Inkster in prime LPGA form

Co-leader with Ward celebrates birthday with 6-under-par 65

June 25, 2000|By Sam Borden | Sam Borden,SUN STAFF

WILMINGTON, Del. - Turning 40 is a day that most adults face with a mixture of nostalgia, anxiety and trepidation. A sort of anticipation that runs the gamut from quiet reflection to blatant fear, all the while putting on a happy face because, hey, it's your birthday, right?

Yesterday, Juli Inkster learned all about those sentiments as she celebrated the big 4-0, but on the golf course her dominant emotion was exhilaration. The defending champion torched DuPont Country Club for a tournament-low 65 during the third round of the McDonald's LPGA Championship, taking home a share of the lead as well as a sheet cake from the LPGA.

Maybe the promise of birthday candles lit a fire under Inkster (a ho-hum 72-69 start left her in a tie for ninth after 36 holes), but whatever the spark, her competitive flames erupted as she made seven birdies on the day. A sparkling birdie-birdie-birdie finish put her at 7 under par and in the final group today with co-leader Wendy Ward, who shot 68. Jan Stephenson is two behind at 5 under and Nancy Scranton shot a 67 to finish at 4-under 209.

"You know, 40 has been a lot easier than 30," said Inkster, who left the field in her wake last year after firing four rounds in the 60s to finish at 16 under par. "Thirty was tough for me because I just had [daughter] Hayley, was playing bad golf and not knowing what I was doing. But 40, I feel pretty good."

Inkster's putter betrayed her with a three-putt bogey on No. 1, but remained loyal to the five-time major winner the rest of the round, as she rolled in four birdies over a five-hole stretch starting on the par-4 seventh. The pinnacle came when she dropped a 25-footer from above the hole - a putt that was slicker than wet asphalt.

"I could probably drop 100 balls there and make one, and I happened to make that one, so that was kind of a gift," she said.

Ward, who spent the day about perpetually out-driven by second-round leader Laura Davies, had her own experiences - both good and bad - with birds. The two-time tour winner had her own string of success, making four in a row that was capped by an 18-foot stroke on the par-5 11th. But on the 18th hole, Ward was reminded that not all birds are friendly.

"I had a little bird poop in my line - I don't know, is there a more professional way to say that?" said the fourth-year pro, who asked for a ruling on whether she could move the droppings before she putted. After moving the "obstruction," Ward two-putted for par and the 68 that will put her in the final group at a major for the first time in her career.

"I've always said that [playing partner Inkster] is probably one of about three [LPGA players] that I really look up to," said Ward, who played in the final group of the 1995 Standard Register Ping event while she was still an amateur. "Both of us have the same goal tomorrow, there's no doubt about that. But there will be a lot of sportsmanship out there, too."

Unlike Ward and Inkster, Stephenson battled for her 2-under 69. She birdied the first hole, but was forced to scramble much of the day. A par save from the rough on No. 4 and a tough up-and-down from the bunker on the par-3 17th precededan 8-foot birdie chance on 18. The opportunity wasn't lost on the three-time major winner and she rolled it infor her third straight sub-par round."

[Last night] I probably had my best night's sleep that I've had since I was in contention last year," said Stephenson, who is in the midst of a swing change that is designed to help her fade the ball from left to right. "I love to be in contention and it's few and far between so I really savor it."

But while Inkster, Ward and Stephenson moved up the leader board, there were plenty of players who went in the opposite direction. Most notable was second-round leader Laura Davies, who struggled to a 4-over 75. On the back nine, poor putting led to three bogeys and a fall from the top position to a tie for seventh.

And now it is up to Ward and Inkster to hold their positions, one in search of her first major, the other seeking to bridge the gap from her 30s to her 40s. Inkster isn't over the hill by any means, but as the years roll by, she has come to appreciate exactly what she has done.

"I think I'm at the top of the hill - it's a long plateau," she said, smiling at the idea that she may be past her prime. "I think any win at this stage in my career is icing on the cake. That's what everybody strives for, to win a major. It would mean a lot to me."

LPGA Championship

The leaders ...

Juli Inkster..............72-69-65-206

Wendy Ward ............69-69-68-206

... and selected followers

Jan Stephenson ..........70-69-69-208

Nancy Scranton ..........72-70-67-209

Jane Crafter .............72-69-69-210

Pat Bradley ...............68-76-67-211

Se Ri Pak .................73-69-69-211

Karrie Webb ..............72-70-69-211

Laura Davies ..............70-66-75-211

Complete scores. [Page 16E]

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