Oakmont, Pa. – At 50, Juli Inkster has lived one of those happily-ever-after lives. Hall-of-Fame golf career. Good husband. Good kids. Inkster seemingly has it all. Now she’s an elder stateswoman in a tough crew of golfers trying to figure out Oakmont before Thursday when the U.S. Women’s Open begins.
Inkster made her way through the media interview area Wednesday. Hi, hello, hi, she nodded to reporters, and then draped herself in a chair. She answered thoughtful questions carefully, spouted a bit of ironic humor and, at times, revealed her heart.
In speaking of the dozens of players here who are less than half her age, Inkster said, It’s good to see the fieryness and they’re hungry and they work hard and they honor the game. That’s pretty much what I try to teach them. I really like them to learn the history of the game, how it got started and who started it. When they see a founder, you know, go up and say, ‘Thank you.’ Stuff like that.
Inkster has always had great heart. Whether battling through match-play as the last dominant amateur in women’s golf, showing a scrappy side against Annika Sorenstam, or Juli Inkster, 50, says the course, not her age is her chief challenge this week at Oakmont C.C. (John Mummert/USGA)
counseling younger professionals, Inkster always gives it her best shot.
Juli Inkster, 50, says the course, not her age is her chief challenge this week at Oakmont C.C. (John Mummert/USGA)
She was the last player to win three straight U.S. Women’s Amateur Championships, from 1980-82. She has won two U.S. Women’s Opens and 31 official LPGA tournaments. One of only six players to win the career grand slam, she has more than $5 million in LPGA earnings. Along the way, she had two daughters, Hayley, who is now 20, and Cori, 16. Inkster is the rare player who seemingly has it all.
Now she joins a field of younger players, and some are much younger players, in battling this difficult course as she tries to win her third U.S. Women’s Open.
I just appreciate the challenge, Inkster said. You appreciate coming to golf courses like this. It has the history and the toughness. It’s a great test of golf.
It’s the type of course where you might have to grind for 3- or 4-over-par. But the bottom line is not to shoot yourself out of the tournament on the first day… I think I appreciate being able to have the opportunity to play in tournaments like this.
Inkster has the experience to win this championship. She hasn’t lost any distance in her later years, she says, and besides, she knows how to win the Women’s Open. In 1999, she won her first one at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss., with a record 16-under-par. In 2002, she won her second one in a scrappy battle with Sorenstam at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan., prevailing by two strokes.
Inkster knows what she’s up against at Oakmont. It’s not her age, it’s the golf course. It’s going to be tough, she said. But in the Women’s Open, it’s a grind. It’s not about pretty shots. You’ve just got to go out there and grind and just hopefully give yourself a chance on Sunday to compete and win.
Despite her seemingly idyllic life and her great heart, a heart that moved her husband Brian to tears in a televised documentary about their lives, Juli Inkster has one regret. In 1992, when the Women’s Open was played at Oakmont for the first time, it was the championship that got away.
The ball lay just a few feet off the fairway in four inches of wet, soggy rough. It peeked out of the grass from a little sidehill lie, slightly above the player’s feet when she took her stance in a puddle.
The ball belonged to Patty Sheehan. It was the 72nd hole of the 1992 U.S. Women’s Open, the ball was in casual water and Sheehan got a drop. It was a legitimate ruling. But for Inkster, it’s a lingering disappointment.
Inkster was asked about the ruling in her media conference today. Eighteen years later, the situation still comes up.
Have you gotten over that ruling from ’92? asked a reporter.
Well, yeah, said Inkster. Well, no. It’s the worst ruling in the history of golf. But, I mean, I’ve overcome it, yes. It is what it is. She made a great shot after that and she made a great putt.
Ann Beard, chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee, was the Rules official with Inkster and Sheehan that year and is here this week. Beard said the size of the area of casual water meant that the nearest point of relief was the fairway, where Sheehan was allowed to drop. She then hit her ball onto the green and made a curling 18-foot birdie putt to tie Inkster after 72 holes. Sheehan won the 18-hole playoff, 72 to 75.
Even 18 years after it happened, mention of the ruling provokes a twinge of pain for tour veteran Inkster. That ball, that championship, that ruling, this course.
Inkster was 32 years old then, the mother of a two-year-old, struggling to be a good wife and mother and still play great golf. She didn’t know where life would take her. She is fatalistic about that runner-up finish, saying perhaps if she had won that year, she might not have won the other two. She and Sheehan are good friends, former teammates at San Jose State, but all these years later, it grates a bit.
Inkster has since come a long way. She has enjoyed the tour in its greatest years, she says, when most of the tournaments were domestic events. Today she is revered by the younger players and recognized at any golf course where she chooses to tee it up. Life, for Juli Inkster, is good.
But perhaps Oakmont owes her something. Perhaps after 18 long years, her skills and great heart will lead to a win. There are many who would not be disappointed if, when the trophy is presented on Sunday, it found its way into Inkster’s very capable hands.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.