SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. (AP) — They are such good friends that Cristie Kerr picked Morgan Pressel to be one of her bridesmaids when she married in December, and they have much in common.
Both groomed their golf games in south Florida, heading straight from high school to the LPGA Tour. Kerr did so 10 years ago, when teens on the tour was not in vogue. Both bare their emotions inside the ropes, shouting instructions at their golf balls in a tone better suited for Fort Bragg.
Lately, they have combined to give Americans major success not seen on the LPGA Tour in seven lean years.
Pressel became the youngest major champion in LPGA history in April when, at age 18, she played without a bogey over the final 24 holes on a fast, difficult Mission Hills course. Her one-shot victory in the Kraft Nabisco Championship was the first by an American since 1999.
Kerr’s major was a long time coming.
She was 0-for-41 in Grand Slam events until winning the U.S. Women’s Open on Sunday at Pine Needles, where she made three clutch par putts and a decisive birdie putt from 18 feet on the 14th hole to beat Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, the No. 1 player in women’s golf.
It was the first time Americans won multiple majors in an LPGA season since 2000, when 40-year-old Juli Inkster won the LPGA Championship and 37-year-old Meg Mallon captured the final edition of the du Maurier Classic.
There weren’t many young Americans equipped to take up the baton then.
There appears to be no shortage now.
“Every year, more and more cute young amateur girls with ribbons in their hair are coming up,” Kerr said. “It’s terrific.”
It’s not just 12-year-old Alexis Thompson, who became the youngest qualifier of the Women’s Open, or 17-year-old Mina Harigae, who showed up at Pine Needles having won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links.
Take a look at the U.S. Solheim Cup team standings. Seven of the top 10 players are under 30.
But a closer look at the leaderboard at Pine Needles, or the last month in majors on the LPGA Tour, shows Americans are nowhere near dominating golf the way they did a decade ago.
For the first time in U.S. Women’s Open history, there were more foreign-born players than Americans in the field. When the second round finally ended Saturday, as many South Koreans as Americans made the cut — 24 apiece.
Six South Koreans finished in the top 10, compared to two Americans — Kerr and Pressel. Leading the way was Se Ri Pak, the godmother of golf in her country. Pak was the only South Korean on the LPGA Tour in 1998 when she won the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women’s Open as a rookie. Now there are 44.
That list doesn’t include Brazilian-born Angela Park, the first-round leader at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship who made it through 36 holes atop the leaderboard at Pine Needles and tied for second.
In-Bee Park, a former U.S. Junior Girls champion, was among five players who finished under par at Pine Needles.
One shot behind in sixth place was Ji-Yai Shin, who has been crushing her competition on the Korean LPGA and was one shot out of the lead on the back nine Sunday. It was only her third time on the LPGA Tour, but she has been tested off the golf course. Shin’s mother was killed in an accident while taking a younger brother and sister to a birthday party. Shin spent a year sleeping in the hospital to be with them while they recovered. Now No. 11 in the world ranking, Shin looks as though she belongs there.
Jee Young Lee played the first two rounds with Juli Inkster and showed plenty of pop in her swing. She won the LPGA Tour event in South Korea in 2005, one year after turning pro.
And don’t forget what happened three weeks ago at the LPGA Championship.
The 54-hole leader was Na On Min, an 18-year-old who was playing in her first major and only her sixth tournament as a professional. She made three straight birdies on the back nine to finish alone in third.
Ochoa, of course, continues to be the class of the LPGA Tour, even though she hasn’t won a major. She already has won three times this year to rise to No. 1 in the world. Although her drought is now 0-for-23 in the majors, Ochoa wasn’t worried. Few players under such pressure to win a major have handled defeat with such peace and dignity.
“That’s the way I am,” she said. “There are times when I will really either just be sad or upset. It really hurts when I don’t win. But at the same time, it’s just life. I’m going to go home now and have a good time with my family, my friends. They came here, and I have no reason to be upset and cry in my room.”
The aberration last week was Suzann Pettersen of Norway, who probably should have won the first two majors but settled for the LPGA Championship. She was 7 over through the first six holes and played the next 30 in even par to miss the cut by one.
Ditto for Karrie Webb of Australia, who was closing in on Ochoa’s No. 1 ranking a month ago, but shot 83 at Pine Needles.
Americans no longer dominate the LPGA Tour and probably never will again. The LPGA Tour is too successful and attracts the best players from every corner of the globe. It’s no longer a fair fight.
Pressel and Kerr did their part, winning two of the first three majors this year.
What they could use are some reinforcements with ribbons in their hair.