For 72 holes at the Nabisco Dinah Shore Invitational in Rancho Mirage, Calif. last week, Juli Inkster proved she was more than just a mettlesome match player who had won three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles. The 23-year-old LPGA rookie fashioned a gem of a 68 in Sunday's final round to tie the tour's leading money-winner and most consistent player, Pat Bradley, on an unyielding Mission Hills course. Then, on the first playoff hole, Inkster won the most important minimatch of her career and thus the richest tournament in women's golf.
Inkster earned $55,000 for the victory, and she could pull in $1 million more in bonus money by winning the J&B Scotch Pro-Am in Las Vegas this week. And—enter the voice of Don Pardo—yes Juli, there's more! Repeat that double in 1985 and you will receive...another three million dollars.
"It's like play money as far as we're concerned," said Inkster's husband, Brian, head pro at the Los Altos C.C. near Palo Alto. "Four million is such an unreal figure that I honestly don't think it's going to affect her." Juli, who's from Santa Cruz, Calif., had never played Mission Hills before the Dinah Shore, nor had she been to Las Vegas. "Sounds like a great place to win a million dollars," she said coolly.
Inkster shot 70-73-69 in the Dinah Shore's first three rounds and started the final 18 two strokes off the lead. Playing in the group directly ahead of Bradley, Inkster birdied the watery 487-yard, par-5 18th with a nearly perfect 70-yard sand wedge from the fairway and a brave three-footer.
Meanwhile, Bradley, who had been splitting fairways all week, began to have trouble controlling her graphite-headed driver. This sudden wildness began after her group was ordered to wait six minutes on the 15th tee to accommodate NBC, whose producers were afraid the tournament would end ahead of schedule (ironically, because of the sudden death the final credits ran before the final putts). She salvaged a par 4 from the rough on the 15th with a 20-foot putt, but bogeyed the 16th after driving into a grove of trees. Bradley almost lost the tournament outright on the 18th with a severe hook off the tee that was headed for a lake but hit a slender palm tree and bounded into the fairway. She hit a fine wedge to within eight feet of the pin but missed the birdie putt that would have beaten Inkster and finished with a 70.
Bradley quickly sealed her doom on the first playoff hole, the par-4 15th, with a duck-hooked drive that ended up in deep rough next to a hedge bordering the course. It took her three more shots to reach the green. Meanwhile, Inkster's elegant swing never faltered. She was down the middle with her driver and safely on with an eight-iron. Two putts from 35 feet and it was over.
Inkster, whose first, and only other, tour victory was last September's Safeco Classic in Seattle, has now won nearly $115,000 since she joined the LPGA circuit in August, putting her within reach of Nancy Lopez's first-year earnings record of $161,235 set in 1978. Although Inkster betrayed a trace of nervousness in thanking "all my parents" at the Dinah Shore victory presentation, to all appearances she had been as nerveless as any veteran in the playoff. "One-on-one is my cup of tea. I know exactly where I stand," said the 1980-82 amateur champ. Inkster is typical of the new breed of player joining the LPGA these days—with winning, not learning, uppermost in mind. Says tour veteran Amy Alcott: "It's the age of not being intimidated."
Still, coming into the $400,000 Dinah Shore—one of four designated major tournaments in women's golf—veterans like Bradley, not youngsters like Inkster, seemed best prepared for the pressure cooker. After seven tournaments in 1984, the 33-year-old Bradley lead the tour with a 71.25 stroke average, six top-10 finishes, nine rounds in the 60s and $73,635 in prize money. A die-hard Celtic fan from Westford, Mass., she was paired with John Havlicek in the Dinah Shore Pro-Am. Bradley putted poorly in her opening round, shooting a 75, but came back on Friday with a 66. After a third-round 69, Bradley said, "It flowed very well. I feel in control."
She started the final round tied at six under with JoAnne Carner, who had led after the second round, and Dale Eggeling, who had had only one top-10 finish in eight years' worth of majors but had played her last 27 holes at Mission Hills in 10 under par. Carner fought a pull hook all day and wound up with a 74 to tie for fifth. Perhaps it was just as well, because in the event of victory Big Momma had promised to throw not only herself and her bantamweight husband, Don, into the lake at the 18th green, but also her 255-pound caddie, Mike (Red) Hartcop. Eggeling hung tough until a bogey at 17 consigned her to third place.
After the round, Bradley was seen grimly discussing the imposed wait on 15 with TV producers Don Ohlmeyer and Larry Cirillo. However, she refused to publicly blame the network for her errant drives. "I was just a little anxious," she said.
Calmness was—as it always is—the prevalent mood at Mission Hills, where it seems everyone is rich and tanned and, at least during tournament week, can eat all the Oreos they want in the Nabisco hospitality tents. During the Pro-Am, spectators could switch between watching Willie Mays knock it over the 18th green in two and wondering if Jack Lemmon would be able to tee up his ball without getting hurt—last year he broke a finger setting up his ball.
Even the wind that regularly whips Rancho Mirage was absent for most of the week. Temperatures hovered in the 80s and hit a high of 91 on Saturday. But despite the ideal conditions, the LPGA's best didn't put a lot of low scores on the Mission Hills leader boards.
The first to break through was second-year pro Lauri Peterson, who shot a 68 on Thursday. But Peterson, a 5'6", 119-pound dynamo, bogeyed six of the last seven holes on Friday and ultimately tied for 24th.
Meanwhile, Lopez had an indifferent tournament, opening with a 75 and coasting home tied for 16th. Lopez rejoined the tour in January after giving birth to her first child, Ashley Marie, in November. Although she insists she's playing with a refreshed attitude and a clear mind, Lopez admitted that her husband, Houston Astros first baseman Ray Knight, has to continually push her to keep her playing. "Ray's the one who's going to have to keep me out here," she said, "because I'd really like to go home." At a pretournament news conference she was most animated describing not her golf game, but life with baby. "I found out that you shouldn't ever use daytime Pampers at night," she said. "Those things get drenched. Now I buy nighttime Pampers; they go forever." Her caddie, Roscoe Jones, said, "She's so happy, you can't hurt her now." Jones may have forgotten that he had accidentally crowned his boss above the eye with an eight-iron, causing a minor cut in the third round of her victory at the Uniden LPGA Invitational at Costa Mesa, Calif. last month.
Jan Stephenson kept herself in the spotlight as usual despite finishing in a tie for 31st. Not only did JAN STEPHENSON—'84 calendars, including one shot of Stephenson in a wet red windbreaker unzipped to the midriff, quickly sell out at the Mission Hills pro shop at $7.50 a pop, but Stephenson also told the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that she might consider posing for Playboy or Penthouse if they paid "enough to make up for the money I'd lose in other endorsements."
The low round of the tournament was turned in by Beth Daniel, the leading money-winner in 1980 and '81, who shot a third-round 65 after a 74-75 start and finished fourth at 283. Daniel is finally free of the back problems that dropped her to sixth place last year. She says her new instructor, David Ledbetter, has given her a better understanding of her swing. "Too many of the girls out here just hit without thinking," she says.
Inkster would certainly not appear to be one of them. She and her husband are both disciples of British teaching pro Lesley King. At King's behest, Inkster has been working to make her swing slightly flatter.
Inkster first began to see progress at the Kemper Open in Maui, Hawaii in late March, even though she missed the cut after taking a 10 on the first hole. The new swing passed the test last Friday when Inkster was one of the few contenders whose second round at Mission Hills coincided with the onset of 40-mph winds. She got her 73 that day with steady play, surviving a double bogey on the par-3 14th. "That might have been the round that won her the tournament," said Brian Inkster.
The shot that probably won her the tournament was Sunday's wedge on 18. Of the subsequent putt she said, "I was scared as hell, but I lightened my grip and just concentrated. I wasn't going to miss it in front of all those people."
If she happens to be in a similar situation in Las Vegas this week, with a million bucks at stake, she'll be concentrating before a lot more people.