Defending champ Kerr ready for another challenge

Defending champ Kerr ready for another challenge

Cristie Kerr won the U.S. Open last year at Pine Needles.
David Cannon/Getty Images

EDINA, Minn. (AP) — Cristie Kerr has carved out a reputation as one of the tour’s most tenacious competitors.

This spunky South Floridian endured a past weight problem and a back injury, plus 41 straight majors without a win, to take the U.S. Women’s Open trophy last summer. Kerr talks and walks with a command that belies her 5-foot-5 frame; she even hangs out with hockey players in her free time.

So, Interlachen, with your sharply sloped greens and your longest yardage in tournament history, bring it on.

“Winning U.S. Opens are not necessarily about making a hundred million birdies. It’s about who makes the fewest mistakes, and who can be the most heroic coming down on Sunday,” Kerr said.

That was her at age 30 last year in North Carolina, when she waited out the thunderstorms and took on Lorena Ochoa at Pine Needles to win that long-sought major by two strokes. She collapsed to her knees and cried after tapping in for par on that final hole, showing a rare sign of weakness as she leapt into the arms of her husband Erik Stevens.

Kerr said she once told her caddy that if she were ever to win an Open, it would be at either Pine Needles or Interlachen.

Hmmm. How about both?

“I think it’s the most demanding tournament every year,” Kerr said Tuesday after her practice round at the 97-year-old club in this wooded suburb of Minneapolis. “We play on a different course every year, unlike some of the other majors that we play. Quite often old-style golf courses, which I really like. So knowing that I’m a major champion and that I’ve won on the caliber golf course that I have, it gives me a lot of personal satisfaction. It verifies all the hard work that I’ve done. It kind of makes you hungry for more.”

That desire is apparent.

“She has confidence in her talent. She has confidence in her ability to play the golf course,” said Stevens, who also serves as Kerr’s business manager, massage therapist and nutritionist in addition to providing spousal support.

“It doesn’t matter what anybody else does,” Stevens said. “She’s playing her game. She’s playing to be there on Sunday. So I think she’s much more at peace with that tenacity and that aggressiveness to help her be good. She’s hard on herself, which is important in a healthy way, and she’s also diligent about doing all the right things she needs to do to be competitive.”

Kerr’s game peaked at the right time last year, and she said she can see the same trend developing this season. She finished fifth last week (11-under par) at the Wegmans LPGA event in New York, two strokes ahead of Ochoa.

Just as she found favor with Pine Needles, Kerr is eager to play a course she feels quite comfortable with. Her previous experience here was a positive one, in 2002 as a Solheim Cup rookie on the victorious U.S. team.

She likes the Donald Ross design. She likes the long par-3s. She likes the doglegs. It’s a course with “teeth,” which seems to fit her style. Why, this course is even the old stomping grounds of the late great Patty Berg, the Minneapolis native who won the first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946.

“I think it puts you at ease,” Kerr said. “Understanding the golf course and where you need to be more aggressive for certain pins. Where you can’t hit it over greens. I think you come up with a definite game plan. … No matter what the conditions are or what somebody is doing with the lead or where you are in the tournament, I think it gives you a comfort level of what you need to do and to take care of your own job.”

Hilary Lunke, who won in 2003, offered caution.

“Winning the U.S. Open is kind of the ultimate, and I think you kind of put a little bit of pressure on yourself after doing that,” Lunke said. “Because you want to do it again. It was so fun.”

Kerr sounded ready for the challenge.

“I’ve always said I’m pretty mentally tough,” she said. “I think that this is a golf course who you definitely have to respect. You have to golf the ball around it. You have to execute that game plan as well as you can.”

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