The LPGA’s top American on slow play, starting a family, and why she’s seen as an intimidating player

May 31, 2012

JERSEY CITY, N.J.— At 6:30 a.m. on Memorial Day, I arrived at Chelsea Piers in New York City to join Cristie Kerr on a journey across the Hudson. Our destination: Liberty National, the acclaimed private club that hosted the 2009 Barclays Championship and boasts panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline and the course namesake, the Statue of Liberty. The club will welcome the Barclays Championship again in 2013. I was humbled to be one of a handful of media members invited to play alongside servicemen participating in Cristie’s charity golf outing, which benefits the Wall Street Warfighters. The foundation provides a six month in-residence course to disabled veterans to train and prepare them for careers in the financial services industry. On the way to Liberty National’s private dock in front of the clubhouse, I had the chance to speak to Cristie about her passion for charity, her competitive intensity and her aspirations for the remainder of her career.  

What inspired you to host this event?
I’ve had had several family members in the military, including my father, who was in the Army and served in Vietnam. We just really wanted to give back to the troops, so we checked the schedule at Liberty and really nothing was happening on Memorial Day and we decided to take over the golf course to benefit Wall Street Warfighters, which is a charity that aims to give veterans and servicemen jobs on Wall Street when they come back from the war. It’s a great charity, and there’s a lot of synergy between that and the membership and this event. A lot of members of the club have sponsored groups and military personnel to come out and play Liberty, which is an opportunity they wouldn’t normally get to have, so what kind of golf club would it be if Liberty didn’t give back to the military? We’ve always felt very strongly about doing something together.

You’re also really involved in charity work to benefit breast cancer.
If you haven’t had the chance to visit the Cristie Kerr Women’s Health Center in Jersey City, you can actually go visit and take a tour and see what we’re doing there. I have an event with my mom every year at Liberty as well during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We do this event every October and for the last couple of years we’ve raised $400,000-$500,000 every year. We write checks to different breast cancer organizations that do research and also obviously most of the funds go to the Cristie Kerr Women’s Health Center. I’ve been doing the breast cancer stuff since 2003 and I have my own foundation. A lot of my friends on Tour support me —  Natalie Gulbis, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome, a lot of the golfers. Over 20 golfers every year come to the event. I just feel like golf is always rooted in charity. Every event we have on tour, we have multiple charities that benefit. It’s just great.

Let’s talk about your year thus far. You’ve had a bit of a slow start, comparatively speaking.
It’s hard. Golf goes in cycles. I’ve struggled with some caddie issues this year — changing caddies a couple times — and I think I’ve finally found the guy [Worth Blackwelder] that I’ll be with the rest of the year, hopefully. We used to work together, we have five Tour wins together. And that’s hard, because it’s kind of like any other relationship — you can’t take it for granted. When things are going great, it’s great, and when things are going not so great, it’s very stressful, so I struggled with that.

How hard is it to stay positive during the slow patches? What keeps you motivated?
What keeps me motivated is winning. I love to win, I hate to lose. I had a great year last year and almost won five tournaments, but I finished second and third five or six times, and that’s frustrating, but that’s what motivates me to keep going.

You’re known as one of the most intimidating players on Tour. Why do you think that is?
I’m very intense when I compete. There’s really little room for anything else when I’m on the golf course. I think I’ve learned to be a lot more fan-friendly in the last five or six years, because that’s a learned behavior. Sometimes it comes naturally to people and sometimes you have to learn how to do it better. I’ve always had that intensity on the course, but I’m a lot more open and friendly to fans than I used to be. I’m just very intense. I don’t really care about anybody else on the golf course. I try and take care of my job, I try and do my thing, and I think that scares people sometimes.

You said recently that it’s important for the media to celebrate the LPGA’s stars whether they’re winning or not. What did you mean by that?
That’s important. Like I said, you’ve got to celebrate your stars, and you can’t forget about them. I feel like sometimes a lot of the charitable stuff that I’m doing doesn’t get brought up, and those are all good stories, and if that’s happening with me, imagine how it is with other players. I’m not saying the LPGA is doing a bad job. We can do better. We can excel in those areas and really get our message out, and that’s how we’re going to build our sport. That’s how we’re going to increase purse sizes, that’s how we’re going to elevate the Tour. We’re moving in the right direction. [Commissioner] Mike Whan and the new LPGA staff have done a great job in the last couple of years, but we need to keep building on that.

Slow play is a huge issue on both the PGA and the LPGA tours. Morgan Pressel was recently penalized during the Match Play. What are your thoughts on that issue?
I think it is an issue but I don’t necessarily agree with what happened at the Match Play. I love Azahara [Munoz], she’s one of my very good friends, but she is a slow player, and self-admittedly, she’s slow. And then Morgan gets penalized. I mean, I guess when you’re on the clock, you’re on the clock, I can’t make excuses for that, but at the same time, when you have four people on the golf course, there has to be a little bit of a grace period, I’m not going to say anything, the LPGA officials do a great job. I wasn’t there, but just looking from the outside in, it just seemed like an unnecessary thing. There was a lot of drama in that match. It’s hard, not being there, but Morgan is one of my friends and obviously I want to defend her, but if she was that far over time, I guess they were warned a couple times, I can’t really say anything else.

Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa left the LPGA Tour to focus on raising their families. Is that a decision you see yourself making one day?
I think we can have the family and have success on Tour. Obviously, starting a family is a private matter and those aren’t issues I’m at liberty to discuss right now. But I’m getting up there in age and we definitely want to start a family. I don’t feel like I want to retire anytime soon, so as long as I stay healthy and motivated, I want to play golf.

You’re the top American on tour right now, and you’ve been No. 1 in the world. What more do you hope to accomplish in your career?
Obviously, first and foremost priority is to win again. But I have to break it down to the simplest level and say, "To win you need to hit fourteen or fifteen greens a round for the whole tournament, you need to hit this many fairways, you need to make this many birdies." Break it down to the simplest level. Winning is the goal. Long-term goals, I want to try and make it into the Hall of Fame. I know I’m just past halfway there and I’ve had a great career so far, but if my career were to end today, I wouldn’t be overly satisfied, so I feel like I still have a lot to accomplish.

You’re also consistently one of the best putters on Tour. What’s your secret?
Putting is hard. It’s always been a part of the game that comes naturally to me. It’s one of my favorite parts, if not my favorite part, of the game. Confidence means a lot. Knowing you can stand up and make that putt, because if you can believe it, sometimes you can will it into the hole. Rhythm is really important, and green-reading is really important, the pace of your stroke. If you have a lot of moving parts in your putting stroke, you need to just try and simplify, focus on rhythm, and then really get out there and get out what you’re doing with the putt. Try and leave those mechanics at home, on the putting green.

Ultimately, thinking about everything that you’re involved in and have accomplished, how would you like to be remembered?
Wow, that seems like an end of career question [laughs]. I’d like to be remembered as a person who was fierce and very passionate in whatever they did, whether it was golf or wine or food or charity. I want to be remembered for making a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s inspiring them to play golf as a little kid or cooking for them or making wine for them or saving their life. I think that ultimately being remembered for helping people is the best way you can be remembered. Not many selfish people in life get remembered, so I think that helping people really has been my focus since I started this breast cancer stuff. I do a lot of fund raising for other things, for Wall Street Warfighters and Wounded Warrior Project and different breast cancer organizations. I think being remembered for helping people and inspiring people is really the best way anybody can be remembered.

 Liberty National member Charles Kerner, ABH1 (AW/SW) Michael A

Jessica Marksbury
My group, L to R: Liberty National member Charles Kerner, ABH1 (AW/SW) Michael A. Michaud, ABH1 (AW/SW) Cory D. Schwisow