Closing 66 gives Inkster 2nd Open

Final round matches best by a champ, beats Sorenstam by 2 shots

July 08, 2002|By THE NEW YORK TIMES

HUTCHINSON, Kan. - The skill and determination of Juli Inkster swept across the Kansas plains like a tornado yesterday, building momentum and sweeping aside anything, and anyone, standing in her way.

In a situation in which nothing but excellence would do, Inkster played perhaps the finest round of her Hall of Fame career. She began yesterday at the U.S. Women's Open trailing Annika Sorenstam, the best player in women's golf, by two strokes. But while Inkster was the clear underdog, she was clearly undaunted.

"Juli just doesn't back down," said Brian Inkster, who watched the brilliant performance of his wife of 22 years from an enthusiastic gallery at Prairie Dunes Country Club. "Others might have better games; I mean Annika is awesome. But Juli doesn't back down. If she can get her game together, she's there."

Inkster's game was all there, especially her putting, in a round of 66. She made putts from different lengths, putts with different breaks, even putts from off the green.

And when her final putt dropped, it was Inkster standing alone at the top, winning her seventh major championship by two strokes over Sorenstam. Inkster finished at 4-under-par 276 to overtake Sorenstam of Sweden by two strokes. Shani Waugh of Australia finished third at 3-over.

It was a performance for the ages, equaling the best final round by a Women's Open champion, set by Pat Bradley, who shot 66 in 1981, and matched by Sorenstam in 1996. But while Inkster hit superb iron shots and accurate drives, her putter was hotter than the Kansas sun. She never three-putted all week, she had 39 one-putt greens, and in each of her final two rounds, Inkster needed just 25 putts.

Considering the difficulty of the course, the severe undulations of the greens, the magnitude of the event and the quality of the competition, Inkster ranked it as her greatest victory, particularly because she turned 42 last month. She is the second-oldest winner of a major championship. Babe Zaharias was 43 when she won the 1954 Open.

"Sometimes I didn't know where it was coming from, and it was inspiring," said Inkster, who won her first Open in 1999. "I made the putts where I needed to make them. I hope I don't wake up for a while. It was awesome."

Inkster is the only American to win the Women's Open since 1994, but this victory was harder than her first one, when she prevailed by five strokes over Sherri Turner. Not only did Inkster need to shoot a low number on a difficult course, but she had to chase down Sorenstam, who had won six of her previous 12 LPGA starts this year.

When Sorenstam goes into the final round with a lead, her name usually goes onto the trophy. But while players on the PGA Tour have been criticized for not standing up to Tiger Woods, Inkster not only stood up to Sorenstam, but she also outplayed her.

For Sorenstam, it was disappointing and unexpected. She won back-to-back Opens in 1995 and 1996, and the six-year wait since then seemed longer to her. But she will have to wait again. It took Sorenstam seven holes to make her first birdie, and by that time, Inkster already had the lead and the momentum.

"I didn't lose today; Juli won," said Sorenstam. "I gave everything I had. I'll be fine tomorrow. This is not going to haunt me for very long."

Yet there is something almost magical to Inkster about Prairie Dunes, the course where she won the first of her three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships in 1980. Inkster had been married only a few weeks, and she almost skipped the 1980 Amateur.

"I really didn't want to come," she said. "Brian said, `Juli, your parents will kill me if you don't go to the U.S. Amateur.' "

So Inkster listened, and she won. And yesterday at Prairie Dunes, the magic returned. She pulled to within one stroke of Sorenstam with a 12-foot birdie putt at No. 2, and then Inkster made one of her memorable birdies, chipping in from 65 feet at No. 6 to tie.

At that point, Sorenstam was hearing the roar of Inkster's gallery. Inkster was in the next-to-last group with Waugh, while Sorenstam was with Jill McGill, who struggled to a 78 and finished tied for 12th. To Inkster, not being in the final group with Sorenstam was an advantage.

"I felt like all the pressure was on Annika," Inkster said. "She's the No. 1 player in the world; she had the two-shot lead. I felt if I could get off to a reasonable start, I would have a shot."

Inkster took a one-stroke lead at No. 7, making another beautiful putt - a 20-footer from off the fringe. As it fell, she pumped her fist and held the pose, one of many fist pumps during her round.

Sorenstam birdied No. 7 with a 12-foot putt to tie Inkster, but then she bogeyed the par-4 No. 8, missing the green with her approach shot, then failing to get up and down. Inkster took a two-stroke lead at the par-4 No. 11, hitting a nice 9-iron approach shot to 10 feet, and then making another putt.

Sorenstam pulled to within a stroke with an 8-foot birdie putt at No. 14, but then at No. 15, she hit a bad 6-iron tee shot that missed the green right, and she could not get up and down. That bogey dropped Sorenstam two strokes behind again, and she never got closer.

"I don't know how many more Opens I'm going to be able to compete in," Inkster said. "To beat the best player in the world, you don't get a chance to do that often. This is pretty sweet."

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