Remaking image, Webb keeps her game face on

Golf: Athough trying to change her aloof persona, 25-year-old Australian Karrie Webb isn't about to give in to pressure that she carry the mantel for the LPGA.

April 28, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. -- Her friends talk about her sarcastic wit and sensitivity, about how much fun she is to be around and how deeply she cares about people. Her voice chokes up when she mentions her coach back home in Australia, a quadriplegic for the past decade.

There is another side to Karrie Webb, the hottest golfer on a planet that includes Tiger Woods.

for much of her five-year career on the LPGA Tour as being virtually devoid of emotion -- an "ice princess" she was called by one golf magazine last year -- Webb is trying to change her image without altering the tunnel-vision approach that helped her get to the top.

After a month-long break, Webb returns to work today when she tees it up in the $900,000 Chick-fil-A Charity Championship outside Atlanta. Webb will be looking to add to a season in which she has four victories in five tournaments, including the season's first major at the Nabisco Championship.

Her game face, replete with the wraparound Oakleys that only add to her cool persona, will be on. Her critics, who believe that she is not helping the LPGA find more fans and corporate sponsors with what they view as her robotic precision, will be watching.

But she has become more aware of her image, as well as more accessible to those shaping it, evidenced by the rare national teleconference she gave last week. During the interview, she said that the comparisons to Woods and those that focus on their contrasting personalities are a bit unfair.

"He went through a stage where he was so emotional, and last year he got criticized at the PGA for not being emotional enough," said Webb. "And I get criticized for not showing enough personality on the golf course.

"If we changed the way we are to make other people happy, we wouldn't be the people we are. We wouldn't be successful. That's just the way I get my job done. That's just the person I am."

Webb, 25, is still very much the shy country girl who grew up in the small town of Ayr and started playing golf with her parents and grandparents at 8. That she has become the most dominant female player since Nancy Lopez hasn't changed the way she covets her privacy as if it were a trophy.

Still, the walls are starting to come down .

"It's a comfort level because I'm getting used to it," Webb said Wednesday, standing on the practice range at Eagle's Landing Country Club.

Those who know her say that last year was difficult for Webb. Though she won six times, including her first major at the du Maurier Championship, and beat out media darling Juli Inkster as the LPGA's Player-of-the-Year, Webb was consumed by what was being written and said about her.

Webb didn't help herself, being brief and sometimes brusque during interviews. She didn't help the LPGA, turning down a request from ESPN for an "Up Close" segment during the U.S. Women's Open. Publicly, she was her steely self. Privately she cried.

"It hurt her for a long time, personally and professionally," said Kelly Robbins, her closest friend on the tour. "She just doesn't want to change who she is. The LPGA has been fair. She is the hottest thing going. I just hope we're not expecting her to carry the tour."

To become, in essence, the next Lopez. It has happened to other players who were either not able, willing or ready for the task.

Most recently it happened to Jenny Chuasiriporn of Timonium, who after nearly winning the 1998 U.S. Women's Open while still an amateur at Duke was compared to Lopez because of her personality. Chuasiriporn failed to get her LPGA card last fall and is now struggling on the Futures Tour.

"I'm not being forced into it because I'm not going to make myself go there," said Webb. "People are looking for another Nancy Lopez. But a person like Nancy comes along once in a lifetime.

"I want to be one of the players because you can't market the tour on one player anymore. There's too much pressure. The way the tour was back then, Nancy could play almost every week."

Lopez, now 43 and winding down her Hall of Fame career, said that she has seen a difference this year in the way Webb has handled her role as the LPGA's biggest star. A turning point might have come at the LPGA's 50th anniversary gala earlier this year.

Many had to do a double-take seeing Webb arrive wearing a black evening gown, her hair coifed and a big smile on her face.

"She's probably not as shy," said Lopez said. "She is getting comfortable with the celebrity she has become."

Yet Webb will never stray too far from her roots. She is close with her family and last year purchased an old movie theatre in Ayr for her parents to run. She is close with her longtime coach, Kelvin Haller, who is still teaching rising Australian juniors despite his handicap.

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