Originally created 07/09/02

No place like Prairie Dunes for Inkster



HUTCHINSON, Kan. -- Juli Inkster might consider buying a little house on the prairie. There's never been a homecoming quite like this U.S. Women's Open.

After winning her second Open with a round that showcased her passion and grit, the 42-year-old Inkster tried to reflect on a career that took root at Prairie Dunes in a tournament she did not even want to play.

Inkster was 20 and newly married, and didn't think her game was in decent shape to leave northern California for Kansas to play in the 1980 U.S. Women's Amateur.

"I didn't really want to come," she said. "Brian, my husband, said, 'Juli, your parents will kill me if you don't go to the U.S. Amateur. Do the best you can, and go from there.' I didn't care if I shot 90. I was just very happy to be married."

She came and she conquered. Her husband flew in for the final round to watch her beat Patti Rizzo, at the time considered the best female amateur in the world.

Twenty-two years, two daughters and seven majors later, not much has changed.

The course was the same, and the challenge was even more difficult. Annika Sorenstam is the most dominant player in women's golf, and appeared to be especially unstoppable after three rounds of par or better to build a two-stroke lead.

Inkster was up to the task on Sunday.

With only 11 putts on the front nine, including back-to-back birdies from just off the green, Inkster grabbed the lead and never gave the 31-year-old Swede another chance.

Despite a bogey she could afford on the 17th hole, Inkster closed with a 4-under 66 for a two-stroke victory over Sorenstam. It matched the best closing round by a Women's Open champion in the 57-year history.

Inkster said it probably was her best ever considering the stakes, the difficulty of Prairie Dunes and the pressure of Sunday afternoon at a U.S. Open.

At the end of a steamy day, she held the biggest prize in women's golf.

"Twenty-two years ago, I was standing here holding the U.S. Amateur trophy," Inkster said. "Now, I'm holding the U.S. Open trophy. I'm going to have to buy a condo or a house here in Hutchinson."

Thousands of fans who surrounded the 18th green to hear her acceptance speech roared their approval. They had plenty of practice cheering her on throughout the final round.

Fans who watched a 20-year-old newlywed win the Women's Amateur saw an ageless wonder play with a passion unseen this side of Tiger Woods.

She shot her fist toward the gallery with every key putt that fell - eight in the final round - and repeatedly pumped her arms when she holed a 60-foot chip for birdie on the sixth hole for a share of the lead.

"I wish I had half of her intensity," said Shani Waugh, who played with her the final round and had the best seat in the house. "Her passion for the game and for this tournament gave me a lesson today. I found myself rooting for her."

Waugh saw something special in Inkster's mood after an 8-foot birdie on the second hole, a putt that had about a foot of break.

"When Juli birdied the second hole, the look on her face ... I just knew Annika was going to have to shoot under par to win," Waugh said.

There were two other crucial moments. The first came on the practice range, where Inkster plugged away trying to uncover a flaw in her swing that held her back most of the week. She was resigned to playing with whatever game she had in the final round, but the light came on about 15 minutes before she teed off.

"I finally found something that clicked, and my last dozen balls I hit well," she said. "I hit a great shot into No. 1 and a great shot into No. 2, and I felt better."

That was all she needed.

Inkster took only 50 putts on the weekend and never had a three-putt the entire tournament, an amazing performance considering all the humps and contours on greens that were difficult to read.

"Juli must have figured the greens out, especially today," Sorenstam said after a 70 put her at 278, a score that should have been good enough to win.

The other key moment came on the par-3 15th, where Inkster nearly hit her 5-iron up into the grandstand and had to take relief on a barren patch of grass. Behind her, Sorenstam made a 10-foot birdie to cut the lead to one stroke.

Her chip ran 15 feet past the hole and, with Sorenstam watching from the 15th tee while sitting on her bag, Inkster picked the right line and the right speed and made the putt.

"Pretty incredible," Sorenstam said.

Sorenstam came up short with a 6-iron, hit a great chip from thick rough to 4 feet but missed the putt to drop two strokes behind. Another massive roar from the 16th green told Sorenstam that her chances of winning the Open were fading fast.

Inkster holed a 12-footer, and turned in three directions to salute the crowd.

The Women's Open is booked through 2008, and there's no guarantee it will return to Prairie Dunes, so this might have been the last time they saw Inkster.

Unless she buys a second home in Kansas.