BEDMINSTER, N.J. – At a time when teenagers on tour were not as common as now, there was Cristie Kerr. She was the outspoken, brash kid with glasses who turned pro right out of high school after winning on the Symetra Tour as an amateur and earning her LPGA card for 1997 at Q-school when she was just 19.
Twenty years after her rookie season and 10 years after picking up the first of her two majors at the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open, Kerr enters this year’s U.S. Open at Trump National not only still a force but, having won her 19th LPGA title earlier this year, among the contenders for the national championship.
Indeed, Kerr is part of a strong contingent of Americans at Trump National that includes 2014 ANA Inspiration winner Lexi Thompson, 2014 U.S. Women’s Open champ Michelle Wie, Danielle Kang, who won this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA, and defending U.S. Women’s Open champ Brittany Lang. All followed the 39-year-old Kerr and turned pro as a teenager.
And that’s just part of the way Kerr has been a pioneer. She was also ahead of the curve in charitable involvement and in expanding her brand into the business world.
Kerr’s success on the golf course is overwhelming and probably under appreciated. With more than $18 million in career earnings, she trails only Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb. This year she will make her ninth Solheim Cup appearance. Without question, she is the most successful American female golfer of the 21st century.
“The U.S. Open win, especially being an American, is one of my proudest achievements as a golfer,” Kerr says. “As a little girl you always dream about making the putt to win the U.S. Open. I remember looking forward to Pine Needles because it has a great history for women's golf, thanks to Peggy Kirk Bell.”
In addition to that U.S. Open, Kerr won the 2010 KPMG Women’s PGA, blowing away the field by 12 strokes, and has 25 top-10s in majors, including eight at the U.S. Open. In that Open at Pine Needles Kerr held off then-Rolex No. 1 Lorena Ochoa by two strokes.
“I started 2007 poorly and was battling some injuries so my mindset going into the Open wasn't peak,” Kerr says. “I managed to stay in the mix the first two days and then some weather delays had me playing late Saturday in front of two fans and no cameras. I had to finish that round Sunday morning and I went home and took a nap.”
But it was the afternoon that changed her life forever.
“Later that day I had a great pairing with Lorena and Morgan [Pressel],” she says. “I didn't feel like I was playing against Lorena so much as trying to survive the course. My putting was especially clutch. I also remember walking up 18 and saying to my caddie Jason, ‘My heart is racing in my chest.’ He said, ‘It's supposed to be. You are about to win the Open.’”
Kerr has used her success on the golf course to forage in bold directions off it. Motivated by her mother’s breast cancer, Cristie founded Birdies for Breast Cancer, which has raised millions and heightened awareness of the disease. The Cristie Kerr Women’s Health Center offers breast cancer screening and treatment regardless of ability to pay. Cristie also partnered with Pride Mountain Vineyards to create Curvature Wines in 2009, which gives its proceeds to breast cancer research.
As a businesswoman, Kerr started her second wine label, Kerr Cellars, in 2014 and is a brand ambassador for Lacoste, Richard Mille,Titleist and Double Cross Vodka. In 2005, she appeared in the third season of “The Apprentice,” the TV show then hosted by President Trump. In 2006, Kerr married businessman Erik Stevens. They live in Scottsdale, Ariz., and have a 3-year-old son Mason.
The will to win by Kerr is exemplified by her personal transformation. At 5-foot-3, she weighed 175 pounds in 1999 but, motivated by the fact both her parents are diabetics and that her mother had a heart attack when Cristie was in ninth grade, she vowed to get in shape and by 2002 had lost 50 pounds, along the way shedding her glasses for contact lens. The startling remake opened many doors for her.
That’s just one of the ways Kerr has shown a grit born of her economically modest background. After a highly successful amateur career when she won the 1994 Junior Orange Bowl, the 1995 Women’s Western Amateur, was 1995 AJGA Player of the Year, made the 1996 U.S. Curtis Cup team and finished as low amateur in the U.S. Women’s Open that year, Kerr’s pro career started slowly.
She won the 1995 Ironwood Futures Classic on what is now the Symetra Tour while still playing on the Miami Sunset High School boy’s team but didn’t get her first LPGA win until the 2002 Longs Drugs Challenge. Since then, she’s been a constant presence in the winner’s circle, with at least one title in 12 different seasons, including this year at the Lotte Championship.
One of the best putters in the game, when Kerr gets it going she quick-walks the ball into the hole, following it in an almost unerring early assessment of the outcome. She is a passionate player who, when she yells “sit” to her ball says the word with such force you half expect everyone in the gallery to follow her order and hit the ground. And that competitive fire still rages within her.
“My goals going forward are pretty much the same as 2007,” she says. “I want to stay in contention and play well in the majors. Obviously I am getting closer to the Hall of Fame and that's special, but I still want to prepare and play golf to win any given week.”
Among the questions raised by all the teens on tour is whether their careers will have longevity. This could be another way in which Kerr is a pioneer. By looking at the diversified life Cristie has created, the younger players of today could learn a lot about how to still be fresh and hungry tomorrow.
Twenty years after joining the LPGA and 10 years after winning the U.S. Women’s Open, Cristie Kerr is still quick-walking the ball to the hole – and she’s still winning, with no end in sight.