Nobody can ever ask Cristie Kerr about her inability to win a major title anymore.
That 0-for-41 drought? That’s history now.
Just like Phil Mickelson did on that fateful Masters Sunday in 2004, the 29-year-old Kerr finally claimed that elusive major prize. The Miami, Fla., native staved off world No. 1 Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, shooting a final-round, 1-under-par 70 at Pine Needles to register a two-stroke victory at the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open.
Kerr played 6-under-par golf over the final 36 holes of a marathon weekend to post a 72-hole score of 279 (five under).
The 25-year-old Ochoa, who also was seeking a first major to validate her status as the game’s top player, now has gone 23 majors without hoisting a trophy. Ochoa, a 12-time LPGA Tour winner (three in 2007), posted an even-par 71 to share second place with 18-year-old tour rookie Angela Park of Brazil at 281. Park, who had the 18- and 36-hole leads, shot a 70 for her third sub-par round of the championship.
Se Ri Pak of Korea, the 1998 Women’s Open champion, and 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion In-Bee Park, also of Korea, shared fourth at 282. Those were the only five players under par for the championship.
"Just everything this year has been pointing to this tournament," said Kerr, who had been winless in ’07. "I hadn’t played great coming out of the box on the LPGA Tour and as of late, I’ve just really worked hard on my game. I was going to win this tournament this week."
Early Sunday, Kerr put the finishing touches on a weather-delayed, third-round 66, the lowest round of the competition. And after getting a two-hour break between rounds, she got recharged for the biggest 18 holes of her career. While she fought her swing and nerves, her putter never cooled off. In fact, that putter has been sizzling since she purchased it in a Korean golf shop in mid-May while competing at the Korean Open.
"I’ll pay for every putter if I can putt like that," said Kerr, who ranked third for the championship at 1.57 putts per green. "I’ve putted unbelievable with it since I’ve had it."
Even a bogey at the eighth – her approach found a greenside bunker – that pushed Kerr back into a first-place tie with Ochoa at four under never unraveled her.
Instead, the two competitors matched each other shot for shot until the par-4 14th when Kerr dropped a 24-foot birdie putt. That difficult 426-yard dogleg-right hole, which played to a stroke average of 4.435 (third toughest), only yielded four birdies the entire round and just 11 for the week.
"I hit an amazing shot on 14," said Kerr. "And, yeah, I’ve been walking in putts all week. That was a pretty darn good one."
Ochoa never had an answer, hitting poor drives at the par-5 15th – it led to a par – and par-4 17th, which led to her only bogey of the second nine. Kerr, meanwhile, made a clutch 7-foot par putt on No. 16 to keep the pressure on her pursuers and her momentum going.
With a two-shot lead at the 72nd hole, Kerr did not repeat Phil Mickelson’s calamity from Winged Foot. Hospitality tents were quite safe, as were any spectators lining the downhill par-4 hole.
Kerr calmly found the fairway and green, then two-putted for par to take the title. She immediately dropped to her knees, emotional tears of joy flowing out of her eyes. Then it was time to jump into husband Erik Stevens’ arms for a long congratulatory bear hug. The two were married Dec. 9 of last year.
"You hate to finish on a bogey, especially as hard as I fought through the round with my swing and everything," said Kerr of her mindset at 18. "So it was just really special [and] hard to fight back the tears. I saw it all week. The same scene. And it happened. So it’s pretty amazing."
For Ochoa, it was another disappointment, one she handled again with class and dignity. Her chance at another major title comes next month in Scotland at the Women’s British Open (St. Andrews).
"I don’t need to be frustrated," said Ochoa. "I’m just happy to be in this position that I’m giving myself a chance to win my first major. We still have one more [in July], so I’m going to try to get that one."
As for Kerr, Pine Needles once again proved to be a favorable venue. Eleven years ago, she was the low amateur at the inaugural Women’s Open held here. Then in 2001, she shared fourth place. Now she’s a champion in the third Women’s Open on the Donald Ross layout.
"Just some things are meant to happen," said Kerr. "I felt like that when I came here in ’96 and was low amateur. I played great here in 2001, the last time we had the U.S. [Women’s] Open here. I finished [tied for] fourth.
"I’m going to give [the trophy] a very, very special place in my house. I might even build some lights and stuff around it."
No matter where it ends up, that trophy will always validate Kerr as a major champion.