Prairie Dunes has been kind to Juli Inkster, and she appreciates it.
For the second time in 22 years, Inkster won a USGA championship on the fabled Hutchinson course, securing the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open Sunday and the $535,000 first prize that goes along with it.
"Almost 20 years ago I was standing here holding the U.S. [Women’s] Amateur trophy. Now I’m holding the Women’s Open trophy. I have to buy a house or a condo here," said the 42-year-old Inkster, who won the 1980 Women’s Amateur here as Juli Simpson Inkster. Simpson was her maiden name.
In a final round that surely didn’t lack emotion, or drama, Inkster charged past Sorenstam with a 4-under-par 66 for an overall 4-under 276 to beat Sorenstam by two strokes. They were the only two players under par for the championship. In the process, Inkster tied a Women’s Open record for lowest score by a champion in a final round, held by Pat Bradley (1980) and Sorenstam (1996).
It was sweet reversal for Inkster. Last week, at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, it was Sorenstam who overcame Inkster’s three-shot lead on the final day to win the 54-hole tournament.
"You guys were probably betting money that Annika would win. That’s a tough position to be in," said Inkster of Sorenstam’s lead.
Said Sorenstam: "She really outplayed me. I gave it my all. … I think in a major championship a lead is never comfortable."
Inkster became the second-oldest Women’s Open champion, only behind Mildred Didrickson "Babe" Zaharias. She is the first female player past 40 to win since Fay Crocker in 1955. The last American to win was Inkster in 1999 at Old Waverly.
As she made the walk up No. 18, she twirled her visor to the gallery’s chants of ‘U.S.A! U.S.A!’. When she dropped in the final putt for par, Inkster hugged her caddie, playing partner Shani Waugh and met husband Brian Inkster for a long embrace. "There was so much adrenaline there," said Inkster.
Inkster couldn’t celebrate entirely because Sorenstam (three birdies and three bogeys), playing in the final group after beginning Sunday with a two-stroke advantage, still had to complete the final hole two shots behind. When Sorenstam’s approach missed the hole wide left an eagle, an ecstatic Inkster punched in her parent’s number on a cell phone.
"That was unreal," said a tearful Brian Inkster, who also serves as her golf instructor. "I had never seen her play better than today. That was pure guts."
Indeed it was.
Coming into Sunday, Inkster had been unsure about her swing and said a low round under par would be needed to
topple the normally unswerving Sorenstam. This past week, Inkster stayed in contention mostly because of her short iron game. She wasn’t hitting many fairways – just a tad over 60 percent through three rounds.
If she were to win, she’d have to drive the ball more accurately.
Fifteen minutes before teeing off Sunday, Inkster discovered something on the range that made her feel comfortable. On her last dozen balls, "something clicked." It clicked so well that she nailed 86 percent of the fairways, setting up each of her five birdies.
"I found my swing," she said, drawing a laugh. "It made the day a lot easier. Under the pressure, I did everything well today."
Inkster pulled within a stroke with a birdie on the second hole.
"When she birdied the second hole, the look on her face; I knew Annika would have to shoot under par," said Waugh, who shot 2-over 72 and 3 over for the championship.
Four holes later, on No. 6, a 372-yard par 4 dogleg left, Inkster tied Sorenstam. Landing in the first cut of rough off her drive, Inkster grabbed a pitching wedge and came up 65 short, right of the hole off the green. No problem. Not getting under the ball too much, her chip hit once and broke right and came back – until falling in line and disappearing into the hole.
She pumped her right fist. A phoenix was rising.
"It’s a shot hole that you’re thinking you don’t get too many chances for birdie, so you’re thinking birdie, and when I hit it in the rough, now I’m thinking par," said Inkster. "It was huge. Any time you make a birdie it’s huge, but to make birdie from the rough, it was huge."
After trading birdies on No. 7 to remain tied, Sorenstam blinked first. At 412-yard par-4 8th, Sorenstam’s approach landed well short, to the side of the elevated green. She got up and down, but two-putted from 12 feet to card a bogey.
The lead was Inkster’s and she would never relinquish it.
Inkster fell to 4 under when she drained a downhill 8-footer on No. 11. She casually pumped her fist.
On No. 12, Sorenstam and Jill McGill (8-over 78) were put on the clock for slow
play. It was an extra element to battle.
"It’s always a little bit extra tension when you got an official right behind your back counting your seconds when you’re trying to think about the wind and your shots," said Sorenstam.
After using a 5 iron to drive well left of the 175-yard par-3 15th, only inches away from a plastic wire covering, Inkster was aware Sorenstam was putting on No. 14, which could be seen from a distance. Waugh saw Sorenstam hit for birdie but displayed little emotion, believing it would have disrupted Inkster’s concentration.
Instead of collapsing, Inkster chipped 11 feet past the hole and knocked in the putt to a "Whew!" and animated right fist pump. Even if it was only for par, it was a critical moment in the championship.
"I didn’t know Annika birdied 14," said Inkster. "I figured I needed to hit for par to keep the lead."
The next sequence of events all but secured the title. Sorenstam, on No. 15, again had to get up and down to save par. This time her ball had a horrible lie. But she chipped up and the ball rested 3 feet from the hole. Then she missed the putt to fall back to 2 under.
"I figured, ‘I got four more holes, I can birdie all four and I need some help,’" said Sorenstam.
In the meantime, Inkster’s approach with a 7 iron stopped 21 feet short of the left-centered flagstick on No. 16. Surveying the line several times, she tapped it in to go 5 under. Once the ball dropped, she gave four hard right fist pumps, adding more authority to each one.
"She’s a world-class fist-pumper," said Waugh. "She kept apologizing to me. She kept apologizing for inciting the crowd after her chip on 6."
"It was electrifying," said Inkster, who took just 25 putts in each of the last two rounds.
Taking a last stab, Sorenstam birdied No. 17 to get to within two. By then, it was too late.
"I think I made one bad swing, and that was at 16," said Sorenstam, of an 8 iron
chip that led to a two-putt for bogey and knocked her back to 1 under. "I told my caddie, ‘That was a tired swing.’"
Nearly an hour after turning in her card, Inkster was left to reflect on the importance of the championship. She won the Women’s Amateur three years in a row, from 1980-1982. Ten years later she would lose a heartbreaking playoff to Patty Sheehan by one stroke in the 1992 Women’s Open. It wasn’t until 1999 she would know what winning would feel like.
For the LPGA Hall of Famer, picking one over another is difficult to do.
"It’s hard to believe 22 years has passed, but I would still say probably my greatest accomplishment is winning those three U.S. Amateurs in a row because it’s so hard to do," said Inkster. "As far as overall, I would say [this Open victory] is up there. As far as the pressure and the conditions and what was at stake, I would say it’s probably No. 1. It is right now."