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Kerr stamps her name in golf legend

Cristie Kerr called it a "dream performance," the kind that most golfers experience only in their wildest imaginings. Kerr, one of the more candid athletes you'll ever meet, wasn't shy about drawing parallels to the most famous golfer on the planet.

"This is similar to what Tiger did at Pebble Beach," Kerr said Sunday after winning the LPGA Championship by a record 12 strokes at Locust Hill. "I can say that now. You can ask anybody else, they had a real tough time with this course."

She's right. This was how it must have felt 10 years ago when Woods won the U.S. Open by a record 15 shots at Pebble in 2000. Or to draw an exact comparison, when Woods ran away with the Masters by a dozen shots in 1997.

Kerr gave us one of those rare golf moments, when a player enters a different competitive universe and reduces the rest of the players to valet status. Every so often, a golfer defies the conventional wisdom of a major, where the courses are set up to equally torment the field.

I don't know where this one will rank. It's women's golf, where the history isn't carved as deeply into the public consciousness. But gender bias aside, Kerr's 12-stroke victory was one of the finest efforts in major golf history, one that will be revisited by golf fans for years to come.

Kerr went wire-to-wire. She played with amazing precision and resolve. She had 23 birdies and four bogeys. She shot four rounds in the 60s. No woman had ever done that at Locust Hill when it was a regular LPGA stop with wider fairways, lighter rough and shorter tees. Kerr was a combined 14 under on the back nine.

"I didn't limit myself this week," said Kerr, who became No. 1 in the world rankings. "I didn't think about the record books. I wanted to see how far I could take it, and I took it pretty far."

Golfers live for the perfect round. In a major, it usually becomes a battle of survival, a test of one's ability to bounce back from intermittent calamity. But Kerr was impervious in the face of disaster, like some fictional super-heroine.

There's been much talk about the problems of women's golf. The tour has lost sponsors and tournaments. Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa retired. There are too many Koreans, not enough star power. The tour waits for young, marketable Americans like Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis to raise their game.

Kerr, 32, hasn't written a tell-all book or posed semi-nude for a magazine (though she has appeared on "The Apprentice" with her friend Donald Trump). But Kerr has quietly established herself as the best American women's golfer. She is sixth in career LPGA winnings with more than $10 million. She has 14 LPGA wins and two majors (including the 2007 U.S. Open). She has 18 top 10s in majors. But she had never played this well before, under these kind of conditions and pressure.

"Winning a major by two or three is great," Kerr said. "But winning by 12 shots is ridiculous. It's obscene."

It hasn't always been easy. Kerr joined the tour at 18. But she struggled and had to go back to qualifying school. She battled confidence and weight issues. Early in her career, she was 185 pounds and wore glasses. She refers to herself in those days as "a four-eyed fatty."

In 1999, Kerr hired a nutritionist and committed herself to strength and conditioning. She lost 50 pounds in three years. She got contact lenses. In 2006, she married Erik Stevens, who is developing a sports complex in Brooklyn. Kerr has been described as "edgy," even "bratty" over the years.

"I've been this competitive since I was 10 years old," she said. "My father was very competitive as a baseball player and my mother was a competitive swimmer. I get it from them. Both my parents are fighters and they told me never to give up."

Her mother, Linda, is a breast cancer survivor. When Linda was diagnosed in 2003, Kerr created a foundation -- "birdies for breast research." She holds an annual charity golf tournament and has raised nearly $1 million.

"I hope I can be a role model for people," Kerr said. "The more people who gain awareness of breast cancer research, the more money we can raise. I had a scare about eight months ago. I found something that eventually went away, but it was scary as hell. Until it touches you, you don't quite understand."

Linda wasn't in Pittsford. She doesn't like flying. But Kerr said her mother will be there later this summer when the Cristie Kerr Women's Health Center opens in Jersey City, N.J. Kerr donates $50 for every birdie. Good week for breast cancer research.

Kerr said she was a little tentative at the start Sunday. Then she got into a zone and birdied six of the last 12 holes. The last was at 18, when Kerr hit her approach three feet over the flag. She made the triumphant walk to the 18th green, waving her hat and pumping her fists in the air.

She made one last birdie putt for a 12-stroke margin -- the largest in tournament history. Seconds later, she got a champagne shower. Kerr was crying through the bubbly during a TV interview.

"I'm a pretty emotional person," she said, "and to be able to harness it and channel it and play well was amazing. It's awesome. I don't think I could have played better."

History will agree, no doubt.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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