A Slam-Bam Finish With a closing kick for the ages, Juli Inkster completed a career Grand Slam and closed in on a bigger prize

July 04, 1999

There were so many unexpected developments at last week's
McDonald's LPGA Championship that in the end only one thing made
any sense: Juli Inkster had won again. With a decisive eagle at
the 16th hole on Sunday, Inkster became only the second woman,
along with Pat Bradley, to win the four tournaments that make up
the modern Grand Slam. (She won the Nabisco Dinah Shore in 1984
and '89, the U.S. Open last month and the du Maurier in '84.)
Her fourth victory of this season also pushed her to the brink
of the LPGA's Hall of Fame.

Inkster's spectacular play on Sunday--her airtight six-under-par
65 deserves a place in the pantheon of great final rounds in
major-championship history--was a much needed return to golf in
a week full of melodrama. Beginning last Thursday at Du Pont
Country Club in Wilmington, Del., the news flew fast and
furious, starting with the withdrawal of a limping legend, then
moving on to a stunning breakup and a faltering superstar, and
finally ending with the stage debut of the Punky and Boomer
Show, starring a couple of precocious kids who may one day take
over the LPGA. Said Nancy Scranton, the third-round coleader who
was trying to win for the first time since losing both of her
parents to terminal illnesses and having reconstructive shoulder
surgery within the span of a year, "This wasn't a tournament, it
was a miniseries."

If so, Inkster was a dashing leading lady. Three weeks ago she
won the U.S. Open, in the process reinventing herself--the way
Mark O'Meara did a year ago--as a late-blooming star. Inkster
turned 39 on the day of the LPGA Championship's first round, and
she celebrated with a 68. Ensuing rounds of 66 and 69 earned her
a share of the lead, but it wasn't until the back nine on Sunday
that Inkster began to assert herself.

After clutch up and downs at the 13th and 14th holes, she came
to the 465-yard par-5 16th still tied with Scranton and a
hard-charging Liselotte Neumann. After a perfect drive Inkster
was striding to her ball when she spied, for the first time all
day, her two daughters, Hayley, 9, and Cori, 5, who had been
sequestered in the clubhouse due to the oppressive 88[degree]
heat. Golf's most cutthroat mom gave the girls a wink and then
crushed a five-wood from 232 yards that settled 18 feet from the
hole, "a career shot" in Inkster's estimation. She banged the
putt into the back of the hole for her eagle, did a little
celebratory fist pumping, then ended any further suspense by
sticking an eight-iron to five feet on the par-3 17th for a
birdie.

With her playing partner and best friend, Meg Mallon, already
tearing up, Inkster hit two textbook shots on the final hole and
then made one last audacious birdie, a 20-footer that sent her
into what her husband, Brian, charitably described as "a little
twist combo thing," the kind of joyful boogie that is fast
becoming her trademark. Inkster finished at 16 under par, one
short of Betsy King's tournament record and four in front of
Neumann, all of that cushion courtesy of her finishing kick. "I
don't know what came over me," Inkster said. "All of a sudden
the ball just wouldn't stay out of the hole."

Under the points system the LPGA adopted this year for
enshrinement in its Hall of Fame, Inkster earned two points for
a victory in a major championship, giving her 26 for her 17-year
career, one shy of the total needed for automatic entry. There
are three ways to make that last agonizing point and become the
17th player inducted (alongside the likes of Nancy Lopez, who
was a last-minute withdrawal from the tournament due to torn
cartilage in her right knee, which she had surgically repaired
last Thursday): win a regular tour event; win the player of the
year award (Inkster is first in the point standings, a nose
ahead of Karrie Webb); or win the Vare Trophy for low scoring
average (her 69.54 is second to Webb's 68.92). "To have won the
slam is unfathomable right now," Inkster said. "To be so close
to the Hall of Fame is also pretty hard to comprehend. I
distinctly remember when they said they were going to change the
criteria, I was slowly adding up my points, and I thought, God,
I'm still seven away. I don't know if I can do that. Now, six
months later, I'm only a point away. It's unbelievable."

No doubt Annika Sorenstam is also in a state of disbelief. Who
would have thought that Inkster might beat her to the magic
number of 27? From the start of 1995, Sorenstam's second year on
tour, through last season, the 28-year-old Swede amassed 24 Hall
of Fame points. So far 1999 has been a pointless year. Sorenstam
has three runner-up finishes as well as five other top 10s, but
she has shown an uncharacteristic fragility on Sundays.

Adding to Sorenstam's frustration has been the dominant play of
Webb, her twentysomething rival. Sorenstam's husband, David
Esch, once confided that during off weeks the hypercompetitive
Sorenstam religiously monitors Webb's scores and their
respective positions on the money list and in the Vare and
player of the year standings. Webb struggled at the LPGA
Championship. During a week of record scoring, she shot an
inexplicable 72-72 and missed the cut for the first time in 32
starts. With her mirrored shades and robotic demeanor, Webb is
often described as the David Duval of the women's game, and it
will be interesting to see which of these mighty talents will be
the first to solve the riddle of the major championships.

Her rival's off week brought Sorenstam little relief, though.
After opening with a two-over 73, Sorenstam asked Colin Cann,
her caddie since her days on the European tour in the early
'90s, to meet her on the practice green, where it was agreed
that both might benefit from seeing other people. The news of
the breakup spread like a juicy rumor through a high school
hallway, and over the next 24 hours a half-dozen caddies cozied
up to Sorenstam, hoping to win her hand. The most persistent
suitor was Jason Hamilton, whose boss, Lisa Hackney, shot 78-68
to miss her 13th cut in 17 starts this year. On Friday morning
Hamilton left a flowery note in Sorenstam's locker expressing
his ardor, and he was waiting behind the 18th green for
Sorenstam and her stand-in looper, Esch, at the completion of
her 68 that afternoon. Sorenstam had two options, a restraining
order or a job offer, and she chose the latter. Hamilton was
packing for Sorenstam on the weekend when she added two more 68s
to move up to 16th place. "I needed to shake things up,"
Sorenstam said, adding that Cann may or may not return sometime
in the future.

Calculated actions have been the hallmark of Sorenstam's
success, and she was asked if the impulsive midtournament firing
of her caddie could be considered an act of desperation. "I
really don't care," she said. "That's a funny way of looking at
it, though."

Maybe, maybe not, but on Saturday morning Sorenstam's
machinations were old news. By then center stage belonged to a
pair of American kids with big games and bigger personalities:
Cristie Kerr, 21, and Kelli Kuehne, 22. On the strength of a
second-round 64, Kerr was tied with Inkster and two others for
the lead at 134, while Kuehne, who had battled Inkster down to
the wire at the Open, was just a shot back.

Kerr and Kuehne are best friends and frequent practice-round
partners, and even go out on an occasional double date. (Kuehne
introduced Kerr to her boyfriend, Evan Whitenight, who is a good
buddy of Kuehne's fiance, Jay Humphrey.) Kerr and Kuehne have
known each other since they were preteens, when they were what
Kuehne describes as "little fireballs" tearing up the amateur
scene, and they still needle each other with old
nicknames--Punky for Kuehne, Boomer for Kerr. "We didn't exactly
hit it off so well when we first met," says Kuehne. "I remember
it one way, and she remembers it another, to put it mildly."

"I'll give you her side of the story, because I really don't
remember it," says Kerr. "Supposedly I walked up to her at a
tournament when we were 10 and said, 'I'm going to beat you.' I
probably did, because when I was 10 I thought I could take down
the world."

While Kuehne was battling her brothers, Trip and Hank, back in
Texas, Kerr made headlines as a gender-bending pioneer at
Miami's Sunset High, where she competed against--and usually
beat--the boys. In 1994, as a sophomore, she became the first
girl to win the boys' division of the Dade County Youth Fair
tournament. Playing from the same 6,700-yard tees as the boys,
she whipped Ray Floyd's son, Robert, 72 to 76. Afterward, a
shell-shocked Robert said, "It's a bit surprising for a girl to
have that much attitude."

Like Moses Malone, Kerr went pro straight out of high school,
but by comparison Malone was a shrinking violet. A
well-circulated story had Kerr, as a rookie in '97, bursting
into the locker room at the Titleholders and saying, "Ladies,
you better get used to me because I'm going to be around for a
long time." Asked about this yarn last week, Kerr offered a
vehement denial: "I may have been young, but I wasn't stupid."
Regardless, her reputation was such that almost no one doubted
the story.

Kerr acknowledges that she has done some much-needed growing up
over the last two years. "I used to be a little bit of a brat.
That's no secret," she says. "But I'm proud of where I am now
and how I have turned things around for the better. You know,
golf puts you in your place. You go on, and you learn from it."

Kerr's game has matured in kind. She has always been a powerful
player with the ability to go low (she had shot a 64 once before
at Du Pont Country Club, at a junior tournament when she was in
high school), but with the help of a sports psychologist she has
reined in the stampeding emotions that used to be her ruin. She
now talks of "getting inside my own private bubble before every
shot," a mental exercise that in Wilmington helped shield her
from the weekend pressure. While Kuehne faded over the final two
rounds, shooting 72-73 to finish 26th, Kerr had a stout 69 on
Saturday to earn a spot in the final group.

On Sunday she never found her her rhythm, hitting only six
fairways, but still tied for fifth. With her career-best check
of $54,596, Kerr shot up to 32nd on the money list, and she has
never looked more ready to get her first professional victory,
just as Kuehne did a month ago at the Corning Classic.

"I got to experience the pressure of a final round in a major,
and I hung in there, which is all you can really ask," Kerr
said. "I'll learn from this week, and that'll help me. It seems
like the majors are all about experience."

Inkster is a case in point. While Kerr was holding forth from
the scorer's tent, Inkster was down on the 18th green collecting
her trophy and basking in the adoration of the raucous crowd.
Both Kerr and Inkster had tears in their eyes, but for different
reasons.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM MIHALEK/AFP Oh so close Making the Hall of Fame had seemed impossible to Inkster, but her LPGA Championship win left her only a point away. COLOR PHOTO: CRAIG JONES Brat pack Kerr, who went pro after high school, admits she had some growing up to do. COLOR PHOTO: CRAIG JONES Air time Laura Davies flipped when she only tied for seventh.

"I'm proud of where I am now and how I have turned things around
for the better," says Kerr.

"I don't know what came over me," Inkster said. "All of a sudden
the ball just wouldn't stay out of the hole."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)