At a time when the psyche of America's best male golfer has been analysed and dissected more than any other human on the planet, there's an irony that the achievements of the top US women's golfer, Cristie Kerr, have to some extent been overlooked because not enough people have taken the time to understand her. Tim Maitland reports.
Walking the course during this week's HSBC Women's Champions, it was hard to find a more committed competitor out there than America's world number six-ranked Cristie Kerr, particularly when it comes to the Singapore tournament, which she regards as the top tournament on the planet outside golf's "Old World"--the USA and Europe.
Perhaps only Suzann Pettersen rivals the 32-year-old from Florida when it comes to straining every sinew and searching every synapse to perform.
With six consecutive years of earning over a million US dollars from tournaments, during which time she has never finished outside the top ten in the season-ending money list, Kerr has scratched and clawed her way into the upper echelons of the women's game.
One thing noone would accuse Kerr of is not making the most of the talent she has, but perhaps we are guilty of judging our male and female sports stars in different ways: qualities we might admire and faults we might turn a blind eye to in a man are not always seen in the same light in a woman.
Certainly noone would claim she is the most popular person among the travelling circus of the world's top women's tour.
The occasional insensitive comment and moments when the competitive fire has burned too bright are well documented, but if anyone had put a fraction of the effort that has gone into psychoanalysing Tiger into understanding what lay beneath the layers of Cristie's personality they would have realised that the spiky exterior conceals a soft core. Equally, they would know that no matter how hard she has been on the people who have come in contact with her in the past, she has been a thousand times harder on herself.
"I think I've won over a lot of the people I offended when I first came out on tour. People didn't understand I was intimidated. I didn't want to let anyone in because I was afraid," Kerr explains.
"I'm not anymore and it's easier to let people in. I can't do it 100 per cent of the time, but over time it gets easier. You don't feel threatened if they get to know who you are."
The roots of what caused Cristie to clash with her contemporaries can't be clearly understood simply by looking at her as the million-dollar-earning, high-ranking, successful sports star she is today. Almost born and raised on the TPC Blue Monster in Doral, home of the WGC-CA Championship--she has been mentored there by Jim McLean since the age of eight--a key to comprehending Kerr is to understand the greater significance of the change she made in 1999 when she shed over 25 kgs (almost 60 lbs.), changed her hair, and shed her pebble glasses.
As anyone who has been beset with negative self-image and self-esteem issues knows, such a transformation is a moment of massive significance, because for someone struggling with themselves to take care of themselves in that way takes a superhuman effort. Those sufferers would also point out that just because you have blossomed in adulthood doesn't necessarily mean you actually feel good about yourself. Those sensations are rooted deep in childhood or adolescence and take far longer to change.
"I changed the way I look and the way I did things, and I do think you have to constantly make yourself over," says Kerr, before admitting it was only four or five years later that she started a process which today allows her to answer the following questions with confidence.
Have you become more comfortable in your own skin?
"I have. I definitely have!" she states.
Are you kinder to yourself?
"For sure! One of the things is learning to forgive yourself--for bad shots and for the things you do in life--you have to forgive yourself or you'll totally torment yourself.
"I'm not afraid to talk to people now, to talk to fans, to sign autographs, not afraid to be myself. Most people go through life thinking they have to be something other than who they actually are, and I've kind of found myself in the last four or five years. My husband has had a lot to do with that. You make each other better. When you're with your soul mate, you make each other better."
That man is Erik Stevens, a sports marketer who has represented many LPGA players and corporations investing in the tour and currently handles his wife's business interests. As fast talking as you might expect when it comes to business topics, around Cristie he shows infinite patience; his gentle, measured tones hinting at how he has been the calming influence that has helped her find a measure of peace with herself.
His comment at this point is spot on too, highlighting the irony that the demands of being an elite-level professional athlete--the almost myopic dedication and focus, the attention to detail and the quest for an unachievable perfection, all of which can easily become obsessive--are all the opposites of the ingredients needed in the quest to become a well-rounded, contented human being.
"People automatically assume if you're a professional athlete and you're in the public eye, that you're a certain way," Cristie adds.
"If you're a golfer and you sign autographs... Natalie [Gulbis] is very good at it and is open to everybody and very accessible. I've had to learn over time how to be better at that, and people judge you automatically if you're not good at it. They project you to be a certain way, when maybe it's something you need to work at."
One of the platforms that has helped has been the work that Cristie has done for her Birdies for Breast Cancer charity, which she started after her mother Linda was diagnosed with the illness in 2003. Meeting and dealing with people in the "safe" environment of raising funds allowed her to slowly come out of her protective shell and start opening up to strangers.
"It's given me a chance to interact more and more over the last four or five years and be more comfortable with that," she explains.
"What happened with my mum and the breast cancer and once I started to raise money for the charity, it changes you. When you go through something like that you see the world with a different perspective. You see that it's bigger than yourself. The Buddhist way is that wanting more than yourself is the path to unhappiness, and I've just tried to make myself happy and everything else has gotten better."
Kerr’s reference to Buddhist teaching leads her to credit Dr. Joe Parent, the author of Zen Golf and mental coach to Vijay Singh, David Toms, and Juli Inkster. She says Parent has played a significant role towards her finding some inner peace, or to put it in more familiar golf parlance, to stop beating herself up all the time.
"I think I'm taking myself less seriously and I'm trying to enjoy what I do more. This is my 14th year on tour and, sure, I want to play until I'm 50, but you never know how long you're going to play. You don't know in life, and I think I've come to the point where I've said, 'You know what? I don't want to be stressed out on the golf course.' If I try and enjoy it and just control the things I can, everything will be all right and everything will take care of itself."
In the context of her personal voyage and her quest to find inner happiness, it somehow seems incongruous to dwell on any details of her golfing goals, although she readily talks about her quest to make one more step up from her current status as one of the best in the world, of her desire to convert her consistency in the Majors (she's had 16 top ten finishes and was challenging for the win in two in 2009, but so far has won only once, the 2007 US Women's Open) into more victories and her desire to get back to multiple-win seasons like she had from 2004 to 2006.
More relevant, indirectly, are her studies to become a sommelier; she's taking her level one sommelier exams in May as part of her and Erik's Curvature wine, which, needless to say, will donate all of its profits to breast cancer research (it's a cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, if you're interested). It's relevant because the care and attention she puts into choosing a Cotes Du Rhone for a plonk guzzler and the patience she shows explaining the subtleties of the bouquet, highlighting the fruit, but also the sense of the soil the grapes were grown in, and sharing her enjoyment of the way certain foods, in this case lamb, vitalise the flavour, show a gentle side of her nature that her detractors on the tour would find hard to recognise.
"Sometimes people think you're just one way. It's like if they get burned or get a bad impression the first time, they'll never give you a second chance," she says, with a shrug of resignation on that subject.
None of this is to say that Cristie has transformed herself completely. Her voice, which softens noticeably throughout the conversation, perhaps because she senses that someone outside her immediate circle has chosen to understand how she has struggled against her inner turmoil rather than judge her on how she externalises the results, does sharpen again quite quickly when the stress levels rise and her languid sentences become more clipped. However, she is at least halfway to happiness.
"I'm very content right now. I'm enjoying life. Just trying to be simple and not wondering how things will turn out."
None of this is to say that Cristie Kerr will ever be the first to rush smiling on to the green to pour champagne over a rival who has just pipped her to the prize.
You're still going to be a street fighter and a bar brawler, aren't you?
"For sure, I'm a scrapper. I'm a mudder; a grinder. Those are all words that describe me."
And... if you have to walk over someone in the process?
"They'll walk over me if they have a chance, so absolutely!"
Cristie's already playing well in 2010, but her struggles with the lead in the last year or so, including last week, show she still has a ways to go when she's on the verge of actually reaching her on-course goals.