Daly City, Calif. – Sitting not far from the podium in the clubhouse at Lake Merced Golf Club, former USGA president Frank “Sandy” Tatum heaped the highest praise on the guest speaker.
“You’ve been a great golfer and at the same time, you’ve had a wonderful marriage and been an effective mother,” said the 91-year-old Tatum during media day for the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship on May 1.
Tatum’s remarks were directed at Juli Inkster, who has been an anomaly for the past decade on the LPGA Tour.
Few women at her stage of life (Inkster will turn 52 on June 24) can still compete against the game’s greatest golfers while raising two daughters, one of whom is about to graduate from college.
Two former world No. 1 players, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, recently retired from the game to start families.
Inkster, who claimed the first of her five USGA championships at the 1980 U.S. Women’s Amateur shortly after marrying Brian Inkster, has managed to balance family life and a competitive professional career to become a Hall of Famer. In nearly 30 years on the LPGA Tour, she has amassed 31 LPGA Tour victories and is one of a handful of players who has captured the career Grand Slam. Inkster’s two U.S. Women’s Open victories came in 1999 and 2002, the second at the same course (Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.) where she won the first of her three consecutive Women’s Amateur crowns.
Inkster’s response to Tatum’s praise? “I don’t know about the wife part.” She was a guest speaker at media day, along with good friend and two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Kay Cockerill.
Inkster’s oldest daughter Hayley is scheduled to graduate in June with a communications degree from Santa Clara University. Cori is planning to enroll at Villanova University in the fall. Neither has developed their mother’s passion for competitive golf, although Cori played on her high school team at St. Francis.
“They play the game, but it’s just not their passion, which I am totally cool with,” said Inkster. “Hopefully they find what they love to do.”
A native of Santa Cruz who now resides in Los Altos, Calif., Inkster has witnessed a transformation in women’s golf since earning LPGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors in 1984. Players have become younger and stronger with much more of a foreign influence, especially from Asia.
And unlike her early career, when most players attended college for four years before turning pro, the current trend has seen more and more young females skipping college altogether and turning pro at 18 or younger. While Inkster isn’t against this philosophy – it has certainly worked for players such as U.S. Women’s Open champions Paula Creamer and Cristie Kerr and now 17-year-old Alexis Thompson (2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion) – she believes college is the perfect time for players to mature mentally as well as physically.
“Going to college is the best way to learn how to make your own decisions,” said Inkster, a former All-American at San Jose State. “You learn how to do your own wash. You learn how to balance a checkbook or whatever you have to do. It’s an invaluable experience that some of these girls are missing. But that’s their prerogative. That’s what they want to do. It’s worked for Paula, [2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion] Morgan Pressel, [San Jose native] Christina Kim and Lexi, but for every one of them, there’s probably five or six who don’t make it.”
Added Cockerill, who walked on at UCLA and became an All-American: “It’s an experience that you have to take. Certainly there are exceptions. Lexi is an example of an exception [of a player] who is handling professional golf pretty well. [But] there’s more than just playing professional golf. There are behind-the-scenes things like dealing with sponsors, pro-ams, media [obligations] and travel.”
Ironically, Cockerill and Inkster never played in the U.S. Girls’ Junior. Both competed in junior golf, but their games didn’t blossom until they entered college. Then again, golf offers so much more for juniors than when Inkster and Cockerill started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, respectively.
“They’re ready to play and they are good,” said Inkster of the younger generation she annually sees while competing on the LPGA Tour. “They have video and [better] equipment and teachers. Their swings are all grooved. I don’t know about Kay, but I didn’t have any of that growing up. I just played. And now it’s a business. They all have an entourage. And once they step out on the golf course, they are ready to win.”
That’s something Inkster can certainly relate to. She has been winning since her amateur days when she claimed three consecutive Women’s Amateur titles from 1980-82, one of five women to do so. Inkster still calls that her greatest accomplishment in the game.
In 1984, her first full season on tour, Inkster claimed two majors – the Kraft Nabisco and du Maurier Classic – and hasn’t slowed down. She completed the career Grand Slam in 1999 by winning both the U.S. Women’s Open and LPGA McDonald’s Championship. She claimed a second Women’s Open title three years later by edging world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam with a brilliant short-game display at Prairie Dunes. She joined the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Carol Semple Thompson in winning two different USGA titles at one venue.
And she’s not done. Inkster, a 2000 World Golf Hall of Fame inductee, hopes to return to competitive golf at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open following elbow surgery in January, the first major injury of her career.
“Juli has always been one of my mentors,” said Cockerill, now a Golf Channel analyst. “Juli was winning when I just started to get involved. Her name was splashed all across the sports pages. She was a kid from Santa Cruz going on to do these amazing things. It was really inspirational to me and other girls in California as well.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.