I landed a great assignment to write an article for the official program of the U.S. Women’s Open Championship when it was held at Prairie Dunes Country Club near Hutchinson, Kan., in 2002. I wrote a profile of Juli Inkster, who had won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at the same golf course in 1980 when she was 20. Since then, she’d become an LPGA Hall of Famer and was 42 years old heading into the event — one of the LPGA Tour’s five major championships.
My assignment felt even more special when Juli ended up winning the tournament! She beat Annika Sörenstam for the $535,000 first prize and became the second-oldest Women’s Open champion (behind Babe Didrikson Zaharias).
So if any athletes heading into a major competition want a little good luck on their side … I’m available for assignments!
Juli Inkster: Supermom, super golfer
The last time Juli Inkster played a golf tournament at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., she didn’t expect to play well. She hadn’t played golf for nearly two weeks; she’d been busying getting married and honeymooning. She returned just in time to play in the 1980 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
The 20-year-old Inkster won the event.
“I just got a little better every day,” said Inkster, who still recalls some of the courses holes and the constant breeze. “I ended up playing with Patti Rizzo on the final day, and I beat her 2-up.”
She returns to Prairie Dunes for the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open at quite a different stage in her career.
In 1980, Inkster had been swinging golf clubs for just five years. She was playing to make a name for herself, getting a feel for how she stacked up against the competition.
That victory in Hutchinson was the first of three consecutive Amateur championships for Inkster, and that streak gave her the confidence to launch a professional career.
After becoming the first woman since 1934 to win three straight Amateur championships, Inkster joined the LPGA Tour full time in 1984. She snagged two majors in her rookie season and went on to win 13 times and three majors in her first six full years on the Tour.
“If you look at my career, you’ll notice I didn’t do much between 1990, the year my first daughter was born, and 1994, the year my second daughter was born,” said Inkster, who lives is Los Altos, Calif., where her husband, Brian, is a head golf pro. “I wasn’t playing very good golf then.”
Inkster, whose mother was a stay-at-home mom, struggled with making time for both raising children and working on her golf game. Her golf game took a back seat to motherhood.
“Then I realized I could do both,” Inkster said. “I rededicated myself, and I worked hard on the golf course, then I went home and I worked hard at being a mom. I just had to come to the realization that I could have a professional golf career and raise two normal kids.”
She figured out a way for everyone to be happy: she chooses to play only in tournaments that allow her time to coach the girls’ basketball teams and takes the family along on the majority of her trips. In fact ,Hayley, 12, and Cori, 8, likely will be in Hutchinson for the U.S. Open.
Her most successful season came in 1999, when she captured five tournament titles. She became only the second woman to complete the modern day Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Women’s Open and, three weeks later, the McDonald’s LPGA Championship. Later in 1999, Inkster qualified to become the 17th LPGA member inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“Being American, it was really neat to win the U.S. Open,” said Inkster, an aggressive player known for her competitiveness. “It’s by far the biggest, most prestigious tournament in the world. Winning the U.S. Open really puts your mind at ease, it’s such a huge accomplishment. And making it into the LPGA Hall of Fame was one of my goals from the beginning of my career.”
Also during the 1999 season, Inkster crossed the $1 million mark in season earnings after only 16 events and became the fastest LPGA player (along with Karrie Webb) to reach that mark in a single season.
Apparently when that motherly guilt went away, her golf game came around. In 2000, one day after turning 40, Inkster became the first repeat McDonald’s LPGA Championship winner in 16 years. Later that year, Working Mother magazine named Inkster one of its “25 Mothers We Love.”
Over the past 20-plus years a lot has changed in Inkster’s life as well as in the world of women’s professional golf. The golfers play on better courses, draw larger crowds, use vastly improved equipment and can win more money. Inkster has stayed competitive through all the changes, and returns to Hutchinson with 26 career victories and a pocket full of majors.
“I have good memories from Hutchinson, I made a lot of friends there,” Inkster said. “I’m looking forward to getting back there.”
At age 42, she has little to prove. But Inkster’s aggressive style of play and trademark competitiveness will have her in the hunt for a second U.S. Open Championship.
“I’ve reached all my goals but I still love playing golf, still love competing,” said Inkster, who plays about 18 tournaments a year. “I play because I want to play, and I still have the game to win. When I don’t, I’ll stop playing.”