the point at which she truly relished being the top dog.
Tseng, 24, has already had more success -- including five major titles -- than Sorenstam or Webb by that age. Tseng was the dominant player on the tour in 2011, and she seemed to have a personality more suited to being the LPGA's main star: a ready smile, a sense of humor, an openness, a natural charisma.
But then Tseng's game went south, and she began to talk about struggling mentally. She had three victories early in 2012 -- and hasn't won since. American Stacy Lewis took over Tseng's No. 1 world ranking in March, and South Korea's Inbee Park has since moved into that spot.
Tseng is now No. 5, and Webb, who is 14 years older, is ranked No. 8. Tseng goes into this week's championship with uncertainty, as she's dealing with tonsillitis that flared up last weekend and forced her to cancel her pre-tournament interviews and most of her playing preparation.
She still plans to play here, but she has just two top-10 finishes in 2013, both in February. She hasn't finished in the top 20 since.
Webb said she feels for Tseng, especially because, as Webb put it, "She has a whole country riding on her performance every week as well."
Webb never felt that particular kind of pressure from Australia, where she was popular but not a national idol like her hero growing up, Greg Norman. Webb has sponsored a scholarship for young Australian players, and there are six Aussies other than Webb in this LPGA Championship field.
But is there another Karrie Webb on the way from the land Down Under? Or even anyone remotely similar in talent?
That player has not emerged to date. The only other Aussie to win an LPGA major is Jan Stephenson, whose career peaked more than a decade before Webb joined the tour.
So Webb is still the LPGA standard-bearer by a long, long way from her country -- and she's still adding to that standard. She won twice here at Locust Hill Country Club when it was a regular LPGA stop and before it was a major. She still has the mindset to win a major, and Mallon mentioned what she thinks is another "carrot" dangling in front of Webb: the chance to play for Australia when golf returns to the Summer Olympics in 2016.
So, yes, maybe Webb did let some prime years pass when she could have, as she said, pushed even harder to be even greater. But although her window to be No. 1 seems closed, she is nowhere near done being a major contender, even though she's just a year and a half from turning 40.
And that kind of longevity at the top of your sport is a triumph itself.