Really Big Deal


LPGA Tour _newCristie Kerr stepped up.

American women in the golf ranks ought to thank her.

She single handedly brought respite from the onerous question they’ve been unable to escape for more than a year.

With Kerr becoming the first player from the United States to ascend to No. 1 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, American LPGA pros have an answer when asked what’s wrong with them.

Nothing . . . for the moment.

With Kerr routing the field in record fashion Sunday at the LPGA Championship, Natalie Gulbis was asked how she would feel finally seeing an American at the top of the world rankings.

“That gives me goose bumps,” Gulbis said. “It’s awesome. That’s a really big deal.”

It’s a big deal because American LPGA pros have felt pressure as a group to perform. Asians won the first seven events of this LPGA season. Before Kerr stepped up winning twice in June, Michelle Wie was the only American to win an LPGA event in more than a year.

“We keep track,” Gulbis said. “We get asked all the time, `Why don’t Americans play well?’ We cheer for the USA.”

The question now is how long Kerr can hold on to the top ranking and hold off the inquisition.

At this point, it’s Kerr against the world in the American fight. She’s won her last two starts. Morgan Pressel’s victory in a Japan LPGA Tour event last month was impressive, but no other Americans have broken through.

Kerr’s astounding 12-shot rout at the LPGA Championship at Locust Hill does more than hint at the possibility she’s reached another level and is game to reign for awhile. At 32, she appears at the height of her powers, and she’ll need them all to hold off No. 2 Ai Miyazato and No. 3 Jiyai Shin. Miyazato’s won four times already this season and Shin’s won 16 times around the world in the last two-and-a-half seasons.

Before this year, just two players had reigned at No. 1 since the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings were created in ’06. Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa ruled.

In the last three weeks, three different players have ranked No. 1.

Miyazato took the top spot from Shin last week and Kerr took it this week.

With Shin the only top five player in the world at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic this week, we could see another change at the top.

This is new terrain for the LPGA, where dominance has been a way of life and the fight for supremacy hasn’t involved more than two players in any one year in more than a decade. It was all about Annika Sorenstam in 1997 and ’98 with Karrie Webb taking over in ’99 and 2000. Sorenstam responded, taking Rolex Player of the Year honors the next five seasons. She gave way to Ochoa, who won the award four consecutive seasons until retiring earlier this year.

This season feels like a free for all with so many players within reach of No. 1.

The question facing Kerr is whether she can separate herself from Miyazato and Shin.

“Right now, one week it’s Jiyai and one week’s it’s Ai, but Cristie seems to be really playing well and has a lot of confidence,” Hall of Famer Juli Inkster said. “I can totally see her being No. 1 player for awhile.”

In the wake of Kerr's victory Sunday, you could see her wanting more.

“I take great pride in being the top American,” Kerr said. “But you have to perform every week to do that. I'm there now, but I have to prove that I deserve to be there. So there is still a lot of work ahead.”

Kerr made a statement crushing the field the way she did at Locust Hill last weekend.

“What Cristie’s done is remarkable,” Paula Creamer said. “She’s long and hits the driver so straight, and she’s one of the best putters out here.”

Kerr is a terrific ball striker, but it’s her terrific putting stroke that separates her from all the other Americans.

“She believes she’s the best putter out here, which she probably is,” Inkster said.

With the U.S. Women’s Open next week at Oakmont, Kerr’s putting skills will be put to an extreme test. If Kerr wins there, it’s another large statement about her worthiness as heir to Sorenstam and Ochoa as the dominate player of a generation. It’s also a large statement for American women’s golf. As we’ve seen with the English in the men’s game this year, winning can be infectious and elevate fellow countrymen, or countrywomen.