Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who integrated baseball when he signed Jackie Robinson, liked to say, “Luck is the residue of design.” What he meant is good fortune smiles on those whose hard work puts them in a position where lucky things can happen. The same can be said for coincidence. Seemingly random success always has an explanation.
The Women’s Australian Open started in 1974 – a great idea in search of great players, hampered by the fact golf’s stars lived half a world away in the United States. The tournament folded after 1978 and did not resume until 1994 when – coincidentally – a 19-year-old homegrown sensation, Karrie Webb, was emerging as a beacon for women’s golf in Australia and Asia.
Webb played what is now the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open in 1994 and a quarter-century later returns with 41 LPGA victories and seven major titles. She joins nine of the top-20 in the Rolex Rankings at The Grange Golf Club in South Australia this week for the Aussie Open, which since 2012 has been an LPGA stop and this year was joined by the ISPS Handa Vic Open on the LPGA schedule.
In 1974, the Australia Open hung its hat on Jan Stephenson, an Aussie who became a worldwide sensation with her movie-star good looks and equally stunning success, including three majors among her 16 LPGA wins. This year Stephenson joins Webb in the World Golf Hall of Fame, but in 1974, she was fighting a lonely battle to lure big-name Americans to Australia.
“In 1973, we started the ALPG,” says Stephenson. “At the end of the year, they offered U.S. LPGA players free travel to play on our tour after theirs finished, including two majors, which were our last two of the tour since it was summer time here. Then our tour fizzled after a lot of us left to play overseas.”
In that initial run, the Aussie Open produced impressive winners: Stephenson, JoAnne Carner, Donna Caponi, Debbie Austin and Chako Higuchi, the first great Asian women’s golfer. This year the stars hail not just from America, Australia and Japan but also Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, China, India, South Africa, Samoa, The Philippines, Ecuador and Canada as well as Europe.
A ball Stephenson got rolling morphed into a globe. Competing this year are Rolex No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn, No. 7 Minjee Lee, an Aussie and No. 10 Jin Young Ko, the defending champ who was Rolex Rookie of the Year in 2018. Also on board are Lydia Ko, Nelly Korda, Moriya Jutanugarn, last year’s AIG Women’s British Open winner Georgia Hall and Vic Open champion Celine Boutier.
When the Aussie Open re-launched in 1994 it was with a bang, although no one knew it at the time, as Annika Sorenstam got her first pro victory. Webb won the Aussie Open five times between 2000 and 2014, joining Laura Davies, Liselotte Neumann, Catriona Matthew, Sophie Gustafson, Lydia Ko and Yani Tseng in the winner’s circle.
“I have played in every Australian Open since 1994,” says Webb. “I think when the LPGA co-sanctioned it in 2012 that gave the event a shot in the arm. Moving to Adelaide three years ago was also great for the event because the city of Adelaide supports us so well.”
What Webb modestly underestimates is her own impact on the event as she emerged as a global superstar. “It always means a great deal when an Australian, who has made it on the world stage, returns home to defend her country against international invaders,” Stephenson says. “As world No. 1 and the greatest Aussie golfer of all time, Karrie was welcomed home with open arms.”
Stephenson, who played a key role lining up sponsors for the LPGA, says her most important work now is teaching the blind and disabled to play golf at the course in Florida she owns.
Webb, 44, plans to play eight to 10 tournaments this year while working with Golf Australia to grow the girls game. Two Aussies who’ve benefitted from that support are Lee, 22, who has won four LPGA events, and Su Oh, also 22. That dynamic duo represented Australia in the 2016 Olympics, ironically knocking Webb off the team.
“I got to play practice rounds with her whenever we were in the same tournament, like the Aussie Open, U.S. Open and the British Open,” says Lee. “She helps me out whenever I get stuck or whenever I have a question.”
Sarah Jane Smith, an Aussie a decade younger than Webb, also looked to her for support when she joined the LPGA. “Karrie has been a great friend,” says Smith. “My first few years on tour Karrie always looked out for me but I definitely kept my distance. I was so intimidated by her career but little did I know she’s one of the most approachable players on tour.”
Smith says Webb’s experiences after she settled in Florida made her an even more impactful ambassador for the game. “Karrie was lucky enough to spend time and become friends with some of the LPGA founders,” says Smith. “I think because of this and her love of the game she has a passion to grow the game worldwide.”
That passion fueled by the founders was also forged in her Australian heritage. “She came from a small country town and was definitely overlooked early,” says Smith. “She dealt with her fair share of adversity but through it all she worked incredibly hard and her success is hard to comprehend.”
As important as all those wins and the Hall of Fame, a large part of Webb’s legacy will be that Australia now had two stops on the LPGA schedule and a very strong junior program. Without her, that might not be the case.