The dark at the bottom of the cup is where the beaten stare. With their chances blown and dreams deferred, losing golfers often linger over that last extraction of ball from hole, looking for answers. That's what made Sunday's conclusion to the McDonald's LPGA Championship so unusual. It was the winner, Karrie Webb, who couldn't see much light at the finish. Deaf to the cheers of a large gallery at the 72nd hole, she pulled her ball out of the cup, fought back tears and whispered, "That one's for you, Granddad."
It was the most dissonant tournament finish in memory. Few in attendance at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., knew that earlier in the week, in Australia, Webb's 71-year-old maternal grandfather, Mick Collinson, had suffered a stroke. Early on Sunday morning only a handful were aware that he was in critical condition, causing Webb—who had a three-shot lead going into the final round and was on the verge of completing the career Grand Slam of major championships—to consider withdrawing and flying home to Queensland with her parents.
It was jarring to onlookers, then, when Webb walked off the final green with a stricken look on her face. They were thinking Grand Slam; she was thinking Granddad. They were celebrating her two-shot victory; she was enduring her loss by a stroke. "This is obviously a tournament I've wanted to win," a choked-up Webb said, "but right now it doesn't really mean a whole lot to me." A journalist, failing to catch the vibe, threw out the first question: "You birdied 2, 3 and 4. Did you get a sense that you were in that zone?"
We'll answer for Webb: Yes. On Sunday she was in that zone of instinct, the cocoon of conditioned response that protects the grieving. Her playing partner and closest pursuer at the time, Maria Hjorth, birdied the first two holes. Webb shrugged off the charge and increased her lead over Hjorth to six shots after five holes. A young American, Laura Diaz, birdied holes 9 through 12 and pulled to within two of Webb by holing a long birdie putt from the fringe on 17. Webb, at the 16th green, dropped a 15-footer for birdie to blunt the attack. "When Karrie's on, she's so mentally tough that she rarely makes a mistake," said LPGA veteran Lorie Kane on Saturday, unaware of Webb's family situation.
There was nothing tough about Webb on Sunday. She wasn't fierce, and she wasn't defiant. She was numb. "I wanted to win, but I wasn't overly concerned if I didn't," she said. It was the comforting repetition of the golf swing, the passing panorama of holes, that held her together. With a wedge in her hand and a slight right-to-left breeze to consider, Webb could avoid thinking about her many afternoons in the little toy shop that Mick and Joy Collinson ran in Ayr, the Queensland village where Karrie grew up. With a nasty sidehill 10-footer to read, she could fight off the memory of her granddad and grandmother taking her along when they played nine holes on a Sunday morning—she a mere tyke with a plastic club and plastic ball—and the sweet recollection of how it felt to ride on Mick's pull cart as he tugged his bag and giggling granddaughter around the course. "They were about the only two people in the world who were patient enough to go out with a four-year-old and play golf on a Sunday morning," Webb said.
She had to avoid thinking about Mick's mind, wiped clean of memories—a set of irons with unnumbered soles. A memory: 12-year-old Karrie as an Ayr Water Festival princess, chirping from the stage, "I'm going to be a professional golfer!" ("Everyone was, like, Great!" her father, Rob, remembered on Saturday, "but what they really wanted to say was, 'Hell, you come from this little country town; you're never going to be a professional golfer.' ") Another memory: Karrie with her fishing pole at the Webbs' beach house, a one-bedroom shack where the family bunked together on weekends and holidays.
Still more memories: Mick and Joy's visit to the grown-up Karrie's beautiful house on the Intracoastal Waterway in Boynton Beach, Fla.... During their stay, Karrie's appearance in a black-sequined dress at the LPGA's 50th anniversary dinner at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, in January 2000.... They could see Karrie's joy whenever she took the throttle of Ayrwaves, her twin-outboard Mako, and skipped across the waves of the Gulf Stream. An old man's memories-there are more than 14 clubs in that bag.
"She was always an organized sort of person," her mother, Evelyn, says of the child Karrie. However, the grown-up Karrie, the two-time LPGA Player of the Year, hadn't planned on this. She had asked her parents to fly over from Australia for the LPGA Championship because she anticipated something special happening. Her second straight U.S. Open championship, after all, was barely a month old, and she had won four out of the past seven majors. Why not, at 26, become the youngest woman to complete the career slam by winning the lone holdout, the LPGA? "That's what we're over here for," Rob said on Saturday. "She wanted us to be here, just in case." Isn't that how the world turns? On contingencies?
So the tournament started on Thursday, and everything seemed normal. Wendy Ward was the first-round leader, with a six-under 65. (She said the greens were firm.) On Friday, Webb shot 64 with a tournament-record 29 on the front side and led Ward and 1993 Nabisco champion Helen Alfredsson by three strokes. (The greens were firm, Webb agreed.) On Saturday, Webb looked a little less sharp, but a third-round 70 kept her in the lead, three up on Diaz, twice a runner-up in previous tournaments this season, and Hjorth, a Swede with a pair of LPGA wins on her resume. (The wind made club selection difficult, they all agreed, and the greens were a little soft from overnight rains.)
A ringing phone at about 1 a.m. on Sunday changed everything for Webb. Karrie debated with her parents into the wee hours. She wanted to be with them on the 12:30 p.m. flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Evelyn, Rob and Evelyn's family in Australia wanted her to stay in Wilmington and win the LPGA, which, they were 100% certain, would have been her grandfather's wish. "A part of me wanted to play anyway," Webb said. "The fact that my family wanted me to do it is what changed my mind."