Juli Inkster is a soccer mom with a curious hunger for
competition. At 38 she plays basketball in the driveway of her
home in Los Altos, Calif., using her elbows to keep the
neighborhood stars off the boards. When playing Ping-Pong she
forsakes the power game and relies instead on a repertoire of
dinks and table-edge shots, driving opponents to distraction.
"Juli is an excellent skier," says Laurie Rinker-Graham, her
friend and a fellow LPGA player. "Most people go down side to
side. Juli goes straight down the mountain. She's fearless."
Inkster found the perfect outlet for her competitive urge last
week in West Point, Miss., where she made possum meat of the
field at the 54th U.S. Women's Open. While
near-tournament-record crowds wandered around Old Waverly Golf
Club looking for shade, Inkster cast a historic shadow. She shot
a 16-under-par 272, finished five strokes ahead of runner-up
Sherri Turner and broke the Open record for lowest score,
relative to par, by six shots. At home a resounding win like
that probably would have gotten the mother of two daughters,
ages nine and five, out of washing the dishes. At Old Waverly it
got Inkster a big silver trophy, a check for $315,000 and two
more points toward her goal of making the LPGA Hall of Fame.
With 24 points, Inkster is tied with three-time player of the
year Annika Sorenstam at three shy of enshrinement.
"Sometimes I think she doesn't have a nerve in her body," says
her husband, Brian, head pro at Los Altos Country Club. "She is
relentless, focused and never gives up."
As is the case with most lopsided victories, Inkster's was
dramatic only in a broader context. Seven years ago, at Oakmont
Country Club outside Pittsburgh, she lost the Open to Patty
Sheehan in a Monday playoff after Sheehan waited out a Sunday
rain delay to birdie the last two holes. In the years that
followed, Inkster saw her game slide toward mediocrity, dulled
by the fulfilling but enervating responsibilities of motherhood.
It wasn't until 1997 that she decided she could recommit to golf
without harming her children. "I was kind of straddling the
fence," she said last week. "Do I quit? Do I play? Do I quit?
And if I'm going to do this, I've got to start working on my
June 13, 1999
That work, with swing coach Mike McGetrick, paid quick
dividends. Inkster finished sixth on the LPGA money list in 1997
and '98, topping a half million in earnings both years, played
on last year's victorious U.S. Solheim Cup team and came to
Mississippi as the tour's third-leading money winner in '99,
having won twice already this season. "Prechildren she was a
wonderful golfer," her husband said on Sunday, "but I think she
is a better player today." Almost sheepishly he added, "I didn't
think it was doable. I never thought she would be able to focus
enough to be a great player again."
If there were doubts about Inkster--and there weren't
many--there was outright skepticism about the venue. Old Waverly
is a kind of mirage in the woods of northern Mississippi. A
neoclassical clubhouse of exquisite design stands on a hill
above four lakes, a twisting creek and a golf course good enough
to make the top 100 lists. The recognition is significant to
Mississippians, who often see their state ranked near the bottom
nationally in literacy, public health, per capita income and
Starbucks per market area.
The Women's Open offered Mississippians a chance to showcase
their state, and they put on a good show. Visitors to the
so-called Golden Triangle of Starkville, West Point and Columbus
were likely to run into footballers Archie Manning and Brett
Favre, author Willie Morris, any of three former Miss
Americas--or, if they were out past midnight, the ghost of
bluesman Howlin' Wolf, who hailed from West Point. Meanwhile,
broadcasters and newspapers from Tupelo to Hattiesburg promoted
the tournament as if it were a newly discovered novel by William
Faulkner. The owner of a Pizza Hut in West Point, robbed at
gunpoint, went on television wearing a Women's Open cap.
Half the fun was watching Mississippi, the most parochial state
this side of Arkansas, entertain the polyglot, multicultural
traveling circus that is women's golf. Koreans in catfish
joints? Swedes eating barbecue? Those sights may not cause heads
to turn in Atlanta or Memphis, but Mississippians gawked at the
visitors and treated them like royalty.
But if the livin' was easy, the scorin' was even easier. Young
Kelli Kuehne, fresh off her first LPGA victory, in Corning,
N.Y., tied the tournament record, in relation to par, for an
opening round by firing a 64 over the 6,400-yard, par-72 course.
The next day two more players shot 64--Lorie Kane and Becky
Iverson--and the field turned Old Waverly into Old Wavering,
putting up an astounding 62 subpar rounds. The two-round total
of 105 rounds under par broke the four-day record of 89 set at
Crooked Stick in 1993, and the final tally of 137 subpar rounds
exceeded the number of times John Daly has withdrawn from
tournaments. Inkster needed only 45 holes to get to 14 under,
lower than any player had gone in the Open's history.
Whenever scores are low at an Open, there are two questions to
answer: why and why not? Old Waverly played soft because it was
soft--rains early in the week took the starch out of the greens
and fairways--and because unseasonably cool spring nights had
inhibited the growth of the rough. What's more, there was little
wind last week, making it easier for players to stay out of Old
Waverly's water hazards.
As for the why not, the players answered that by persistently
calling Old Waverly "fair," which is tour-player lingo for "so
easy that my agent could shoot 75 on it with borrowed clubs."
Said Iverson, "I think they picked a very good golf course here.
It's fun to make birdies." Certainly the players had more fun
than they did last year, when six over par won the Open on a
Wisconsin course that the women flat-out couldn't play. "I mean,
it was a joke," said Inkster, who missed the cut at Blackwolf
Run. "Bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey. At least here we're making
birdies. It's exciting."
An even better source of excitement was the younger set, which
performed very well in Mississippi. Defending champ Se Ri Pak,
21, escaped her recent doldrums and finished 14th. Grace Park,
the Arizona State sophomore who currently holds the NCAA and
U.S. Women's Amateur titles, tied for eighth, broke the Open
record for an amateur by seven strokes and then turned pro. Most
notably, there was Kuehne--a little bitty Texan racing down
life's highway so fast that she's gone before the armadillos
even reach the road. At 22 Kuehne has won two U.S. Amateurs, a
British Amateur and an LPGA event...and she wonders what's
taking so long. "People keep telling me I'm young and I should
be patient," she said the week before the Open. "I don't want to
be patient. I want it now."
Kuehne is pumped, both figuratively and literally. A diabetic
since she was 10, she wears an insulin pump on her belt and
pushes buttons to regulate her blood sugar. The location of her
enthusiasm pump is a secret, but during Thursday's round she
sang, chatted and exchanged the hook 'em Horns hand signal with
some spectators from Austin. When she hit a wedge close on the
9th hole, Kuehne yelled, "Texas pride!"
It's little-girl energy. In the interview room after her
first-round 64, Kuehne sat in the big wing chair on the dais,
looking like Raggedy Ann with her feet dangling off the floor.
The next day, coming in to talk about her second-round 71, she
smiled mischievously and threw the chair into recliner mode.
"She's never out of energy," says her fiance, Jay Humphrey, an
offensive lineman at Texas who was drafted in the fourth round by
the Minnesota Vikings. "We'll come home after our workouts, I'll
be real tired, and she'll say, 'Let's play racquetball!'"
Hyper? Not according to Kuehne's swing coach, Hank Haney, who
says, "She's go, go, go, but she's calm and controlled on the
course." Kuehne's rookie season, launched last year with much
fanfare by Nike and her other corporate sponsors, was a disaster,
but Kuehne never lost sight of her goal. "She was missing all
these cuts," Haney says, "but when she came back to me she said,
'I think I can win now.' I thought, Whoa, let's play a few
weekends first." After her victory in Corning, though, Haney
shared her confidence. "If I were a betting man, I'd wager that
Kelli will win a U.S. Open."
But it was Inkster's week, not Kuehne's, and the Californian was
never really challenged in the final round. With a large,
sunburned gallery following them, the veteran and the kid
engaged in a kind of match play for most of the afternoon.
Kuehne never got closer than three and she was five behind when
she drowned her tee shot on the 72nd hole and made a
double-bogey 6. Turner produced the play of the day when she
holed a seven-wood from 216 yards for an eagle 2 on the
difficult 11th hole. Unfortunately the NBC cameras were pointed
at something else, so you'll have to settle for Turner's
description of the shot: "I was saying, 'Get down, get down,'
because I hit it so pure. It hit, and all at once we heard the
pin rattle and people stood and cheered." That's your play of
Stimulated, maybe even overstimulated, by her stroke of genius,
the 42-year-old Turner finished with two bogeys, three pars and
two birdies and wound up second when Kuehne got wet and dropped
to third. "It's been really tough," said Turner, who was the
LPGA's leading money winner in 1988 but hadn't finished among the
top five at a tournament since the '95 Chick-Fil-A Charity
Championship, "but I've never been a quitter, and golf has always
been what I wanted to do." Her score of 11 under par would have
won the 53 previous Opens.
If Inkster felt any pressure, it didn't show. From the 16th
fairway she spotted Hank Kuehne in the gallery and kidded Kelli
about her brother's "mean-looking sandals." Inkster asked Kelli
how old Hank was (23) and then added, "Is he a good golfer?"
Kelli laughed and said, "He's the U.S. Amateur champion."
Inkster made a face, as if she had just lost a round of Trivial
Pursuit. But she didn't lose anything else on the way
in--certainly not her composure. It wasn't until she had tapped
in her putt for par on the final hole that she buried her face
in her husband's shoulder and cried. "She's an emotional
player," said Kuehne. "When she does great things, you see her
fist pumping and she cheers herself on. But when she does bad
things, she's very critical of herself. I catch myself doing the
same sort of thing."
For Inkster, winning the Open capped a career that started with
three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles in the early '80s and
peaked in 1984, when she won her other two majors, the Dinah
Shore and the du Maurier Classic. It made up for the Open that
got away at Oakmont. "You want to feel the trophy?" she asked
Brian, handing him the weighty token.
"That is so impressive," he said, feeling its heft. "Good job!"
The soccer mom smiled and took the trophy back. It's hers until
somebody beats her for it.
"I never thought she would be able to focus enough to be a great
player again," said Juli's husband, Brian.
"People keep telling me I'm young and I should be patient,"
Kuehne said. "I don't want to be patient. I want it now."