OCALA, Fla. – Sometimes greatness emerges in humble, modest circumstance.
That’s how it was 20 years ago when Karrie Webb came knocking on the Mueller family’s door in Ocala. In the United States to sample a handful of Futures Tour events as a fledgling pro from Australia, Webb was assigned housing with Craig and Debbie Mueller as her host family.
The Muellers didn’t know anything about this 20-year-old from Down Under. A promising amateur champion in her own country, Webb was unproven and unknown as an upstart pro in the United States.
“She was a shy kid from a small town who had sold everything she owned and borrowed money from her grandmother to set out on this journey,” says Craig Mueller, who was a firefighter chief in Ocala at the time and is retired today. “The only thing she really brought with her was this confidence in her ability to play professional golf.”
Webb would leave Ocala at week’s end with a trophy, her first professional victory and a $4,500 winner’s check. She also left with a friendship with the Muellers that endures today.
That’s what makes this week’s return to Ocala so special for Webb, who won the Future Tour’s Golden Flake Classic in an eight shot runaway all those years ago. The LPGA’s new season-opening Coates Golf Championship will begin Wednesday on the same Golden Ocala course that Webb won her first pro title on in 1995. She’ll be staying again with the Muellers, in the same house.
Who knew back then what greatness lie ahead with Webb going on to a Hall of Fame career that includes more than 50 professional titles, 41 of them LPGA victories, and seven major championship titles?
“I guess we were the first people outside Australia to see the ‘wow’ in her game,” Craig said.
The Muellers followed Webb every round that week. In the evenings, they had dinner together. The night Webb won, Craig popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate, even though Karrie wasn’t yet of age.
“Yes, I served a minor,” Craig cracked.
A bond was formed.
“It’s a fond memory for me because of Craig and Debbie,” Webb said. “They’ve been my biggest fans ever since, and they’re somewhat of a lucky charm for me.”
The Muellers would travel to two or three LPGA events a year when Webb eventually made her way on to the tour. She won two of the first four events they attended. She finished second in the other two.
“I wanted them to come to every tournament,” Webb said.
By happenstance, the Muellers spent two weeks in Australia on vacation a month before Webb first showed up at their door. Tournament organizers were not aware of that when they made the housing arrangements. The connection seemed to have been in the stars.
“We had knowledge of the country, and I think it made Karrie feel a little more comfortable,” Mueller said.
Craig and Debbie don’t have children, but they’re almost like proud parents, the way they keep magazine clippings about Webb. Craig also keeps a cabinet full of golf balls he has collected from events where they’ve watched Webb play. The Muellers traveled to St. Andrews in Scotland the first time she played there and to Evian in France when she played there last year. Overall, they estimate they’ve traveled to 50 events she has played.
Other tour pros, like Meg Mallon, have also come to know the Muellers.
“Meg introduces us as Karrie’s American parents,” Craig said.
When Webb celebrated her 40th birthday at her South Florida home last month, she made sure the Muellers were there.
Winning in Ocala was a big deal for Webb in so many ways. The $4,500 check wasn’t inconsequential.
“It took some pressure off as far as not having to worry about paying some bills,” Webb said.
Webb would go on to begin her rookie year on the Ladies European Tour later that spring, but she said the victory at Ocala altered her future plans.
“My ultimate goal was always to play the LPGA, to play in the states,” Webb said. “I thought I was going to play a couple years in Europe, but that experience playing in the United States made me feel like I wanted to go to LPGA Q-School straight away.”
Webb won the Women’s British Open as an LET rookie later in ’95 and then came back to the United States and won her LPGA membership at Q-School.
Twenty years ago, a player didn’t need status to play the Futures Tour.
“You just needed $500,” Webb said.
The American experience was good for Webb. As a junior champion in Greg Norman’s youth program in Australia, Webb won a week in the United States when she was 17. She and another junior champ stayed with the Norman family and got to see close up what his life was like as a star.
“That was my first stay in the United States, but it wasn’t really like living in the real world,” Webb said.
When she came over in ’95 to play Ocala and four other Future Tour events, Webb got a good feel for this country in her prolonged stay. She went to Disney World with her caddie after her victory. She scalped tickets to a Masters’ practice round.
“I think playing well in the United States gave me some confidence going over to Europe,” Webb said.
The seeds of Webb’s success in America were first planted in Ocala. Her Hall of Fame career still has roots there with the Muellers. She would love deepening those roots with another victory there this week.
At 40 now, Webb isn’t slowing down. She won twice last year and says she worked harder this offseason than she has getting ready for the last five or six seasons. She likes the work she’s doing with new swing coach Mike McGetrick and is eager to see what she can do this year.
“I feel like the pieces are all there to have a good year,” Webb said. “It’s just a matter of keeping expectations moderate and following the process to play well and see what that produces.”