Karen Stupples: Overnight sensation years in the making

Mix a little Faldo, a pinch of Davies and a lot of work and you get the first home British Open winner for 13 years

Nick Faldo and Laura Davies are a contrasting pair of sporting inspirations but they have clearly served Karen Stupples well. Last summer the 31-year-old from Kent followed the famous duo in becoming the British Open champion. For the past few weeks, Stupples has been practising hard at the Faldo Institute in Orlando, her base for much of the year. Next week she joins forces with Davies to form England's team to compete for the Women's World Cup in South Africa.

Nick Faldo and Laura Davies are a contrasting pair of sporting inspirations but they have clearly served Karen Stupples well. Last summer the 31-year-old from Kent followed the famous duo in becoming the British Open champion. For the past few weeks, Stupples has been practising hard at the Faldo Institute in Orlando, her base for much of the year. Next week she joins forces with Davies to form England's team to compete for the Women's World Cup in South Africa.

Her debut for Europe when the Solheim Cup is defended in Indianapolis should follow. Like any self-respecting overnight sensation, Stupples has been working away for years to get where she is, but it is a mark of her rise that two years ago she was not even eligible for the Solheim Cup, the showpiece event of the women's game, as she was then not a member of the European Tour, having played only in the States.

"It's going to be wonderful," Stupples said of the prospect of facing the Americans. "Before, I may not have been ready, but I feel I am now. I have got the tools to deal with the pressure. It means that I can look forward to it and be excited rather than worried about playing. The thing that excites me most is the chance to form a partnership with another player on the course."

Stupples has not done that since her amateur days for England and in the Curtis Cup. More immediately there is the chance to team up with Davies in South Africa. "Laura was a huge inspiration. She was winning everything before Annika [Sorenstam] was, but it was also the way she approached it. She was fearless, just wing it round the golf course and see what happens."

Nothing could be less Faldoesque, but for an aficionado of the men's game, especially the dawn-to-dusk coverage of The Open itself, the six-time major winner's dedication hit home for Stupples. She was not the greatest talent to walk on to the golf course. She started caddieing for her father, Alan, to earn pocket money and spent two years practising before marking a card for 18 holes for the first time. She scored 144, having been horrified to learn that you also had to count the swings when you missed the ball.

But, to use an unfortunate term in the context, she was hooked. She enjoyed the challenge of trying to get better, just like Faldo. "He worked so hard at his game and he completely reinvented his swing - it shows you can do it. You can work out some changes and come out the other end. I always had a good work ethic. I always thought the more effort I put in, the more I will get out. Even when I had jobs, I knew if I worked more hours, I would get more money. That's carried through in to my golf."

Being a cloakroom attendant for the Port of Dover and waitressing at a local pay-and-play course were among those jobs before a sponsor offered her the chance to turn professional in the States, where she had been to college. By the end of her fifth season in 2003, Stupples was convinced that a win was near. It came the following March at the Welch Championship in Tucson, on the same weekend that Todd Hamilton, later to become The Open champion, also won for the first time in the States.

"You have to learn to win," Stupples said, "but you also have to learn when not winning is OK. There are no guarantees in golf. I love being competitive and winning is fantastic, but the best feeling of all is knowing you have done something to the best of your ability. There were a couple of weeks last year when Annika beat me but I beat the rest of the field. She just played better than me. But at the British Open, I played better than her."

Not to mention everyone else at Sunningdale. The immediate aftermath, beginning with a lock-in that night of Sunday 1 August with family and friends at their local in Deal, was crazy. She was back in the States a few days later, but savoured her triumph with a Christmas homecoming like no other she has known. There was a reception at Buckingham Palace with the Ryder Cup boys, a dinner in her honour from the mayor of Deal, lunches with the ladies' sections of all the local clubs, a (scandalously brief) appearance on the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year show, the opening of a new building at her sister Sue's school, and an emotional evening at her home club, Royal Cinque Ports, where she received honorary life membership.

It all meant a lot of saying "thank you", but few in the sporting profession manage it quite so naturally or sincerely. "I am just so grateful for everything that everybody has done for me," she said. Stupples is determined to give back to the game and has not only made a donation to help juniors in Kent but held a clinic for the county's girls' squad. "I know how important it is to have the opportunity to play and the encouragement at that age."

At their annual sporting-review bash, the Beeb showed the few extraordinary seconds it took for Stupples to make an albatross on the second hole of the final round at Sunningdale but told nothing else of what went into becoming the first home winner of the title for 13 years.

The week did not get off to the best of starts. Stupples and her caddie, Bobby Inman, were caught up in traffic getting to the course on the first day - the council had decided to chop down a condemned tree on the A30 that morning - and time was getting tight. "I got quite stressed," Stupples admitted. "I got into the car park and one of the poor car park attendants told me I had parked in the wrong place. I gave him a whole load of grief and said, 'Here are the car keys, you move it if you want to, I've got to get to the tee'. He said if I was a player it was fine, but I had given him an earful and felt quite bad about it.

"Bobby said to me, 'Go and put on your shoes and when you come back, I want to see the Karen I know, not this two-headed monster who has just appeared'." Or, as Inman recalled it: "We went from the car park to the clubhouse, which was a bit of a walk, in about 20 seconds. And I had the bag to carry."

Stupples continued: "When I came out, I was calmer, but it also gave me a bit of fire to play well. The scores in the morning had been great, and although there was a bit if a wind, I was thinking I had to do something. Everything fell into place, I hit the ball solid, I didn't make any mistakes. I felt calm, but there was a long way to go."

Stupples led for two days after rounds of 65 and 70, but after a third-day 70 she trailed Heather Bowie and Rachel Teske by a shot going into the last round.

"Bobby had already gone out and walked the pins and he said they were scoreable, so I was already thinking of playing aggressively. I wanted to make an eagle and a birdie at the first two holes, because the others might birdie both of them, and then I'm level and it's a race to the end.

"So, I eagle the first [a five-iron to 12 feet] and thought I've got something going here. The next hole, I hit a good drive and then the second shot [another five-iron, this time from 205 yards] always looked good in the air but the crowd got louder and louder. I didn't have a clue that it had gone in and I was a little reserved at first, because when I had won in Tucson I thought I had holed a shot there. I had a big celebration, really excited, and then got to the green and it hadn't gone in. It was very embarrassing and I didn't do that again, it would be awful, but then we realised it had gone in and it was great.

"But it was so unreal that I was able to let it go pretty quick. I was so excited about playing every shot on every hole that I was just looking forward to the next one. I didn't get nervous until the 15th tee. I had a one-shot lead and my stomach was in knots. The finishing line was in sight. I got really nervous but Cristie Kerr, my playing partner, came up to me and said, 'You'll be fine'. It was great encouragement coming from someone I had played against all day.

"It wasn't a great tee-shot [at the 15th], but the putt was perfect and in a way I was more excited about that putt than the ball going in at the second. The 16th was a really good five-iron to the green and I made the putt, then 17, I'm thinking, just hit the fairway and the green and make the putt.

"Linda Bayman, my old England captain, always emphasised the importance of finishing strongly and never leaving yourself too much to do. All those thoughts were running through my mind at the last. I knew I had a good lead and I was just trying to get the putt close. You can see me smile on television when I hit the putt and it's not because I've won the British Open but because I've hit a successful lag putt, left myself a tap-in. I didn't want anything to spoil the round, or the special day or the special feeling of going up 18 with the standing ovation. I'd finished like a champion." Just like a Faldo or a Davies.

Biography

Karen Stupples

Born: 24 June 1973 in Dover.

Height: 5ft 5in.

Turned pro: 1999. Lives in Orlando, Florida.

Career earnings: $1,694,352.

Tournament wins: two (2004 - Welch's/Fry's Championship, British Open).

LPGA year-end rankings (from 1999): 130th, 119th, 89th, 46th, 35th, 6th.

Other: started playing at 11. Represented Great Britain in the 1996 and 1998 Curtis Cup. Competed for England Juniors (1989-91) and England Seniors (1995-98). Played collegiate golf at Florida State University, winning two events and being named a Second Team All-American in 1995.

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