Cristie Kerr can relate to John Nash, the conflicted genius whose self-imagined troubles provide the basis for the 2001 Academy Award-winning motion picture, "A Beautiful Mind."
Kerr knows what it's like to stray into a false world and reside outside the present. She has come to understand that entertaining undesirable outcomes inhibits her from performing her best. She recognizes that only by taming her fears can she fully unshackle the immensity of her talent, which already has elevated her to fourth on the LPGA's all-time money list.
Kerr's words following Thursday's first-round 68 at the LPGA Championship suggested she has recently been through an attitude cleansing.
"I feel like my mental game is there," she said.
"This is what I wanted starting the first day, and you get kind of a taste of blood in the water in a sense," she added.
Any ambiguity in those statements ceded to clarity on Friday morning at Locust Hill. Kerr found only five of 14 fairways. At least twice demanding shots resulting from missteps beckoned her demise. Yet in the end she held high a bogey-free 6-under-par 66 (134), a round that shoved her nearest competitors five shots back as they pursue the second major title of the LPGA season.
There's no playing defense in golf, no resting secure on a big lead with 36 holes remaining. Someone might catch fire and emerge from the trail pack over the weekend. The mental strength Kerr has displayed could take sudden leave. Unless that happens, however, the winner of 13 career LPGA titles, including the 2007 U.S. Women's Open, appears poised to secure a second career major.
Japan's Mika Miyazato shot 70 and shares second with South Korean Inbee Park (70), winner of the 2008 U.S. Women's Open. The two players tied for the lead with Kerr after Thursday, Stacy Lewis and Seon Hwa Lee, boarded the down elevator and descended to a tie for 10th after 74s. Two other Americans ascended into the top 10 -- 2009 Kraft Nabisco champion Brittany Lincicome (69-140) and two-time career winner Michele Redman (67-141).
Some of the bigger names among the U.S contingent faltered. Michelle Wie (74), Juli Inkster (74) and Natalie Gulbis (75) endured trying days. Meanwhile, Paula Creamer reversed her fortunes with an eagle on her eighth hole (No. 17) and remained 1 under for the tournament with a par 72.
The lack of multiple majors might be the only knock on Kerr's career. Not that she's lacked opportunity. She placed top 10 in four of the last five majors and seven of the last 10. An intense competitor, she's been renowned for possessing an edgy personality that sometimes got the best of her as she strove to will herself to victory while simultaneously questioning her ability to perform under pressure. She's referencing the current absence of "what ifs?" when she speaks of the improvement in her mental game.
"It means that I'm free of interference," she said. "It means I'm focusing more on how I want to hit the shot than how it's going to turn out."
Kerr's revamped mental approach minimizes the fears inherent to a sport where the undesired effect (a poor shot) typically traces to the cause (uncertain thoughts). One might have expected a more steadfast confidence from a player with her accomplishments. Even Kerr concedes she may have been shorting herself through her searing critiques of her game.
"I've worked hard enough. I've won enough golf tournaments," Kerr said. "You know what, there is always a little bit of that in there. I equate that to, if you've seen the movie 'A Beautiful Mind,' where there are things in his mind that are there, that are real to him, but aren't actually real. Like if you put them in your hand, you can't touch them and you can't feel them.
"And I think when I have a bad thought -- and it happens -- or when I feel unconfident, I just go back to that Beautiful Mind movie. That's one of my favorite movies because he chose not to acknowledge. He had difficulty in the beginning but he chose not to acknowledge and have the thoughts be harmful to him, and he was able to go on and lead his life."
There's nothing like a major to put a competitor's mental resolve -- or is it comfort? -- to the test. Five-shot leads have been known to disappear quickly, bolstering the hunters in their pursuit of the prey.
"I think it's still two days of golf left out there," Park said. "Anything could happen on this golf course. You could shoot a really high score or you could go really low."
What Kerr shoots could depend on her ability to stay in the moment and allow her proven ability to push aside despairing thoughts. For two more days she'd like to remain beautiful in mind, although she's quick to issue this reminder:
"I don't have a Nobel Peace Prize, though."