A good old-fashioned thriller

Dave Kane

Everything about the 2007 LPGA State Farm Classic was meant to be new. From school bus rides to the golf course to avoiding cutting through someone’s backyard, Labor Day weekend was a transitional test for anyone who’s been involved with the 32-year-old event that spent its first 31 years at The Rail Golf Course in Sherman.

But it was a 22-year veteran of the women’s tour, someone who had a near-perfect attendance record at the Classic’s old home, who prevailed in an old-fashioned  fight to the finish.

Christina Kim was closing in on her second birthday when Sherri Steinhauer ventured onto the LPGA Tour early in 1986.  But there they were on Sunday afternoon, staging a riveting final act to the tour’s first big show at Panther Creek Country Club.

They’re at vastly different stages of their lives and careers. Steinhauer, 44, has done more than simply survive as a professional golfer. She now has eight career victories, including three over the past four seasons. She’s preparing to play for the United States in the Solheim Cup matches in less than two weeks in Sweden.

But Steinhauer, who completed her 20th Classic on Sunday, also serves a link to State Farm Classics and LPGA seasons past. In 1986, Steinhauer’s first year at The Rail, the winner (Betsy King) collected $30,000. That’s lower-top-10 cash these days.

Steinhauer also has a caddie with one of those old-school monickers: “Coffee Joe” Connolly, who’s in his first season with Steinhauer but his 34th year toting golf bags for a living. The two of them have seen it all on the tour, and Steinhauer rolls with the changes and adapts with the common-sensibility that comes from her Midwestern roots.

Kim, 23, is a fashion-conscious California girl who said the heck with college golf —  not because she wasn’t book-smart, though — and jumped into tour life feet-first. There have been growing pains, but two career victories and a Solheim Cup appearance two years ago have shown that Kim definitely has substance as well as style in ample amounts.

Kim was hurt that she was passed over for one of the two at-large picks for this year’s Solheim team, but as she noted Friday, “Well, so would everyone else that was not picked. They would definitely say, ‘I believe I should have been on that team.’”

Steinhauer, who earned her Solheim spot based on her top-10 point standing,  is looking forward to her second international competition. But the last four days, and those final nailbiting holes in particular, showed she was in no mood to just go through the motions and save her energies for the trans-Atlantic event.

On Sunday, Steinhauer edged past JoAnne Carner, who was 43 when she won at The Rail in 1982, as the event’s oldest champion. But Carner, aka Big Mama, won by six shots in what was then a three-day Classic.

Steinhauer was a wire-to-wire winner at Panther Creek, holding up under final-threesome pressure in the final two rounds. And Kim applied some serious pressure down the stretch.

Steinhauer had just hit out of a greenside bunker at No. 16, leaving herself a 30-foot birdie attempt on the par-5 hole, when the first in what would be a series of gallery roars came from the par-3 No. 17 a few hundred yards away. Kim had just chipped in for birdie to briefly pull into a first-place tie.

But Steinhauer drained her birdie putt.

Then, on No. 18, Kim rang up her third straight birdie — a long putt from off the putting surface — to pull even with Steinhauer again. The roar there wasn’t quite as audible down at No. 17, where Steinhauer cooly dropped a 25-foot downhill putt to restore her edge again.

 The crowd at 17 did its best to let everyone at 18 know something big had happened there, too. At least one guy thought it was definitely over.

“Stick a fork in it!”

And it looked that way when Steinhauer placed her tee shot in perfect position in the 18th fairway. But her shot into the green fell short and into a bunker.

After blasting her ball past the pin and off the putting surface in back of the green, Steinhauer did more than just get a two-putt bogey to force a playoff.

Using the same pendulum putter she switched to six years ago — “I’ve had it re-gripped twice,” she said  — she made the putt and leaped into the air like, well, a 23-year-old who also defied gravity at the same green a few minutes before.

Winning never gets old.

“I think one reason why I enjoy the game more than ever at this point in my career is because when you’re younger, it seems like you put so much pressure on yourself,” Steinhauer said. “I was the worst. I was so hard on myself when I was younger.

“And now, I’m so thankful to be here. Every week is a bonus. I enjoy playing and I love the competition. I have a completely refreshed attitude about this game, and every year is a bonus that I’m out here.”

Kim, on the other hand, took a philosophical approach to finishing second in Springfield for the second time in four years. The circumstances were different in 2004, when she was just 20 and missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the final hole that would’ve forced a playoff with Cristie Kerr.

“I think I’ve matured a little bit more where I can be the type of person where I’m happy for someone else as well as be happy with how I finished,” Kim said. “The fact that I made a birdie coming into the last hole, I’m just ecstatic with that.

“I’m just floating right now.”

Dave Kane can be reached at 788-1544 or dave.kane@sj-r.com