Inkster: fairest of them all

She out-duels Croce in playoff to repeat as LPGA champion

June 26, 2000|By Sam Borden | Sam Borden,SUN STAFF

WILMINGTON, Del. - The winds blew on the final day of the McDonald's LPGA Championship, and maybe they were winds of witchcraft.

How else to explain the strange turn of events yesterday at DuPont Country Club? In the final hour of the tournament, Wendy Ward did the honorable thing and lost, Stefania Croce didn't do anything and ended up in a playoff, and Juli Inkster barely stayed afloat and was crowned as champion.

Traditional golf logic went out the drive-thru window yesterday, as Inkster - who celebrated her 40th birthday Saturday before successfully defending her 1999 victory here - shot a final-round 75, while Croce - who finished about 90 minutes before Inkster even came to the 18th tee - shot a 68 before losing with a bogey on the second hole of the playoff.

Inkster, who played with Ward in the last group, made one birdie all day, but she managed to plug the hole in her ship just enough. She had a bogey on the third hole to fall to 6 under and worked hard to stay there as the rest of the field was sucked off the board by the newly potent breeze.

But Inkster had been fighting swing troubles all week, and her solutions finally broke on the 14th tee. An errant drive in the right rough led to unfortunate and unexpected encounters with a tall tree on her second and third shots, and that double bogey wiped out her three-shot advantage.

But after missing a par putt to win on the 18th hole, Inkster steadied herself in the playoff and won a sixth major championship, and a $210,000 payday.

"I was disappointed to make bogey on the final [hole of regulation]," said Inkster, who is the third player in history to win back-to-back LPGA Championships. "I would have liked to have made that putt, but I didn't, so I just kind of tried to regroup and hopefully just prevail. But it's tough, you know, it's like everybody made the turn ... and then strokes are coming off like Weight Watchers. I was proud of myself, hanging in there. I never thought I could shoot 4 over to win this tournament."

Of course, for Croce, the mere idea of a playoff involving her was laughable for most of the afternoon. Playing 10 groups behind the leaders, the 30-year-old Italian thought her birdie-birdie-birdie start would assure her of a nice finish - not give her a chance to win the tournament.

"I thought 4 under would win," Croce said. "I was nervous on the 18th tee [during the playoff], but after I hit, I said, `All right, I'm back into my game.' "

For Ward, who shot a 76 yesterday, her highest finish in a major was bittersweet - with too much emphasis on the bitter. After birdieing the first hole and making pars on the next four, Ward seemed in control of her game and her emotions. But bogeys on Nos. 6, 7, 10 and 11 loosened the screws on her psyche. Those screws came flying out on the 13th, when her ball moved before she pulled the trigger on her par putt - a one-stroke penalty, which cost her a double-bogey.

"I hit a good bunker shot to about eight feet and just as I addressed the ball, I took a look at my ball and it had turned to the left, toward me," said Ward, who assessed the penalty on herself, then missed the ensuing bogey putt. "I had to back off. I didn't make the best stroke and I assume that's because as much as I tried to regroup, it's still tough to do when you're fighting hard. There was no option. It's happened to me twice this year, but if it happens to me next round I go out, I'll call it on myself again. I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to dwell on it."

Inkster wouldn't mind dwelling on this week a little while longer.

"I thought it was very important for me to get off to a good start at the start of this year, just to let myself know that I'm still there and still playing," Inkster said. "It means a lot to me, personally, just to prove to myself that I can still play with these girls and I'm still one of the top players."

LPGA Championship

Top finishers

x-Juli Inkster ..........281...... -3

Stefania Croce .........281...... -3

Se Ri Pak ...............282...... -2

Nancy Scranton ........282........-2

Wendy Ward ...........282....... -2

Heather Bowie ..........283....... -1

Laura Davies ............283....... -1

Jane Crafter ............283....... -1

Akiko Fukushima ........284 .........E

Karrie Webb ............284 .........E

Jan Stephenson .........284 .........E

x-Won on 2nd playoff hole

Final scores. [Page 11E]

Major feat

Juli Inkster's victory yesterday was her sixth in a major, tying her for most among active women's players. The leaders:

Golfer ...............No.

Active

Juli Inkster.............6

Pat Bradley ............6

Betsy King .............6

Patty Sheehan..........6

All time

Patty Berg .............15

Mickey Wright .........13

Louise Suggs ...........11

Babe Zaharias ..........10

Betsy Rawls ..............8

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