SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. – Winning a major ain't easy. Ask Sam Woods' dad. Sure, he's won 12 of them but he's lost the last two to Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera. What were the odds of that?
For the women, the challenge is just as formidable. After pocketing two quick ones early in her remarkable career, Annika Sorenstam went nearly five years without another. Nancy Lopez compiled 48 victories but only three majors, and never the U.S. Women's Open she wanted so much.
It's not merely the competition and the courses which makes the task so difficult. So do the demons, the ones between the ears. Professional golfers, believe it or not, are human beings, not robots. You think Phil Mickelson won't reflect back to Winged Foot the next time (if there is a next time) he's leading by one on the 72nd tee of a U.S. Open? With all due respect to the fraternity of golf shrinks, the mind can be controlled only so much. Negative thoughts will emerge.
Which is what was so intriguing about the final group Sunday at Pine Needles. Two of the three competitors – Lorena Ochoa and Cristie Kerr – were vying for their first major, and they are two of the elite players on the LPGA Tour. Between them, entering the week, they had recorded 21 wins (Ochoa 12, Kerr 9). Yet neither had been able to come through in the sport's biggest moments, which is how their legacies will be forever determined.
Here was another.
For most of their five hours together, they came through magnificently. This is a United States Open, folks, and between them, Kerr and Ochoa finished with just three bogeys the entire afternoon–and only one on the back nine. It was a crucial one. At the 17th, Ochoa drove it left into the bunker and topped her second. Kerr was ahead by two shots, and that was that. Otherwise, it was one clutch par after another. That's the thing about an Open. Nothing was happening, and yet, everything was happening.
As I followed the group, which also included the charismatic teenager Morgan Pressel, whose major came a few months ago at the Kraft Nabisco, I realized it did not really matter who would prevail. This final threesome was the perfect antidote to a week that featured the ongoing problems of Michelle Wie, and the weather. That was the story of this Open–until Sunday.
Ultimately, though, one player had to win and one had to lose, which is what makes the game endlessly fascinating.
Lorena Ochoa is a tremendous talent but even tremendous talents aren't given anything automatically. Afterwards, she was asked what she learned this week.
"I need to work on keeping the ball down in different shots," she suggested, "and making sure I get down the distance control." Maybe. She could also use to convert a few more putts. That definitely hurt her chances this week. However, Ochoa already understands the most important truth about winning a major championship: They never come easy.
Kerr has learned this lesson, too. Two years ago, when the hot story in women's golf was about the young American talents, such as Pressel and Brittany Lang and Natalie Gulbis, who all fared so well in the Open at Cherry Hills, nobody mentioned Cristie Kerr. So what if she had already been on two Solheim Cup squads and was only 27 years old? She wasn't one of the kids, and that's what everyone was excited about. It didn't faze Kerr. "I know in my heart of hearts who I am and how many wins I have and what I've done," she said in her post-victory press conference. "That's good enough for me."
Even Sunday, she was fighting her swing, yet found a way to win her first major. She always seems to find a way. This is a woman, after all, who overcame a serious weight problem years ago.
Watching the duel between Kerr and Ochoa, it is impossible not to come away with an even greater appreciation for what players such as Sorenstam (10 majors) and Juli Inkster (seven) have accomplished. No matter how many they won, the next one was just as tough or maybe tougher.
They wouldn't be majors if they weren't.