Suspense was scheduled off for the final round of the LPGA Championship. Cristie Kerr entered leading the field by eight shots, the tournament record after 54 holes. What drama could possibly unfold at Locust Hill Country Club with a savvy tour vet performing in peak form?
Well, suspense did indeed make an unexpected appearance, although Kerr played no part in its arrival.
Sunday's ho-hum final round turned compelling when Ai Miyazato, the world's No. 1-ranked player, unleashed a birdie barrage that catapulted her up the leader board from a tie for 24th into sole possession of second place. Had Miyazato held that position, she would have remained atop the Rolex World Rankings for at least another week. Instead, she backtracked with a bogey on the 72nd hole, ended up tied for third and ceded the top spot as Kerr cakewalked to her second career major title with the most dominant performance in LPGA Championship history.
An American woman is now No. 1 in the world for the first time since the current ranking format was introduced in 2006 and, generally speaking, probably for the first time since Juli Inkster won three of five majors spanning 1999-2000. Since then the game has been dominated by Australia's Karrie Webb, Sweden's Annika Sorenstam and Mexico's Lorena Ochoa with an onslaught of Asian players nipping at their heels and two ascending to the throne upon Ochoa's retirement. South Korea's Jiyai Shin was No. 1 for six weeks before Miyazato, a four-time winner this year, overtook her last week.
Miyazato's run injected some thrills into a round that was otherwise validated Kerr's crossover into otherworldliness. Kerr broke through for her first birdie on the par-3 seventh and let it loose from there, blistering the back nine as she did throughout the tournament. Her final-round 6-under 66 (4 under on the back) matched Miyazato for the day's low score, and her 19-under 269 resulted in a staggering 12-shot margin, the widest in tournament history. She also became the first player to shoot in the 60s all four rounds at Locust Hill, a course that's been a staple on the LPGA Tour.
Kerr's resounding performance and her rise to No. 1 could have wide-ranging implications for the game on U.S. soil. The LPGA is down to 24 tournaments from 34 a year ago. Only 14 of those are in the States. The rise in American fortunes anticipated from the likes of Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis hasn't materialized. Sponsors have turned their backs. It would seem the only way to reverse the course is to have an American player rise to the top and sustain.
"I think it's huge," said Stacy Lewis, who finished tied for 14th after sharing the first-round lead. "I think you could even feel it out there today by the way people are cheering. They wanted Cristie to win. They wanted an American to win. And we need that on our tour that needs events in the U.S. I think that will help us a lot."
"It makes us all kind of want to step up and try to help her," said Brittany Lincicome, who joined Lewis in a tie for 14th.
A roar erupted from the bleachers surrounding the 18th green when Kerr hit her approach to 3 feet, setting up her final birdie. She raised her arms to acknowledge the tumult, accepted a hug from playing partner Jimin Kang and strode uphill to the green, a broad smile emanating.
Kerr, 32, was the epitome of focus and in-the-moment resolve during a week in which she made 23 birdies against four bogeys. She spoke early in the tournament about a revamped mind-set that suppressed her fears. Instead of entertaining and fretting worst-case scenarios she trusted her ability to execute, fully liberating talent that had seen her win 13 LPGA events, including the 2008 U.S. Women's Open.
"I'm a pretty emotional person and to be able to kind of harness that in a way and channel it to play well is amazing," Kerr said. "I was a little bit, not tentative, not tight, just a little bit kind of feeling the day out the first six holes. And when that putt went in on 7, off I went. It's a dream performance."
Kerr was so single-minded of purpose that she might have been the only person on the course oblivious to Miyazato's frenzied attempt to retain the world's No. 1 ranking.
"Honestly, I can tell you this is probably the one week in my life that I didn't know what anybody else was doing but me," Kerr said. "I wasn't even cognizant of the fact of what anybody else was doing. To me it didn't matter. To me this week, for some reason, it didn't matter."
"It's important to me," Kerr said. "I always wanted to be the No. 1 player in the world. I take great pride in being the top American. But you have to perform every week to do that. I'm there now, but I have to prove that I deserve to be there. So there is still a lot of work ahead. I feels awfully good right now."