U.S. Prime

July 14, 2002

Juli Inkster had just delivered another uppercut to the sky. She
spun. She danced. She milked the roar of the greenside crowd.
Finally, she walked by playing partner Shani Waugh and took a
deep breath. "I'd better stop doing that," Inkster said
sheepishly. "I'm going to pop my arm out of my socket."

She didn't stop, of course. Inkster is golf's best celebrator.
When things are going well--as was the case on Sunday, when she
won her second U.S. Women's Open and seventh major championship
in a sea of prairie grass and patriotism--she is a whirling
dervish of high fives, yelps, jumps, grins and gavottes. Those
holes in the ozone layer? They could have been made by Inkster,
thrusting her arms skyward. On Sunday, when spectators at
Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kans., saluted her
two-stroke victory with chants of Go U-S-A!, she ran through
outstretched arms to the scorer's tent, yelling, "Yeah! Go U-S-A!"

To be sure, Inkster had a lot to celebrate. Her four-under-par
66 tied the record for lowest final round by a Women's Open
winner. Her 42 years and 13 days of life made her the
second-oldest woman to win a U.S. Open, behind 1954 champion
Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Playing with extraordinary grit and
fire, she became only the second American winner of the Open
since 1994, the last being--hey, Juli Inkster, in 1999.

Best of all, Inkster launched all these rockets and sky bombs on
a Fourth of July weekend and beat the world's best woman golfer,
Annika Sorenstam, when Sorenstam was at the top of her game. "It
was fantastic," Inkster said afterward. "How can you not love to
do what I did today?"

How could you not love where she did it? Prairie Dunes is
America's outback Eden, a wild stretch of majestic sand hills
shaded by tall cottonwoods and carpeted with prairie grasses,
wildflowers and spiny yucca plants. It is the course at which,
in 1980, a callow but no less enthusiastic Inkster won the first
of three consecutive U.S. Women's Amateur titles. It is the
course at which, two weeks after her marriage to Brian Inkster
that year, Juli somehow lost her wedding ring--only to have the
day saved when her caddie found it.

It is the course at which, this time around, 148 of the 150
golfers shied from par as if it were tied to one of the long,
thick bull snakes that live in the waist-high grasses. Sorenstam
closed out four rounds of exceptional golf at two under, but the
next best finisher, Waugh, was three over. Laura Diaz, who
shared the lead after the first and second rounds, blew up with
a 77 on Saturday and ended up disappointed and tied for seventh
at seven over. Jill McGill, who drew attention recently by
declining a high-six-figure offer to pose nude for Playboy,
wound up exposed anyway. (Even par after three rounds, she shot
a 78 on Sunday and collected only $54,201.) And Hall of Famer
Nancy Lopez, playing in what was probably her last U.S. Open
before she retires from full-time competition at year's end,
struggled to an irrelevant 81-79-160 to the uncritical ovations
of adoring galleries.

But Inkster--well, she brought Prairie Dunes to its knees by
driving the ball an average of 259.6 yards (a good 10 yards
shorter than Sorenstam) and by hitting only 39 of 56 fairways
(10 fewer than Sorenstam) and by ranking 13th in greens hit in
regulation (12 spots behind the tournament leader, Sorenstam).
"Putting can make up for a lot of mistakes," Inkster explained.
Yes, it can. If you figure on two putts a hole, Inkster played
the tiny, undulating greens at Prairie Dunes in a sizzling 39
under par. She one-putted 37 times, chipped in twice (including
a dramatic 65-footer for birdie on the 6th hole, fueling her
final-round comeback) and never three-putted in four rounds.
"Unbelievable," said NBC's Johnny Miller.

Disbelief, of course, had already been suspended by the time
Inkster was done flattening Sorenstam and hoisting the Stars and
Stripes. The surprise of the week was the abrupt collapse of
defending champion Karrie Webb, who was attempting to become the
first woman to win the Open three straight times. Webb started
her defense with a 79 on Thursday. Friday went somewhat better,
but her 73 left her three strokes over the cut line, breaking a
string of 56 tournaments since she last failed to advance.
"Obviously my game wasn't as good as I thought it was," she said.

It was easy to understand how even a great player like Webb can
occasionally fail. It was harder to explain how Inkster, a
California housewife who cooks meals for her husband and coaches
her two daughters' basketball and softball teams, could
outperform Sorenstam, who is having a year to rival Mickey
Wright's 13-win season of 1963. Sorenstam has won six of 13
tournaments, finished second three times and third twice and run
her tour-leading string of survived cuts to 73. With next
month's Women's British Open remaining, she has a win, a second
and a third in the other majors.

Inkster is having a fine year too, with one other victory and a
couple of seconds to show for her 20th LPGA season. But through
three rounds at Prairie Dunes, Inkster's swing was shaky. Her
tee shots found the rough too often, and her iron play was
inconsistent, forcing her to make miracle par after miracle par.
"I'm hanging by my fingernails," she said on Saturday evening,
trying to explain how she could be only two behind Sorenstam and
tied for second with McGill. "Sometimes you need to struggle,
you know, keep going, and all of a sudden something clicks, and
you start hitting the ball well." Translation: Lost swings, like
lost wedding rings, can be found.

Inkster found hers on the practice range before the final round
("I needed a little bigger turn, is all") and immediately began
striping her drives and irons. A 2nd-hole birdie pulled Inkster
to within one of Sorenstam, her chip-in on 6 forged a tie, and
before you knew it, Inkster was holing putts like a Houdini and
scaring blondes like Hitchcock. "I've seen her play a lot of
good rounds, but never like this," said her caddie, Greg Johnston.

Playing in the group behind Inkster, Sorenstam never stopped
grinding. Having birdied 14 to move within a stroke of Inkster,
the four-time player of the year waited on the tee of the par-3
15th and watched with hope as Inkster, who had hit her only wild
iron of the day, chipped 11 feet past the hole. But Inkster,
like a kid who had saved one last cherry bomb, rolled her putt
squarely into the hole for par, touching off a huge roar from
the crowd. One hole later she sank a 20-footer for birdie,
setting off another celebration and putting the lid on
Sorenstam's dream of a third U.S. Open title.

"I was truly impressed with Juli's intensity, her passion," said
Waugh, who earned the biggest check of her career ($202,568)
with a final-round 72. "I lack that in golf, so I really enjoy
watching someone who has it in bundles." Sorenstam, who beneath
her cool veneer is as intense as Inkster, hid her
disappointment, saying, "I didn't lose today, Juli won." But she
looked confused when a USGA official told her that as runner-up
she was expected to attend the trophy ceremony. "Well, that
sucks," Sorenstam said, comically understating her disdain for
second place.

A happier witness to Inkster's Prairie Dunes reprise was Jeff
Chalfant, a Wichita pizza-shop manager who celebrated his 39th
birthday on Sunday. Chalfant was Inkster's caddie in 1980, when
she won the Amateur; it was he who had found her wedding ring.
Chalfant had not seen or talked to Inkster in 19 years, but he
came up behind her as she signed autographs on Thursday and
said, "Can you sign this for an old caddie?"

Inkster, without turning, said, "Jeff, is that you?" She then
spun around and hugged him.

"It was like a walk down memory lane," Chalfant said at week's
end, adding, "If I'd known she was going to be this good, I never
would have left her."

Hey, even Inkster didn't know she was going to be this good. It
took a hot week in Hutchinson to prove that she can still beat
the best.

Read John Garrity's Mats Only column on golfonline.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL PRAIRIE COMPANION Inkster, who chipped in to birdie the 6th hole on Sunday (right), was 20 when she won the 1980 U.S. Amateur. B/W PHOTO: PETE SOUZA/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO JILL THE THRILL McGill, who faded to 12th, had the fans hopping after her birdie chip at the 10th hole in the final round just missed.

Returning to the site of her first big win, Juli Inkster rode a
wave of emotion in the Women's Open

"Well, that sucks," Sorenstam said comically when asked to
attend the trophy ceremony.

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)