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Karrie, is it too late to say sorry?

Charles Happell

Charles Happell

Written on Tuesday, 07 February 2012 21:34

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Regrets? In journalism, I've had a few.

Once or twice, that's meant going too hard and harpooning people who perhaps didn't deserve it; and once or twice it's meant not going hard enough after being hoodwinked by conmen.

Then there was the time - in a book, no less - that I caused someone unnecessary heartache with a throwaway line that would come to have very unhappy consequences.

That 'someone' was Karrie Webb, the impish wonderkid from Ayr in north Queensland who'd go on to become the best woman golfer in the world.

The trouble started when I was asked by a Melbourne publisher in 2001 to write a book on Webb. Well, not so much a book as a booklet, an anorexic thing of about 25,000 words that was to be part of a series on Australian sportsmen and women.

Well, times were tough, I barely had enough to feed the parking meter each morning, so I took on the job. Even though the final product was never going to do Webb's achievements justice - she had won six majors till that point, at the age of 26 - and was always going to feel like a slightly half-baked, colour-by-numbers effort.

Through her management company, IMG, I eventually got hold of Karrie by phone in Florida. I'd always enjoyed a decent relationship with her as The Age's then golf writer, and she gave me some good material, including how she was inspired, at age 11, to take up the game after watching Greg Norman play the Queensland Open in 1986 and the remarkable journey that had taken her to the lofty position atop the women's game.

In trying to build the picture of Webb, the book had to touch on her private life, specifically her love life. You can't write a sporting bio - however meagre - without giving some insight into the person away from their sporting arena. What are they really like?

In the golf world, it was no secret that Karrie had been seeing an American LPGA Tour player, Kelly Robbins, and they'd been an item for years. They'd turn up to tournament dinners together before the Ladies Masters on the Gold Coast and the Australian Open in Melbourne, sometimes in matching outfits, Robbins had been to meet and stay with the Webb family in Ayr and it was clear they were in a relationship.

It didn't matter to me one jot who she was seeing and what her sexual preference was. But I figured it couldn't be ignored. So at the bottom of chapter eight, on page 61, having discussed the break-up with her fiancee and childhood sweetheart Todd Haller (who was also her caddie in her first year on the LPGA Tour, 1996, a dual role that was destined for disaster), I wrote: ''Since the split, Karrie's constant companion over the past four years has been Kelly Robbins, an accomplished American player on the LPGA Tour.''

Just 23 words, but 23 words that ended up causing Webb a disproportionate amount of angst and pain.

The late Geoff McClure, who wrote the Sporting Life column for The Age, read the book and plucked that sentence out as one of his  diary items. And then the 'news' took on a life of its own. It spread around the globe quicker than any computer virus and in the days after McClure's revelation, I was called by radio sports shows from the UK and US, slammed by gay activist websites and pilloried by many who thought I'd outed Webb in a cheap, nasty stunt to sell more books.

If only they'd known. My payment came as an advance; I didn't really care how the book sold. And I couldn't have underplayed the 'news' more if I'd tried.

I was also called by her IMG agent, Chris Giannopoulos, who wanted to know why I'd referred to the relationship wth Robbins. He said Webb, who'd always zealously guarded her private life, was dismayed and upset by the revelations. I said I, too, had been shocked by the reaction and offered my apologies.

For reasons entirely unconnected with that episode, I gave up golf writing at The Age about six months later, in early 2002, and have never crossed paths with Karrie since.

The reason I got thinking about that time was the news that Webb had arrived in Melbourne this week to play in the Australian Open at Royal Melbourne. Now 36, she is almost the grand dame of the LPGA Tour, having won 38 times - the most of any active player. And lest we forget her place in the Australian sporting pantheon, she has seven major titles to her name - as many as Greg Norman and Peter Thomson combined.

A dinner was given in her honour at Royal Melbourne on Monday night when she became the venerable club's first honorary woman member in 120-odd years. Norman was given a similar honour before the Presidents Cup.

Webb gave a speech, answered questions from a room full of ticket-paying members and, with her mother, Evelyn, and father, Robert, also in attendance having made the trip down from Ayr, was presented with her membership. She seemed genuinely touched by the honour, at times becoming quite emotional.

She's been criticised by many commentators for being a sourpuss, a non-smiling frump who's given little back to the women's game in terms of promotion, marketing and, yes, sex appeal.

But I've always thought she was misunderstood. Essentially, like many small-town country folk, she's reserved and retiring. But lurking beneath that occasionally dour exterior is a clever person with a wicked sense of humour.

And, we can only hope, a sense of forgiveness.

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