Appearances can be deceptive. Like how Cristie Kerr has had a gilded life. Or how the American LPGA star is as intense off the golf course as she is on it.
Both are far from the truth.
Yes, Kerr, 38, is now enjoying the rewards of a stellar career. But she has had to scrap all the way. That’s why she looks so single-minded with a club in her hands.
Sure, she was blessed with a talent for the game having taken it up as a nine-year-old in Florida.
But she has had to overcome prejudice on her high school boys’ golf team, nurse her mother through a heart attack and breast cancer, cope with the break-up of her parents’ marriage, deal with ballooning weight, overcome six years of uncertainty on Tour and start a family through a surrogate after being unable to give birth.
Despite all that, Kerr has risen to world No. 1, won 18 LPGA Tour events, including two majors, played on eight Solheim Cup teams and pocketed $17 million in prize money to become the highest-earning American woman golfer ever and third on the LPGA all-time money list.
She has also raised more than $2.5 million through her charity Birdies for Breast Cancer and has ventured into the wine business with her signature Napa Valley Curvature range being served at the White House.
Which all begs the question, how?
“I’m an ambitious person and I didn’t doubt myself for a lot of those formative years,” Kerr told CNN’s Living Golf at her home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Breaking down barriers
By the age of 12 she knew she wanted to become a professional, inspired by the feats of LPGA greats Nancy Lopez and Juli Inkster, and thrilled by the sight – while watching tucked up in bed – of Fred Couples winning the 1992 Masters.
She quickly developed into a standout on the junior scene, but the story really begins as a freshman on the boys’ golf team at Sunset Senior High School in Miami.
“My first year in ninth grade it kind of made me uncomfortable,” she says.
“My father said listen, ‘if you’re going to be on the boys team the only way they will respect you is if you beat them,’ so I went out and inevitably I did beat a lot of boys, off the men’s tees.”
However, it wasn’t quite that simple. Whispers and jealousy behind the scenes led to a mooted lawsuit to ban Kerr from playing with the boys. “Many times” she says she wanted to give up, but her parents and high school coach Darrell Baker kept her going.
“Barriers are hard to break down sometimes,” Kerr added. “I just tried to play as well as I could. Maybe that’s where a bit of my intensity comes from, playing against the boys and always trying to prove something.”
She did, and then some. She made the U.S. Curtis Cup team in 1996 as an 18-year-old and finished as low amateur in the U.S. Women’s Open the same year before turning pro and trying to gain an LPGA card.
“I was touted to burn the house down coming out of high school but when I got out there it was like,’woah, I have something to learn,'” she says.
“Qualifying that first year was hell. It was just me and my Dad. He was caddying for me and we were fighting a lot on the course, just because we were too close and because there was a lot of pressure trying to make money, trying to cover my expenses.”
Kerr did secure her card, and given some financial help by other family members, she scratched her way on Tour. Life, however, was tough.
“If I was going to quit it would have happened back then,” she said. “Those years shaped me to be who I am. A lot of people don’t realize how tough you have to be as a pro golfer. A lot of people think it is a glamorous lifestyle but it’s not, especially with the amount of travel we do.”
Fries with that?
To add to the stress, Kerr’s parents were divorcing and she struggled with her weight, eating for comfort against the pressures of golf and life.
“I didn’t eat well growing up, I ate too much,” she said. “I had no idea French fries weren’t good for you.”
She took the decision to go it alone, and went on a “quest” to educate herself about healthy eating,
“When I made the decision to live by myself, travel by myself, I had to be an adult and I had to do it quickly,” she said. “It was very liberating and that helped me to be successful.”
Finally, in her sixth full season on Tour, Kerr made the breakthrough with victory in the Longs Drugs Challenge in California.
“It was a huge relief,” she said. “Winning can be daunting. It can be, ‘do I want all the things that come along with that?’ I went through a big transformation with the weight loss and finally at that time I was ready to win and everything came together.”
The second win came two years later, almost to the day, but it took three more years at the coalface before she captured that first major – the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open.
“I always knew in my heart I could but until you do it’s always an unproven thing,” she said.
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A second major win followed at the 2010 LPGA Championship – by a whopping 12 shots – and her rise to become the first American woman ranked No.1 in the world cemented Kerr’s status.
But as befits this most driven of competitors she has a new focus – besides being a mother to two-year-old son Mason and fitting in the time somewhere to become a qualified sommelier.
“The Olympics is a huge goal of mine, to make that team and play for my country,” she says.