Better than Ever Winning majors never gets old for Juli Inkster, who earned her second straight LPGA Championship on the day after she turned 40

July 02, 2000

I don't think I give myself enough credit," Juli Inkster was
saying on Sunday night, following her victory at the McDonald's
LPGA Championship, and she knows that others have sold her short
too. Inkster had the poor timing to arrive on the scene in the
early '80s, during the heyday of glamour girls such as Nancy
Lopez and Jan Stephenson, and she had rather stubbornly begun to
play her best golf in the late '90s, just in time to get
overshadowed by Karrie Webb. Over that span Inkster--who turned
40 last Saturday--has quietly turned into a player for the ages.
With her successful defense at the McDonald's, she has now
supersized her resume to include six major championships, as
many as any active player. In fact, only a celestial fivesome
can claim more majors than Inkster: Patty Berg (15), Mickey
Wright (13), Louise Suggs (11), Babe Zaharias (10) and Betsy
Rawls (8). Still, recognition has been so slow to come to
Inkster that even she has a hard time believing her dizzying
accomplishments. "It makes my head spin," she says. "What
happened last year still makes it spin."

Like Mark O'Meara before her, Inkster in 1999 reinvented herself
as a late-blooming superstar, winning five tournaments,
including the U.S. Women's Open, and kicking down the door to
the Hall of Fame. O'Meara, like a lot of other golfers who reach
the pinnacle late in life, was content to cash in and check out,
but this year Inkster has come back better than ever. Despite
having played in only 10 events coming into the LPGA
Championship, she had a victory (her 23rd), three seconds and a
pair of thirds. When someone intimated early last week that she
might be over the hill, Inkster shot back, "I'm on top of the
hill--and it's a long plateau."

What makes Inkster's game so timeless is not any new-school
pyrotechnics, but the kind of golf that never goes out of
style--eerily consistent ball striking, steady putting and a knack
for never beating herself. She was thoroughly tested at this LPGA
Championship by a setup that would have done the USGA proud. Last
year Inkster scorched the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington,
Del., to the tune of 16 under, a stroke shy of the tournament
record. A new superintendent was brought in, and DuPont suddenly
grew some fangs in the form of gnarly four-inch rough and greens
that were as hard as granite countertops. Par was a good score,
which is why Inkster didn't panic after opening 72-69 (one under
on the 6,408-yard par-71 layout). That left her in a three-way
tie for ninth, five back of Laura Davies, who had been nearly
flawless in overpowering what she calls her favorite course on
tour. Inkster knew that DuPont would be even more difficult on
the weekend, but she figured she would play better. Having teed
it up in only two events since mid-May, she was struggling to
find the rhythm and timing on her unorthodox but highly effective
swing.

For a 40th birthday, Saturday was as pleasant a day as could be
hoped for. Inkster finally found her swing, hitting 17 greens and
shooting a 65, the low round of the week. Afterward she was
presented with a cake and a huge bouquet of balloons and was
serenaded by the fans around the 18th green. The icing was that
Inkster, at seven under, had moved into a tie for the lead with
Wendy Ward, a 27-year-old Texan with a sweet drawl, a long, solid
swing and the look of someone ready for a career breakthrough.
Ward has idolized Inkster since Ward reached the LPGA tour in
1996, and they now share a coach (Mike McGetrick), along with
frequent practice rounds. Of Inkster's surge up the leader board,
Ward said, "We expect Juli to do things like that. She's probably
the most competitive person you'll meet out here."

Inkster so dotes on her two daughters that this spring she took
six weeks off in large part to coach 10-year-old Hayley's
basketball team. Beneath the soccer mom veneer, though, is a
cutthroat closer: Heading into Wilmington, she had turned her
last five third-round leads into victories.

Sunday brought a stiff, swirling wind and ballooning scores.
Inkster played the front nine in one over, making the turn tied
with Ward and Nancy Scranton. Lurking on the leader board was
Webb, bidding for her own piece of history. At the season's first
major championship, March's Nabisco Championship, Webb had the
eye of the Tiger, devouring the field by a tournament-record 10
strokes. She had also won the major before that, the du Maurier
Classic last fall, so Webb rode into Wilmington hell-bent on
becoming the fourth woman to win three consecutive majors,
joining Pat Bradley (1985-86), Wright ('61-62), and Zaharias
('50). "I have built my whole year around the majors," Webb said
before the tournament.

Winless in five tournaments since the Nabisco, she began the LPGA
Championship fighting her swing. She hit only 10 greens during
the first round and had to scramble for a 72. On Friday she
struck the ball with more authority, but 33 putts doomed her to a
70. Webb sneaked into contention with a 69 on Saturday, and with
birdies on the 3rd and 4th holes of the final round she moved to
four under, three back of the leaders. Though she was sitting on
what would have been the winning score, Webb couldn't hold her
game together. Her demise began with a bogey on the eminently
birdieable par-5 9th, and a homely double at the 16th ended her
chances at victory. She shot a final-round 73 to finish ninth and
afterward was surly in the face of routine questioning, keeping
at least one of her streaks alive.

With Webb out of the picture, the rest of the contenders were
left to duke it out on the back nine, and what followed was not
exactly an infomercial for the quality of play on the LPGA tour.
The top four players heading into the final round collectively
shot 13 over par on the back side on Sunday. This included a
skanked three-wood by Scranton that never got higher than knee
level and led to a double bogey. Ward, who had been swinging
beautifully all week, developed a terminal case of the hooksies,
bogeying 10 and 11 and then, at the par-3 13th, taking a killing
double bogey. After yanking a four-iron into the bunker and
blasting on, Ward was addressing an eight-foot putt for par when,
following a quick glance toward the hole, she looked back at her
ball and could no longer see the logo, which she always places
face up. "It wasn't me that moved the ball," Ward said. "It was a
matter of the ball just not having time to settle. You do your
best to set the silly thing down right, and you think it's going
to stay put." Though no one else noticed the infraction, Ward,
who was playing in the final pairing in a major for the first
time, summoned an official, was assessed a one-stroke penalty and
then, understandably rattled, missed the ensuing putt to make the
5.

Inkster, by virtue of four straight pars on the back nine, was
three strokes up but, proving that Sunday's dispiriting play was
contagious, promptly clanged two approach shots off the same
tree on the par-4 14th hole. That led to a double bogey that
sliced her lead to one, over Ward and Stefania Croce, a
30-year-old Italian journeywoman who was already in the
clubhouse, having shot a 68, which tied for the low round of the
day.

Nothing had changed when the final twosome reached the 72nd hole.
Ward missed the fairway, missed the green and then missed a
15-footer for par, dooming herself to a lifetime of nightmares
featuring an oscillating ball. Inkster's shot out of a greenside
bunker ended up within eight feet of the pin, leaving herself a
putt for par and the victory. Improbably, she blew the putt, and
Croce, a charming character heretofore known mostly for the
Continental flair of her wardrobe, was suddenly in a major
championship playoff. The ending was predictable--Inkster made two
textbook pars, biding her time until Croce cracked. She complied
by flying the green of the second playoff hole and failing to get
up and down.

An exhausted Inkster talked about her latest major statement. "It
means a lot to me to prove to myself that I'm still one of the
top players," she said. "It's in my blood. I love to compete."

As for the larger implications of her sixth major, Inkster said,
"Maybe when I'm in my rocking chair at age 41, I'll have more
thoughts on that." It would be nice if the recognition she richly
deserves were to come so soon. Failing that, Inkster will simply
continue to win important tournaments, just as she always has.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON GLAM SLAM Stephenson (left) was a surprise contender until a 76 on Sunday, when Croce leapfrogged 12 players with her 68, which equaled the low round of the day. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND SPELL CHECK Inkster has won three of the LPGA's last five majors and six overall, but her name still isn't as familiar as it ought to be.

As for the larger implications of her latest major win, Inkster
said, "Maybe when I'm in my rocking chair at age 41, I'll have
more thoughts on that."

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)