Cristie Kerr has Long Island roots and a feel for the Open
Nine straight women's major championships have been won by players from Asia. If there's one competitor tough enough to end the American drought, it's Cristie Kerr.
The 35-year-old recorded her 16th LPGA Tour win earlier this season; she has the shot-making accuracy and top-notch putting ability to cope with the conditions she'll face in the U.S. Women's Open June 27-30 at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, and as the 2007 champion, she understands exactly what it takes to win under such demanding pressure.
"It certainly gives you a little bit more confidence that you've already won an Open,'' Kerr said recently. "You've done it. You've thrived under that kind of pressure.
"But Opens are exciting. Opens are the unicorn you try and chase. If I'm in contention, I'm going to be feeling it just like everybody else."
Over the past three seasons, the influx of stars from Asia on the LPGA Tour have seemed impervious to the pressure, dominating the majors as never before. South Korea's Inbee Park comes in as the hottest player on the planet with four wins, including the season's first two majors -- the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the Wegman's LPGA Championship.
"We have quite a number of Asian golfers on our tour, and they're all good,'' Kerr said. "You look at the numbers and their talent, and [Americans] are outnumbered. Inbee [Park] has been really hot the last couple of years, and she's won two majors this year. Right now, they've got us.''
Youth also is a factor. Kerr, who was 32 when she won the 2010 LPGA, is the last woman over 30 to win a major title. There was a time when more seasoned women dominated, but despite the LPGA's financial ups and downs, Kerr suggested the wealth of the tour has served as a powerful motivator driving the youth movement.
"When I came out, it was very rare to come right out of high school,'' Kerr said. "Women sports are growing, and the sponsorships that are being given are becoming more numerous if you're touted as a good player.
"The younger players just have their stuff together. They have the mental coach, the golf coach, the trainer. They have everything at a very young age.''
That may be true, but Sebonack is expected to be an extraordinary test with its combination of length and undulating greens that demand shot placement in a relatively small area near each pin position. That's where Kerr's maturity and putting ability (eighth this year in average putts on greens hit in regulation) come in.
"The greens are really tough once they get them up to speed,'' said Kerr, who has toured Sebonack four or five times. "It's going to play really, really tough for our Open. I kind of like that . . . It would favor an excellent putter over somebody who hits it long, I would think.
"I'm pretty comfortable. Obviously, I've never played it in tournament competition. Nobody has. But I've done all my charting and my homework, and I'm going to be ready come tee-up time.''
Although she grew up in Coral Gables, Fla., Kerr will be at home with New York crowds. She's the only member of her family who was born in Florida. She has relatives in Hewlett and Valley Stream, and she and her husband have a Manhattan home they use five or six weeks each year. She's a fan of the Yankees, Giants and Rangers and attends an occasional ballgame when time permits.
While Kerr might be older than the rising generation of champions from Asia, she also honed her skills at an early age. Just as 18-year-old Levittown sensation Annie Park competed against boys in high school, so did Kerr.
"It made me tougher, and it made me not hang my head and feel sorry for myself when I wasn't playing well,'' Kerr said. "I had to get better playing against the boys.''
Kerr turned pro in 1996 before her 19th birthday that year, but she didn't win her first LPGA event until 2002. That came after she determined to get in top shape by dropping more than 60 pounds from 1999-2001. She admitted to often being "exhausted'' carrying the extra weight, and Kerr said her conditioning program also improved her self-esteem.
"To want to compete, to want to be on camera, it was important to get on shape,'' Kerr said. "It was definitely mental, too. It helped my confidence because I didn't mind being on camera versus before, when I was heavy, I didn't really want anybody looking at me.''
Once she was where she wanted to be in terms of fitness, Kerr's competitive hunger took over. She said the only glamorous part of her business is winning, but her love of the competition drives her to do the hard part -- practicing, managing injuries, traveling and managing her business interests.
That passion burns brightest for the majors, which is why she's looking forward to the challenge at Sebonack. "Yeah, I do [gear up for the majors], and especially the Open,'' Kerr said. "I feel like I'm just kind of built for it. For some reason, I'm always more patient in that setting, so, it's a good combination.''