Inkster parades to Open win

5-shot victory gives her first U.S. championship

June 07, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WEST POINT, Miss. -- After missing the cut at last year's U.S. Women's Open, Juli Inkster spent part of the weekend taking her two daughters to a Fourth of July parade that ran down the main street in Kohler, Wis.

Yesterday, Inkster was the top attraction at a different kind of parade -- a fist-pumping victory march up the 18th fairway at Old Waverly to celebrate her impressive five-shot win in the 54th Women's Open.

The only thing missing at Inkster's first Open championship, fourth major title and 20th career victory were her daughters, 9-year-old Hayley and 5-year-old Cori, whom Mom kept home in California so they wouldn't miss any school.

But the 38-year-old Inkster had a message for them as she walked up to the 18th green.

"Mommy's bringing home a trophy and it's a big one!" she said, looking into the television camera.

Former LPGA champion Sherri Turner finished a distant second and Kelli Kuehne came in third, seven shots behind. After she tapped in her putt to finish off a round of 1-under-par 71 for a record-breaking four-round total of 16-under par 272, Inkster hugged her caddie and then her husband, Brian, crying on his shoulder.

"This is the best," Inkster, the first American player to win the Women's Open since Patty Sheehan in 1994, told the crowd surrounding the green at the awards ceremony as she pointed at her caddie, Greg Johnston. "The best."

In a tournament that saw several Women's Open scoring records broken, Inkster -- the oldest Open champion since 1955 -- was the best player nearly from the first day. Inkster's opening round of 65 was the best by a champion. Her 54-hole score and her 72-hole total broke the records set two years ago by Alison Nicholas, the latter by six shots.

The victory was the third this year for Inkster and the first-place check of $315,000 pushed her yearly earnings to $726,876, moving her from third to second behind Karrie Webb on the money list. But, more importantly, it erased the disappointments of past Opens when she had come agonizingly close or had one bad round ruin things.

"I think whenever you win the U.S. Open is special," said Inkster, a former three-time U.S. Women's Amateur champion who lost in an Open playoff to Sheehan at Oakmont in 1992 and saw a two-round lead at Baltimore Country Club evaporate with a third-round 75 four years before that. "I am the U.S. Open champion and no one can take that away from me."

It was her first major title in 10 years.

No one could make a significant dent into the four-shot lead Inkster had over Kuehne and Lorie Kane of Canada coming into the day. Except for the pressure she put on herself and had caused her to sleep fitfully Saturday night, Inkster was barely challenged. And each time she was pushed, she had an answer.

As Kuehne, 22, said later: "She was playing way too consistently to have any kind of meltdown."

When Kuehne made a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-5 second hole to go to 12-under, Inkster made her 4-footer for birdie to maintain her lead. After her first bogey in a stretch of 37 holes and only her second of the tournament on the par-4 fifth hole, Inkster immediately made a birdie on the par-4 sixth.

Perhaps the biggest shot she hit came on the par-3 seventh hole. Her tee shot found a bunker right of the green, and it appeared that her ball was almost buried and up against the lip. Somehow, Inkster finessed a 30-foot bunker shot to within 6 inches of the cup and tapped in for par. Kuehne then missed a 12-footer for birdie.

"That was an all-world bunker shot," said Inkster, who breathed a sigh of relief after that shot and then playfully tapped fists with her caddie. "It was huge."

Said Kuehne, a former two-time U.S. Women's Amateur champion: "I think a pretty good indication that it was Juli's day was probably on the seventh hole. She had a fried egg in there. I just looked at her and said, `That's an amazing shot.' She was like, don't put me in that situation again."

Nobody did. Even after missing a 3-footer for par on the eighth hole and watching a 5-footer for birdie on the par-5 ninth hole lip out, Inkster's lead was never less than four shots. Even after it grew to five shots with a 6-foot birdie on the par-4 13th, Inkster was not comfortable.

Finally, after delivering her tee shot on the par-4 18th hole to the middle of the fairway, Inkster knew her long wait for an Open title was nearly over. She acknowledged the crowd as she walked up the fairway, then pumped her fists skyward several times, the last time when her final putt disappeared.

"The hardest part of today was not to get ahead of myself," she said later. "I just told myself that I've got to have the heart to win this tournament. You don't get too many opportunities. I remember something Patty Sheehan said to me before I left [last week]. She said, `This is your time.' It was my time to win."

As she sat with her trophy in the post-round news conference, Inkster said jokingly: "It looks nice, doesn't it?"

It certainly will look nice to her daughters. Inkster couldn't wait to get home to share the most important victory of her 18-year career with them. Then again, Inkster knows that she will assume her more important duties come tomorrow, the day Cori graduates from kindergarten and Hayley's softball team opens up the playoffs.

Women's Open

The winner

Juli Inkster 65-69-67-71-272

...and selected followers

S. Turner 69-69-68-71-277

K. Kuehne 64-71-70-74-279

Lorie Kane 70-64-71-75-280

Meg Mallon 70-70-69-72-281

Carin Koch 72-69-68-72-281

K. Webb 70-70-68-74-282

H. Dobson 71-70-73-69-283

Grace Park 70-67-73-73-283

Se Ri Pak 68-70-74-73-285

Complete scores. 9d

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