OAKMONT, Pa. – Cristie Kerr was on her heels.
Oakmont was pushing the No. 1 player in the world backwards Friday in the second round of this difficult U.S. Women’s Open, to that place Henry Fownes designed it to push every player, to the shaky foothold where players give up because the long climb back is just too daunting.
With a double bogey at her sixth hole and bogeys at her eighth and ninth holes, Kerr was 4-over for the championship.
“This week’s almost more a mental test than a golf test,” said Jason Gilroyed, Kerr’s caddie. “But Cristie’s mind is so strong. After making double bogey and the bogeys, she still felt like she could still make birdies. She just never gives up.”
In fact, Kerr would rattle off three consecutive birdies on her back nine and fight all the way back to the top of the leaderboard.
With an even-par 71 in difficult conditions, Kerr was co-leader in the clubhouse with Brittany Lang when play was suspended in the afternoon as storms rolled over Oakmont.
“I told my caddie at the beginning of the week, with the ebb and flow of this golf course, you’re going to give some back, but it’s going to give you some opportunities to get some back,” Kerr said.
Kerr’s radiating with confidence. Fresh off that record 12-shot rout at the LPGA Championship, with the pride of the No. 1 ranking motivating her, Kerr casts a formidable shadow. She positioned herself favorably to win back-to-back majors, to claim her second U.S. Women’s Open title and to separate herself from challengers to her top ranking.
Kerr’s turning point Friday may have been at No. 1, her 10th hole. It ranked as the most difficult hole on the course in the first round.
After playing her approach 30 feet short there, Kerr putted 10 feet past on that steep sloping green. She needed to make the putt to avoid going 5-over on her last five holes.
“She made a great par-saving putt there,” Gilroyed said. “Once she senses a little momentum, she perks up.”
Kerr birdied her 13th, 14th and 15th holes to bolt up the leaderboard.
“For me, it’s not always easy to be patient,” Kerr said. “I think this golf course just kind of forces you to be patient. You don’t really have a choice. If you get impatient, it will jump up and bite you.”
Kerr sounded like a cautious predator when explaining her gameplan this week.
“Sit in the weeds and wait,” she said. “Wait to kind of strike.”
Kerr struck hitting a 9-iron to 20 feet at her 13th hole (No. 4) for the first of her three consecutive birdies. She stuck a lob wedge to 23 feet and made the putt at the next hole. She followed with a 9-iron to 3 feet for her last birdie.
Bryan Lebedevitch, Kerr's swing coach, wasn’t surprised how Kerr bounced back from the trouble on her front nine.
“There’s no quit in her, ever,” Lebedevitch said.
The real test of Kerr’s patience Saturday may be watching so many of her fellow competitors enjoy better scoring conditions when they finish up the suspended second round. Kerr played Oakmont at its surly best, fast and firm and mean. All the rain Saturday should soften up Oakmont’s greens and make it easier to attack pins Kerr couldn’t attack. Half the field will get softer conditions.
“You have to have the patience of a saint this week on this golf course,” Kerr said.