On a bright and sunny June day in the North Carolina Sandhills, Juli Inkster quietly – and gracefully – walked away from the final green of a U.S. Women’s Open for a record 35th and final time.
She had just completed a final-round 75 in the 2014 Women’s Open on Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2, nine strokes higher than her brilliant 4-under-par 66 a day earlier. That 66 was the low round of the championship – equaled by just two other players – and put Inkster into contention for a third Women’s Open title.
It was Inkster’s first sub-70 round in a Women’s Open since 2003, the year that 2014 champion Michelle Wie made her Women’s Open debut at the age of 13, and Inkster’s first 66 since 2002 at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., where she claimed the second of her two titles.
An Inkster win would have made the 53-year-old the oldest champion in Women’s Open history, shattering the mark held by Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who was 43 when she won in 1954. Instead, the World Golf Hall of Famer settled for a share of 15th place, along with 2010 champion Paula Creamer, 2014 LPGA Tour Rookie of the Year Lydia Ko, and fellow major champions Brittany Lincicome and Shanshan Feng.
The vintage performance by five-time USGA champion Inkster was fitting during a championship that proved age is just a number.
In late May, Lucy Li, an 11-year-old from Redwood Shores, Calif. – 16 miles northwest of Inkster’s hometown of Los Altos – made international headlines by becoming the youngest qualifier in Women’s Open history. Li surpassed Lexi Thompson, who was 12 when she competed in 2007, just down the road from Pinehurst at Pine Needles Resort & Lodge in Southern Pines.
Li carded rounds of 74-68 at Half Moon Bay (Calif.) Golf Links’ Old Course to earn medalist honors at her sectional qualifier by a whopping seven strokes. A year earlier, Li became the youngest U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifier, but that achievement didn’t move the social media needle quite as much.
By the time Li arrived at Pinehurst, she was trending on Twitter.
With braces on her teeth and her hair in pigtails, Li looked the part of a typical sixth-grader, but her golf game was anything but elementary. Neither was her demeanor, as she charmed a roomful of reporters in a pre-championship press conference. Mixing humor and humility, Li handled each question with aplomb, often giggling before responding just to remind everyone of her youth.
Li, who two months earlier won her age bracket in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National Golf Club, quieted those who questioned the presence of an 11-year-old in the Women’s Open. She posted a pair of 8-over 78s to miss the 36-hole cut by six strokes, but her score equaled or bettered 34 others in the 154-player field.
“She is so mature for her age,” said 23-year-old Jessica Wallace, one of Li’s fellow competitors. “I had fun talking to her. It’s like talking to another 23-year-old.”
“It’s been a great week. I had a lot of fun,” Li told reporters as she munched on a post-round ice cream bar. “I learned a lot and, yeah, I guess it exceeded my expectations.”
Inkster is old enough to be Li’s grandmother, but the 31-time LPGA Tour winner registered five birdies against one bogey on Saturday to move from a tie for 28th to a tie for third and remind the field that she was still a factor at 53.
For Inkster, who has served as a mentor and inspiration to so many players, there would be no storybook finish. Nevertheless, she clearly illustrated the ageless boundaries of the game. Few sports offer the chance for an 11-year-old and a 53-year-old to compete equitably.
Inkster isn’t completely retiring from competitive golf – she plans to play up to 10 LPGA Tour events in 2015 – but she’s slowly transitioning from the game. In 2015, she will serve as captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup Team after having competed a U.S.-record nine times. And while she won’t play in the U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club in July, she will serve a major role as one of the Fox Sports commentators for the network’s inaugural coverage of USGA championships, primarily the U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Senior Open.
This won’t be Inkster’s first foray into television. She worked five LPGA Tour events for Golf Channel in 2014. She will join fellow major champions Corey Pavin and Greg Norman, as well as PGA Tour winners Brad Faxon and Steve Flesch, on the telecasts.
Where Inkster is likely to be the biggest asset is at the Women’s Open and Women’s Amateur, a championship she claimed three consecutive years (1980-82) during her days as an All-America player at San Jose State.
“It’s always been near and dear to my heart, the one that I have always strived for,” Inkster told the Santa Cruz Sentinel of the Women’s Open. “I’ve been very fortunate to win a couple of them, and I think I can speak from the heart and experience about the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur.”
As fans of all ages have seen, heart is something that Inkster has in great supply.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.