(AP) — Karrie Webb never cared for the spotlight until she found herself in the shadows.
There was a time she dominated women’s golf, winning five out of eight majors, a standard topped only by Mickey Wright and Tiger Woods in the professional game. She won the career Grand Slam in a span of seven starts, the quickest of anyone in golf. And in the major considered the toughest test, Webb had no peer.
She won the U.S. Women’s Open in consecutive years by a combined 13 shots, the latter an eight-shot victory in 2001 at Pine Needles.
“It came so easy to her,” Juli Inkster said. “She had so much success early on that it was like, ‘I don’t see what’s so tough about this.’ But then she struggled a little bit, and the game got tough for her.”
The biggest struggle was coping with stardom.
An intensely private Australian, she hoped that her golf would be enough. Webb didn’t want anyone into her home, into her life. Reading stories about how she lacked the personality of a Nancy Lopez or a Dottie Pepper only made her withdraw even more.
“I liked the bright lights on me because I was playing good golf,” she said. “But they can go away off the golf course. I had a bit of a tough time with people criticizing me for who I am, my personality on the golf course. I didn’t handle it very well.”
She returns to Pine Needles with something to prove.
She is only 32, even if it seems as though she has been around for forever. If there was reason to feel her age, it was the arrival of so many teenagers on the LPGA Tour. Morgan Pressel became the youngest major champion in LPGA history at age 18 two months ago at the Kraft Nabisco. Paula Creamer was an 18-year-old rookie when she won her first LPGA Tour event, a week before graduating from high school. Michelle Wie has drawn the largest galleries since she was 14.
Webb was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame two years ago, and wondered what some of these kids thought of her.
“I didn’t want them to be in my group and be like, ‘How did she get in the Hall of Fame?’ I wanted to show them the standard of golf that I can play,” Webb said. “That might have motivated me a little bit.”
In a new landscape, with a new outlook, Webb is closer than many realize to getting back to the top.
She is No. 2 in the women’s world rankings behind 25-year-old Lorena Ochoa, and Webb could take a huge step toward No. 1 with another victory at Pine Needles, a Donald Ross gem in Southern Pines, N.C., that will host the Women’s Open for the third time in 11 years beginning June 28.
“I don’t think I’m done yet. That’s the bottom line,” Webb said. “I’m capable of being the best again, and if that never happens, it won’t be the end of the world. But I’ll chase after it. What drives me is the young players, to show them at 32 that I’m not washed up.”
Webb is not the only player who returns to the U.S. Women’s Open with fond memories.
Annika Sorenstam won her second straight title at Pine Needles with an awesome display of fairways and greens that she converted into a five-shot victory. But the Swede went 10 years before capturing another U.S. Women’s Open, beating Pat Hurst in a playoff last year at Newport Country Club.
The 36-year-old Sorenstam is recovering from neck and back injuries that forced her out of competition for two months. She made solid strides at the LPGA Championship two weeks ago, and now appears poised to add to her 69 career victories and 10 majors.
No one has played better in the majors this year than Suzann Pettersen of Norway, who blew a three-shot lead in the final four holes at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, then held off Webb to win the LPGA Championship for her first major.
And then there’s Wie.
The 17-year-old from Hawaii had at least a share of the lead in three majors last year, including the Women’s Open. But wrist injuries and shrinking confidence from 20 consecutive rounds without breaking par have drastically lowered her expectations.
She said this week she would not play the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour next month because “I do not have all of my strength back” and the course would be too long for her.
Pine Needles is not exactly a pitch-and-putt. It will play as a par 71 this year, and at a maximum of 6,664 yards, it will be the longest Women’s Open course at sea level.
Webb saw highlights of her 2001 victory at Pine Needles last weekend. She believes she is a better player, even if the victories aren’t piling up nearly as quickly as they once did.
She added her seventh career major last year at the Kraft Nabisco, when she holed a full wedge for eagle on the 18th hole and won in a playoff to complete a record seven-shot comeback. And she has been runner-up at the LPGA Championship twice in the last two years.
Best of all, she is doing it on her terms.
“Golf is what she does,” Inkster said. “It’s not really who she is. She loves the game, but I don’t think it consumes her.”
Webb was consumed with being the best when she arrived in the United States, earning her card through LPGA Q-school despite playing with a broken wrist. As a rookie, she was the first woman to earn $1 million in a season. At age 25, she already had earned enough points for the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Webb took time away from golf, whether that was on her boat or jumping out of a plane, but golf never left her.
“I’m enjoying it more now,” she said. “I know I’m good enough to be No. 1. Back then, I knew it, too. But it was something I thought about when I woke up, and what I thought about when I went out to practice. Now, it’s not something I think about every morning. I just know that if I put all my ability together, it’s good enough to be the best, or close to it.”