Karrie Webb reigned over Australian women’s golf for 20 years; in a delightful irony, her crown has been lifted – temporarily at the least – by a teenager whom she has mentored.
Golf Australia rookie squad member Minjee Lee, the 19-year-old Perth sensation, overtook the 40-year-old Webb in the official world rankings released in America overnight to become Australia’s number one ranked female golfer.
Lee’s sixth-place finish in the Arkansas Championship, soon after her first-ever win on the LPGA Tour in May, saw her move from 17th to 16th on the list. Webb, who started the week a place ahead of Lee in the rankings at No. 16, is 18th.
It is safe to say that this is a first, a little piece of golfing history for this country.
The women’s world rankings have only run since 2006 and while several players – Katherine Kirk and Lindsey Wright – have threatened Webb’s status as Australia’s No. 1, no one has managed it. Both Wright and Kirk had moments when they reached the top 20, but the relentless Webb has hovered around the top 10 for most of those years.
Actually, Karrie Webb’s time at the top goes back much farther, arguably as far as 1995 when she won the Women’s British Open by six shots. That was her rookie year as a professional in Europe, and she was an overnight sensation, the great Australian player that this country craved after the retirement of Jan Stephenson.
Then in 1996 she moved to the LPGA Tour and won four tournaments as a rookie, and secured the LPGA money list title in her first year. By 1999 she was winning major championships, of which there have been seven so far, as well as five Australian Opens.
She is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and many people believe her to be the greatest golfer of either gender that this country has produced.
Yet she was never ranked No. 1 in the world officially, because no world rankings were in place at the time she was dominating. Plainly at some point of that period from 1995-2006 she would have been, with the great Annika Sorenstam as her main rival. In the four years from 1999-2002 the Queenslander won six majors, but by the time the world rankings were formalised in 2006, Sorenstam was the dominant player, on her way to 10 majors.
The Swede was No. 1 on the first-ever world rankings and Webb not even in the top 10; by August of 2006 there had been so much controversy about the rankings that there was a change to the formula, and by then, Webb had won her seventh major, holing out with a 100-metre wedge in California, the signature shot of her career. She soared to No. 3 in the world, but she never reached No. 1.
Webb has continued her world class play beyond the time when other world No. 1 players, Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa for instance, stepped away from the game. Her recent lull has coincided with a swing change and the arrival of a new coach, Mike McGetrick, but she is still one of the best in the world.
As recently as this year she was tied-seventh in the Women’s PGA Championship and second in the Evian Championship last year, both majors. Her game has suffered scarcely at all, and her stated aim is to make Australia’s Olympic Games team for Rio de Janeiro next year.
As for her relationship with Lee, it goes back to Golf Australia’s Karrie Webb scholarship, which Lee won along with her rival Su Oh in 2013. It was the same year she won the first of two Australian amateur titles, and the year after she won the United States girls’ title.
At the US Women’s Open at Sebonack in the Hamptons area, Lee and Su Oh, her rival from Melbourne, spent time with Webb, playing some practise rounds and watching the way she prepared.
Lee and Webb, who could see the raw talent on display, formed a strong bond. Then in July, 2014 they represented Australia together at the International Crown teams event, which Lee found herself playing because she was the second-highest Australian player on the world rankings, although she was just 18 and not even a professional.
They beat the vaunted South Korean pair IK Kim and Na Yeon Choi in one match and Webb was delighted. “Just really proud of her performance,” Webb said. “It’s fun to watch and we'll be watching it for many years to come.”
When Lee, a member of Golf Australia's rookie squad of young professionals, won the Kingsmill Championship, her first win in America, one of the first congratulatory text messages was from Webb.
Being the fierce competitor that she is, Karrie Webb will be prickled by the fact she is no longer the top dog. But part of her, undoubtedly, will feel some pride as well.
As for Lee, she is the Next Big Thing of women’s golf, a potential new rival for the likes of Lydia Ko and Inbee Park, who have exchanged the world No. 1 ranking this year. Watch this space.