Big Win on the Prairie

It was 22 years ago that the seeds of a champion and future LPGA Hall of Famer were planted in an out-of-the-way Kansas town best known for its grain elevators and a spectacular golf course. That’s when a northern Californian fresh from a honeymoon came to Hutchinson without expectations to compete in a premier amateur event – and when Juli Inkster left with the U.S. Women’s Amateur cup and the admiration of all who witnessed her shot-making brilliance on Perry and Press Maxwell’s masterpiece.

Yes, Prairie Dunes is virtually “where it all began” for Inkster, now owner of 28 professional victories. She almost didn’t show for that 1980 Women’s Am, but her husband, Brian, insisted his new bride fulfill her commitment, even if she shot 90 and left after stroke play. Juli even briefly lost her wedding ring, later found by her local caddie.

Not only did Inkster advance to match play and defeat the year’s top amateur, Patti Rizzo, she won the next two Women’s Amateurs, as well, to become the first winner of three straight in 48 years. Her run came more than a decade before Tiger Woods’s roaring trifecta on the men’s side.

In accomplishing such a rare feat (only four other women have achieved the Women’s Amateur triple), Inkster displayed a grit and indomitable spirit that endeared her to spectators. “Juli never gets frightened,” said Rizzo in a Golf Journal article published in 1982, before Inkster’s third triumph. “She has the desire to go ahead and win.”

That kind of passion has worked well in a 19-year professional career, during which she has managed to balance raising two daughters with her career. Inkster has even won seven women’s major championships – the latest coming in July at the 57th U.S. Women’s Open, where a final-round, 4-under-par 66 enabled her to overcome a two-stroke deficit and beat the No. 1 female golfer in the world, Annika Sorenstam, by two strokes at Prairie Dunes. The 66 tied Inkster for the lowest final round by a champion with Pat Bradley (1981) and Sorenstam (1996).

“I would still say probably my greatest accomplishment is winning those three U.S. Amateurs in a row because it’s so hard to do,” said Inkster, who joined Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win U.S. Amateur and Open titles at the same course. (Nicklaus did it at Pebble Beach.) “Three different golf courses … match play, where if someone gets hot, you’re out of there. That – winning the first one – just kind of got my career going.”

Those amateur titles forged an identity for Inkster: a never-give-up attitude that makes her one of the grittiest golfers on any circuit. Since joining the LPGA Tour in 1983, no less than 57 percent of Inkster’s victories (16 of the 28) have been of the come-from-behind variety; the Women’s Open was the fifth straight comeback victory in which Inkster shot 66 or better to close. The 2002 Women’s Open, though, was the Comeback Kid at her finest. It was pure Inkster, right down to the fist pumps and the hand slaps with fans following the round. “I may have to ice down my elbow,” she quipped.

Inkster’s phenomenal short game was on full display. She has always had a fondness for chipping and putting. “I go out with my radio and chip and putt until dark on many nights,” she told Golf Journal in 1982. “I’ll probably spend about 14 hours a week on this part of my game.” Some players call her “Chipper” because she works at it so hard.

Even when her ball striking is slightly off, as it was for the middle two rounds of this year’s Open, Inkster can stay in contention because of her touch around the greens. In 72 holes, she had 35 one-putt greens; she averaged 26 putts per round. Her final round included a chip-in for birdie at the sixth hole, followed by a 20-foot birdie putt from the front fringe at the par-5 seventh. Inkster all but secured the title with a dramatic 18-foot par putt at the 15th only minutes before Sorenstam missed a five-footer for par at the same hole to drop two strokes back. Inkster sealed the deal with another birdie at the 16th from 20 feet.

“I’ve never seen her play better than she did today,” said Brian Inkster, himself a teaching pro. “That was just pure guts on a very tough golf course.”

What’s remarkable is, at 42, Inkster isn’t showing signs of slowing. The victory made her the second-oldest golfer to win a Women’s Open – Babe Zaharias won the 1954 Women’s Open at 43 years, seven days (see TTG, page 5) – and she joined Zaharias as the only players to win two  women’s majors after turning 40. Her seven majors rank her sixth all-time.

Not bad considering Inkster debated quitting the tour in 1994, after the birth of her second daughter, Cori. She has won 13 times since then, including the 1999 and ‘02  Women’s Open, and the ‘99 and 2000 McDonald’s LPGA Championship.

Now Cori, 8, and Hayley, 12, are old enough to understand mom’s weekend job. When the kids are in school, Inkster can get out to the range to practice and be home before the kids get there. The girls were not in Hutchinson, but Hayley fired off an e-mail before the final round. “[Hayley] said, ‘Good luck, Mom, you can do it,’ “ Juli recounted. “And then she put, ‘You can beat Annika. Go for it.’ “

As a site of five previous USGA events, Prairie Dunes’s credentials as a championship venue were never in question. The links-style course, rising out of sand dunes and native grasses (aptly called gunch), has long been considered a gem. The USGA kept green speeds at 91Ú2 on the Stimpmeter because of the severe slopes on the putting surfaces, but the rough was penal. Jill McGill, in contention until Sunday’s 78 dropped her into a tie for 12th, took drops for unplayable lies out of the gunch four times. Many accepted their fate and hacked the ball out to the fairway.

The concern was how a town with a population of 40,000, whose biggest events are the annual Kansas State Fair and national junior college men’s basketball tournament, would handle a Women’s Open. Judging by the 100,000-plus spectators who attended and the rave reviews by the players – Laura Davies called Prairie Dunes the best course she’s ever played – it was a major success. “It was maybe the shiniest moment in Kansas golf,” said Wichita native Judy Bell, the former USGA president who was influential in bringing the event to Prairie Dunes. “It’s been fabulous.”

The only thing missing was Prairie Dunes’ true ally – wind. During practice rounds, the howling sounds of rippling air pummeled the course, but by Thursday morning the gusts had disappeared. Maybe the course decided to give the players their freedom on Independence Day. It was reflected on the scoreboard as Inkster, Laura Diaz and Shani Waugh all came in with 3-under 67s. Twelve others came in at par or better.

“When you hear birds chirping, you know the wind is not blowing,” said Inkster.

The lack of wind wasn’t the only unusual event of the day. Karrie Webb, bidding to become the first player to win three straight Women’s Opens, bogeyed her first two holes, then had a costly triple bogey at the par-3 fourth hole (her 13th) to finish with a 79, her highest round in seven Women’s Open appearances. A second-round 73 left Webb three shots off the cut line of 9-over 149. It was her first missed cut in 55 events, and the first time she did not play the weekend at the Women’s Open.

“Obviously it’s not the best time to miss a cut,” Webb said, “but I guess if you are going to miss one, it’s over now. Hopefully, it’s another three years before I miss another.”

Prairie Dunes also offered the last opportunity to see Nancy Lopez play in a Women’s Open. Granted a special exemption for her exemplary career and contributions to the game, the four-time runner-up also missed the cut, posting scores of 81-79 (see story, page 23).

Friday did see the winds pick up a bit and the scores reflected the changing conditions. Only four players broke par as the lead shrunk from three under to one under (139) at the halfway point. A familiar name had joined the trio of leaders (Diaz and Inkster also were at one under). Sorenstam backed up her first-round 70 with a 69 and was firmly entrenched as the weekend favorite.

Heading into the Women’s Open, Sorenstam had outperformed her counterpart on the men’s tour, Tiger Woods, in terms of wins. In 12 events, she had six victories (one major), two seconds, two thirds and a tie for seventh. Her scoring average was 68.74 and of her 42 rounds just four were over par.

“I’m pretty used to seeing her name up there,” said Diaz, an up-and-coming U.S. player who had broken through earlier in the season with two wins. “I think the good thing is that we can all feed off of what she’s done in the past and let it help us.”

Diaz, however, struggled Saturday, posting a 77 to fall out of contention. Meanwhile, the easy-going Aussie, Waugh, who had played well at the 2000 Women’s Open until a final-round 77 pushed her outside the top 10, continued to withstand the pressure. Paired with Sorenstam, she squeezed out a 71 with 32 putts to remain three back of Sorenstam with 18 holes left.

“The biggest thing for me this week is to just maintain no expectations,” said Waugh. “I’ve had a great tournament and if it all goes wrong [on Sunday], it goes wrong. If I don’t have too many expectations, I think I’ll play well.”

McGill also entered the week without much momentum. In fact, she had not finished better than 15th in 14 LPGA events this year. She also had never been paired in the final group of any pro event last round, so when she concluded Saturday’s 1-under 69 to move within two strokes of Sorenstam, McGill had plenty to sleep on. She has been working with sports psychologist Jay Brunza, who caddied for Woods in a few of his USGA amateur victories. Brunza gave her an audiotape to reinforce positive thinking and McGill had been listening to it every night. A player with a penchant to play deliberately, McGill also was trying to improve her pace of play.

“I’m kind of at that point where I’ve got this good guy [on one shoulder] and this bad guy [on the other shoulder] and they are in a boxing match,” said McGill. “Sometimes it takes a little longer to knock the bad guy out. It’s the same with anything else. Can I do it? Hell, yeah, I can do it.”

Except McGill could not fight off the Sunday demons. Consecutive bogeys at the first two holes, including a three-putt at the par-3 second, delivered a TKO to McGill.

Inkster went to bed Saturday night wondering if anything could correct her crooked tee balls. She tried the range on Friday, but the left-to-right wind was not conducive for her right-to-left ball flight. “I think I’m going to go home, have a beer and try to visualize a good swing,” she said after Friday’s 2-over-par 72.

A telephone conversation with her instructor, Mike McGetrick, Saturday alleviated many of the negative thoughts. McGetrick videotaped the day’s round and told Inkster to get her weight back on her heels to make a better turn going away from the ball. Fifteen minutes before leaving the practice area on Sunday, Inkster discovered the proper swing thought. The result? She hit 12 of 14 fairways and, with her short game still on autopilot, she had the ideal comeback formula. Inkster finished the championship with 18 fewer putts than Sorenstam.

“That is a big difference,” said Sorenstam. “My strength has always been hitting the ball well. I hit a lot of fairways and greens. Juli must have figured out the greens.”

Inkster got the crowd roaring by rolling in a testy 12-footer at No. 2 and the fans were downright delirious when she chipped in from 65 feet at the par-4 sixth. By then, Inkster was showing off enough fist-pumps to make even Woods jealous. She even apologized to Waugh. The fun continued with the birdie putt from the fringe at the seventh and another 10-footer at the 11th to put her at four under. By then, Inkster had grabbed a two-shot cushion over Sorenstam, who made the turn at two under for the championship.

The turning point came at the uphill 201-yard 15th. Sorenstam had just birdied the 14th from eight feet to close within one and appeared on the verge of pulling even after Inkster pulled her 5-iron left of the green. Her ensuing pitch rolled 18 feet by the hole, leaving Inkster a tricky uphill right-to-left par putt. The crowd went wild when the putt fell, giving Inkster another chance to whip out the fist-pump. Sorenstam then missed a five-foot downhill par putt and after Inkster punctuated the round with a 20-foot birdie at the 16th, the engraver could get to work.

When she left the 18th green, Inkster pumped her fist once more, embraced her husband and chanted “USA, USA” along with the crowd, an uncommon chant at recent Women’s Opens. She remains the only U.S. player to have won the title since 1994.

“I’ll have to buy a condo or house here,” Inkster told the assembled crowd at the prize ceremony, referring to her Hutchinson successes.

Later, the champion added: “I thought all the pressure was on Annika. She’s the No. 1 player in the world; she had the two-shot lead.”

Sorenstam also had a small temporary tattoo on her left ankle, given to her by fellow LPGA player Pearl Sinn. The hybrid of Chinese and Japanese characters means  “believe,” but Sorenstam, according to members of the Japanese press, applied the sticker upside-down.

Earlier, Sorenstam, who was bidding to join Zaharias, Susie Berning and Hollis Stacy as three-time Open winners, turned down the opportunity to wear the ruby red shoes she donned in the final round of the Nabisco Championships, where she fended off Webb and Liselotte Neumann to win her fourth major. Would those brightly colored red shoes have made a difference?

“I guess we’ll never know,” said Sorenstam.

Sorenstam still finished in the red, just not red enough.