Inkster's 67 builds 4-stroke Open lead

Kane, Kuehne next

tourney record likely


WEST POINT, Miss. -- She was the first player to win three straight U.S. Amateur championships, doing it when Tiger Woods was merely a 5-year-old phenom. As a pro, Juli Inkster has won three majors and 16 other LPGA Tour events, making her a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame.

There is only one void on her impressive resume, and it could be eliminated today after the final round of the 54th U.S. Women's Open here at Old Waverly.

With birdies on the first two holes yesterday, Inkster broke away from second-round co-leader Lorie Kane of Canada and then started distancing herself from the rest of the field. Even when Kane and Sherri Turner closed what had been a four-shot lead to two, Inkster started to run away again.

With a 5-under-par 67 and a three-round score of 15-under 201, Inkster leads Kane and former two-time U.S. Amateur champion Kelli Kuehne by four strokes. Turner, a former LPGA champion, is five strokes back. Karrie Webb, who is looking for her fifth victory this season, but her first major, is seven behind.

"I think it's my tournament, but I don't think 15-under is going to win," said Inkster, 38. "All the pressure is going to be on me. That's going to be the toughest part about tomorrow."

Whoever wins will likely break the Open record of 10-under par, set by Alison Nicholas of Great Britain in her one-shot victory over Nancy Lopez two years ago at Pumpkin Ridge. Inkster's 54-hole total of 201 broke Nicholas' mark by two shots.

A victory for Inkster would be her third this season. More importantly, it would be her first victory in a tournament in which she once suffered her most heartbreaking defeat. In 1992, Inkster watched Patty Sheehan birdie the last two holes to force a playoff, then win the playoff by two shots the next day.

"That's seven years ago," she said. "It was a different golf course [Oakmont] and a different area of my life. I played my heart out in '92. I played the best golf of my life that week. I wouldn't change anything. I just feel like I'm playing more consistently now. I'm playing better right now."

Inkster was nearly flawless yesterday. She started the round by rolling in a 20-footer for birdie on the par-4 first hole and then knocked a bunker shot to within three feet on the par-5 second hole, making the putt.

Meanwhile, Kane stumbled with bogeys on two of the first three holes and then missed a three-foot birdie putt on the par-4 fourth.

Kane started to recover when she made a 30-footer to save par on the seventh hole, joking as she walked to the eighth tee: "I've just found my range."

She certainly did. The former synchronized swimmer and beer sales rep in her native Canada made an eight-footer for birdie on the par-4 eighth hole, then had three birdies in a stretch of four holes on the back to close to within two shots. Kane missed a four-footer for par on the par-3 17th hole.

Asked if she was nervous coming out yesterday, the 34-year-old Kane said, "I would probably say no, but I'd probably not be telling the truth.

"I was very excited to be in the last group and to be on television back in Canada. My family is very important to me and I wanted to show them I could handle it."

Kuehne's parents are here, as is her fiance -- 6-foot-6, 320-pound offensive tackle Jay Humphrey, a fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings.

The 5-foot-2, 110-pound Kuehne said that Humphrey's presence calms her down, but she might need him to run some interference on Inkster between the first tee and the 18th green.

"I'm comfortable to be playing with her," said Kuehne, 22, who won her first LPGA event last week in Corning, N.Y., after having a miserable rookie year last season. "I won't have to watch the leaderboard. I'll just watch her. That will make it easier."

Nobody is conceding the victory to Inkster, but some are coming close.

"The way Juli is playing, I can't see her shooting worse than 1-over," said Webb, who stayed in contention with a 4-under-par 68.

"That also depends on the weather, but I don't see it being any different than the last three days. If that's the case, you're going to have to shoot 64 or something like that to catch her."

Said Kane, who has improved dramatically in her first four years on tour, but is still looking for her first victory:

"Juli Inkster is playing very solid golf. She's putting the ball extremely well. If I wasn't in this tournament or in the position I am, I'd be betting on her. I'll be chasing tomorrow, but if I was a betting person, I'd bet on Juli Inkster."

The victory would be worth $315,000 for Inkster, but it would also give her two more points in the LPGA's new system to qualify for a berth in the Hall of Fame. It would tie her with Annika Sorenstam at 24 points, the most among active players and six short of qualifying.

Not bad for a player who has artfully balanced her lives as an athlete, mother and wife. Inkster's two daughters, ages 9 and 5, are back home in California, mainly because their mother didn't want them to miss school.

Her husband, Brian, a golf pro in Los Altos, Calif. who met his future wife while giving her a lesson, took a red-eye in yesterday after conducting a ladies invitational Friday at his club.

"I think she's got to play the golf course," Brian Inkster said after his wife's round, which extended her bogeyless stretch to 33 holes and only one through 54.

"That's the key. If she comes down the stretch with a good-sized lead, that's when it will get emotional. She knows this tournament. I think the experience will help."

Said Juli Inkster: "I don't think it's the type of golf course you can play conservatively. It's the type of golf course where you've got to go out shooting for birdies."

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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