SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- No one can ignore Cristie Kerr now, not with her name on the biggest trophy in women's golf.
Left out of most conversations about top young American players, the 29-year-old Kerr won the U.S. Women's Open on Sunday by making only two bogeys over her final 45 holes, and forcing Lorena Ochoa into another series of major mistakes.
In a riveting duel along the back nine of Pine Needles, Kerr broke a tie with an 18-foot birdie putt on the 14th and made the No. 1 player in the world come get her. Ochoa didn't come close, losing hope with another pulled tee shot that cost her a bogey.
Kerr's final stroke of a 23-hole Sunday was a tap-in for par that gave her a 70.
Stoic with every step down the fairway, she finally buckled when it was over. Kerr dropped to her knees and broke out in tears, then turned and tossed her golf ball to the gallery around the 18th green.
"Today was my day," Kerr said. "That birdie at 14 was unbelievable. To hold it together ... it's a dream come true."
Kerr finished at 5-under 279 and earned $560,000 for her 10th career victory, this one by far the biggest. It ended an 0-for-41 record in the majors dating to her debut in the Women's Open as a 17-year-old in 1995.
Ochoa will have to wait until the Women's British Open at St. Andrews for her next shot at winning a major, which is quickly turning into a bigger burden than she imagined. She closed with a 71 and tied for second with 18-year-old Angela Park, who shot 70.
"I don't need to be frustrated," Ochoa said. "We still have one more major, and I'm going to try to get that one."
Morgan Pressel, who also played in the final group and was two shots behind with five holes remaining, stumbled badly at the end to close with a 77 and tie for 10th.
Storm delays forced 63 players to return at dawn Sunday to complete the third round, and Kerr promptly made bogey. She didn't make many more mistakes after that, and her only other bogey on a steamy, sunny day in the sand hills came from a bunker on the eighth hole of the final round that dropped her into a tie with Ochoa.
They each made par on the next five holes, with Ochoa missing a great birdie chance from 8 feet on the 13th. It was typical of her long day, which began with the 25-year-old Mexican star missing three putts inside 7 feet at the end of the third round, two of them for par.
Then came the decisive birdie, with Kerr walking toward the hole before the ball disappeared.
"I've been walking putts in all week, and thta was a pretty damn good one," she said.
After Kerr's birdie on the 14th, Ochoa never hit another green in regulation.
She tends to miss to the left under pressure, a flaw that exposed itself again in the late afternoon. Ochoa went left into a bunker on the par-5 15th, a hole she could have reached in two from the fairway. She had to save par from 15 feet to stay in the game.
The pivotal moment came on No. 17, one of the toughest at Pine Needles.
Kerr hit a draw around the dogleg left into the fairway, leaving her only a 7-iron to the green. Ochoa, as she did in the morning, tried to hammer a driver over the trees, but her swing was quick and the ball nicked the top of the trees, dropping into a bunker. Ochoa caught her fairway metal heavy and moved it only 60 yards, hit a solid shot to 20 feet but missed the par putt.
"I was trying to put the ball on the green and just swung a little bit too fast, and I hit the ball on the top," Ochoa said of her 5-wood out of the bunker. "It happens."
That gave Kerr a two-shot lead heading to the 18th, and she drilled another one right down the middle.
Kerr had good vibes all week at Pine Needles, where she was the low amateur in 1996 at the Women's Open. Even though she hadn't won this year, "Everything has been pointing to this tournament."
"I saw it all week, the same scene," she said. "And it happened."
This major was a long time coming for Kerr, a pioneer of sorts for women who now routinely skip college. She turned pro when she graduated high school, won in her sixth year on tour and has not finished out of the top five on the LPGA money list the last three years.
But she was overlooked when talk turned to young Americans, especially the last few years with the emergence of Paula Creamer, Brittany Lincicome and Pressel, who in April became the youngest LPGA major champion at 18 in the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Kerr got into contention by finishing off a 66 in the morning to take a one-shot lead, and she never wavered.
Ochoa had a chance to share the 54-hole lead until she three-putted for bogey from 30 feet, settling for a 68 that left her tied with Pressel (69).
Kerr looked as though she would make bogey when her approach came up short and she chipped to 8 feet. But she saved par, then holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-3 third to stay in the lead most of the front nine.
Ochoa had ample opportunities, but her best putts were for par. She dearly needed one on the 17th, but turned away when her putt slid by on the left, and reality sunk in that her credentials still don't include the most important tournaments.
She thought this might be the time, especially with her mother and a host of friends from Mexico cheering from the gallery, and several others carrying the Mexican flag.
But she has yet to prove herself under the most stifling pressure, and she had to settle for the silver medal.
This celebration belonged to Kerr, who leapt into the arms of her husband, Erik Stevens.
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