This story recounting the 1992 U.S. Women’s Open Championship, when Patty Sheehan defeated Juli Inkster in an 18-hole playoff, is the seventh in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, which is hosting its ninth U.S. Open in June.
Sheehan Wins Tense Duel for 1992 U.S. Women's Open Title
April 12, 2016 | Far Hills, N.J.
By Lisa D. Mickey
The 1992 U.S. Women’s Open Championship may forever be remembered for a rain-soaked ruling that ultimately resulted in Patty Sheehan outdueling close friend Juli Inkster in a tense struggle for the title.
The setting was Oakmont Country Club – an always-tough course in suburban Pittsburgh made more difficult by several inches of rainfall that week.
By the closing stages of Sunday’s final round, Inkster led Sheehan by two strokes after the latter three-putted the 70th hole.
A storm suspended play after the two players hit their tee shots on the 71st hole. During the delay, Sheehan, still fuming, tried to calm herself down by watching the Summer Olympics in the clubhouse. She was both distracted and inspired as she watched swimmers Summer Sanders, Janet Evans and Matt Biondi, and track star Carl Lewis capture gold medals for the USA in Barcelona.
“I was still so angry about that three-putt, but I watched them and told myself not to give up,” she said. “I thought, ‘You’re two shots back, but you never know what can happen on the last two holes.’”
And she was right.
When play resumed, Sheehan holed a 12-foot birdie putt to trim Inkster’s lead to one with one hole to play. With the honor at the par-4 72nd hole, Sheehan pushed her drive into the right rough. Inkster followed with a perfect drive into the middle of the fairway.
Sheehan found her ball lying in casual water and called for a ruling. Ann Beard, chairman of the 1992 USGA Women’s Committee, determined that due to the area of casual water in which Sheehan’s ball had landed, the nearest point of relief was in the fairway. While legitimate, Inkster didn’t like the decision.
“Juli was just incensed,” said Sheehan. “My ball was deep in the heavy, wet rough with a crummy lie and now I got to drop back into the fairway, but it was a Rule.”
Sheehan knew she had to take advantage of the opportunity and hit her uphill, 5-iron approach shot to within 18 feet of the hole. That set up a chance for Sheehan to force an 18-hole playoff on Monday.
Inkster still had a chance to claim the championship in regulation, but came up short on her birdie attempt from outside Sheehan’s ball and tapped in for par.
Earlier in the championship, Sheehan had eyed a similar putt on No. 18 by 1980 champion Amy Alcott, and she recalled that Alcott’s ball seemed to turn uphill. So Sheehan played a slight break to the left and made sure to give her putt a solid stroke.
“As soon as the ball got about halfway to the hole, I knew it was going in,” said Sheehan. “And when it dropped, it was the loudest cheer I’d ever heard in a golf tournament.”
A second chance to win a Women’s Open was something Sheehan had wanted ever since she relinquished a 12-stroke lead two years earlier to Betsy King in a soggy, storm-delayed championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. Sheehan was among the many competitors who had to play 36 holes on Sunday, and by the final 18, Sheehan had simply run out of gas.
“I was hungry to win and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” Sheehan said. “When I had a chance again at Oakmont, I didn’t want it to slip away.”
Oakmont had closed its bag storage on Sunday night, so Inkster and Sheehan were forced to take their clubs with them. On Monday morning, when Inkster strolled past Sheehan with her golf bag, Sheehan realized that she had left her clubs at the house where she was staying, 20 minutes away.
“It was Monday morning, there was work traffic and I was driving like Mario Andretti to get my clubs and get back to the course for the playoff,” said Sheehan.
But after the adrenaline rush of retrieving her clubs followed by a 25-minute warmup, Sheehan arrived at the first tee strangely calm and proceeded to birdie the first hole.
Given the unusual 72nd-hole situation, the playoff proved a bit awkward between the former San Jose State University teammates. Sheehan stuck to her plan to keep the ball in play and shot an even-par 72 to win by two strokes.
When the U.S. Women’s Open returned to Oakmont in 2010, Inkster was asked if she had gotten over the ruling 18 years earlier that had allowed Sheehan to drop into the fairway.
“I’ve overcome it,” said Inkster, who went on to add the 1999 and 2002 Women’s Open titles to her three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur championships (1980-82). “It is what it is. She made a great shot after that and she made a great putt.”
Sheehan called it a “conflict of emotions” when she won. Both Inkster and her 3-year-old daughter Hayley were in tears after the playoff.
“I was happy, but it was bittersweet because I beat my good friend,” said Sheehan, a Vermont native who first met Inkster at the California State Women’s Amateur Championship when they were teenagers.
Sheehan had embraced Oakmont’s history that week, and she was proud to finish the championship at 4-under 280, after many predicted that none of the women would break par on the famously punitive course.
“It was a great place for me to win my first Women’s Open and I’m very honored to be among Oakmont’s winners,” said Sheehan, who earned a second Women’s Open title two years later at Indianwood Golf & Country Club in Lake Orion, Mich.
That 1992 U.S. Open was not the last time that Sheehan and Inkster would square off, but it was certainly the most memorable.
“We’ve pushed each other for a long time,” Sheehan said. “But what happened at that Open probably made our friendship stronger because we shared something there that was pretty special.”
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who contributes frequently to USGA websites.