SAMMAMISH, Wa. – Juli Inkster was a confident and competitive young lady when she stepped onto the first tee at the Safeco Classic at Meridian Valley Country Club in Kent, Wa. to begin her fifth tournament as a professional.
She was 23 years old, had a college degree from San Jose State, a golf swing that made her a three-time All-American and first player in 34 years to win three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships.
On Thursday morning at Sahalee Country Club, the soon-to-be (June 24) 56-year-old starts what probably will be her final competitive rounds in the State of Washington, the KMPG Women’s PGA Championship – the 129th LPGA Major of Inkster’s Hall of Fame career.
Following her Pro-Am event on Tuesday afternoon, Inkster took a trip down memory lane and recalled the first of her two Safeco Classic titles.
“I knew I could compete out there and knew I could win,” she said, “but I wasn’t really expecting to win (in) only my fifth (pro) tournament.”
But Inkster did win, coming from “six or seven” shots behind in the final round to overtake Kathy Whitworth – a LPGA Hall of Famer.
“I remember it being a very, very cold day,” Juli recalled. “I shot 71, came from behind and won the tournament. I remember being disappointed in the way I had played in my first four tournaments. I played OK, but I didn’t play great. I just felt that I should be playing better. That win was kind of a spring-board for the next season.”
Since that victory on a very, very cold day in Kent, Inkster has:
* Won 30 more LPGA-sanctioned tournaments.
* Won seven Majors, including two in her 1984 Rookie of the Year season — the first woman player to win two Majors in her first season — and two U.S. Women’s Open titles (1999, 2002).
* Played on nine U.S Solheim Cup Teams, earning more points (18.5) than any U.S. player going into the 2017 event, which will be the non-playing Team Captain.
* The first Solheim Cup “playing assistant captain” in 2011, becoming the oldest player (51 years, 2 months, and 30 days) in the event’s history.
* Inducted into the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame.
“It has been great,” Inkster said of her career. “It is a great occupation and I am proud of what I have accomplished, not only on the course, but raising two kids. I have been very lucky.”
The two kids are daughters, Hayley, 26, and Cori, 22. Both of them know how to play golf, “but that’s not their thing,” mom said. “My husband (Brian) is a club pro (in Los Altos, Calif.) so he still plays.”
The competitive fire that became one of Inkster’s trademarks still burns. But not as fervently.
“I am still competitive,” she said. “I don’t like to play bad, but I don’t take it home with me. I used to take it home with me. I think, you know, being in the Hall of Fame and accomplishing what I have accomplished, I don’t really have anything to prove. I just like to play. I am competitive, but not nearly as competitive as I used to be.”
“She hasn’t changed at all,” said Solheim Cup teammate and friend Stacy Lewis. “She’s still competitive as can be. She’ll still get mad at herself out there because she expects to play like she did 20 years ago.”
But Juli insists there is a cooler, calmer version.
“I enjoy it more now,” she said. “I have a lot more appreciation for the game of golf.”
Inkster, the most experienced (don’t say oldest) golfer in the field this weekend, definitely is among the most respected as well.
“She is a great role model for a lot of us out here,” Lewis said. “When I was 22-23, she was already, uh, established, although she won’t like that word.
“She has played so many years on tour and doing it while raising a family,” she continued. “To have the drive for that long to want to play and keep getting better is amazing. The last few years, after getting married, Juli has been a good source. She’s been there and done that. She has been more than willing to help.”
Ask Paula Creamer about Inkster and there are even more accolades.
“She has always been my role model and someone I have looked up to,” the 29-year-old LPGA star said. “I admire her greatly.”
In fact, Creamer, who grew up in Pleasanton, Calif., not far from Juli’s Santa Cruz, Calif. roots, said the time she carried Inkster’s golf bag during a Solheim Cup match, “was the greatest moment of my life.”
“It was the first time we met, and it must have been in 2001. I was on the Jr. Solheim Cup Team and she was on the real one. We got to watch the big girls play and I got to carry her bag. I’m sure she doesn’t remember it.
“The best part about Juli is what you see is actually what you get,” Creamer said. “She is spicy and tenacious; just a strong woman and an incredible mother.”
And, like the Energizer Bunny, she’s still full of energy.
“It’s been a lot hard work,” Inkster said of her long career,” but very rewarding.”
She is regarded within the LPGA ranks as a “legend” and was selected in 2000 as one of the LPGA’s Top-50 Players and Teachers.
Nothing could be better than experiencing another thrill of victory and as remote as it appears on paper – it has been 10 years since her last win – perhaps this will be the week.
“I think I can,” she said. “I play like 14 or 15 holes good, but my concentration isn’t what it used to be. I don’t know but it probably comes with older age. It’s like I do something and I ask, ‘what did I come here for?’ I can’t remember playing the hole. My focus just isn’t what it used to be. I can remember certain shots, but not a lot.”
But the potential of an Inkster victory offers a small bite of food for thought. Imagine, the Hall of Famer getting her first career win in Kent and the final one in Sammamish — 26.1 miles between golf courses.
If not, well there’s more golf to play and things to do.
“I am doing some work for FOX TV and will be the Solheim Captain (next year) so that keeps me busy,” she said. “It’s not like I am home eating Bonbons, that’s for sure. I’m as busy as I want to be.”