Juli Inkster is a soccer mom with a curious hunger for competition. At 38 she plays basketball in the driveway of her home in Los Altos, Calif., using her elbows to keep the neighborhood stars off the boards. When playing Ping-Pong she forsakes the power game and relies instead on a repertoire of dinks and table-edge shots, driving opponents to distraction. "Juli is an excellent skier," says Laurie Rinker-Graham, her friend and a fellow LPGA player. "Most people go down side to side. Juli goes straight down the mountain. She's fearless."
Inkster found the perfect outlet for her competitive urge last week in West Point, Miss., where she made possum meat of the field at the 54th U.S. Women's Open. While near-tournament-record crowds wandered around Old Waverly Golf Club looking for shade, Inkster cast a historic shadow. She shot a 16-under-par 272, finished five strokes ahead of runner-up Sherri Turner and broke the Open record for lowest score, relative to par, by six shots. At home a resounding win like that probably would have gotten the mother of two daughters, ages nine and five, out of washing the dishes. At Old Waverly it got Inkster a big silver trophy, a check for $315,000 and two more points toward her goal of making the LPGA Hall of Fame. With 24 points, Inkster is tied with three-time player of the year Annika Sorenstam at three shy of enshrinement.
"Sometimes I think she doesn't have a nerve in her body," says her husband, Brian, head pro at Los Altos Country Club. "She is relentless, focused and never gives up."
As is the case with most lopsided victories, Inkster's was dramatic only in a broader context. Seven years ago, at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh, she lost the Open to Patty Sheehan in a Monday playoff after Sheehan waited out a Sunday rain delay to birdie the last two holes. In the years that followed, Inkster saw her game slide toward mediocrity, dulled by the fulfilling but enervating responsibilities of motherhood. It wasn't until 1997 that she decided she could recommit to golf without harming her children. "I was kind of straddling the fence," she said last week. "Do I quit? Do I play? Do I quit? And if I'm going to do this, I've got to start working on my game."
That work, with swing coach Mike McGetrick, paid quick dividends. Inkster finished sixth on the LPGA money list in 1997 and '98, topping a half million in earnings both years, played on last year's victorious U.S. Solheim Cup team and came to Mississippi as the tour's third-leading money winner in '99, having won twice already this season. "Prechildren she was a wonderful golfer," her husband said on Sunday, "but I think she is a better player today." Almost sheepishly he added, "I didn't think it was doable. I never thought she would be able to focus enough to be a great player again."
If there were doubts about Inkster—and there weren't many—there was outright skepticism about the venue. Old Waverly is a kind of mirage in the woods of northern Mississippi. A neoclassical clubhouse of exquisite design stands on a hill above four lakes, a twisting creek and a golf course good enough to make the top 100 lists. The recognition is significant to Mississippians, who often see their state ranked near the bottom nationally in literacy, public health, per capita income and Starbucks per market area.
The Women's Open offered Mississippians a chance to showcase their state, and they put on a good show. Visitors to the so-called Golden Triangle of Starkville, West Point and Columbus were likely to run into footballers Archie Manning and Brett Favre, author Willie Morris, any of three former Miss Americas—or, if they were out past midnight, the ghost of bluesman Howlin' Wolf, who hailed from West Point. Meanwhile, broadcasters and newspapers from Tupelo to Hattiesburg promoted the tournament as if it were a newly discovered novel by William Faulkner. The owner of a Pizza Hut in West Point, robbed at gunpoint, went on television wearing a Women's Open cap.
Half the fun was watching Mississippi, the most parochial state this side of Arkansas, entertain the polyglot, multicultural traveling circus that is women's golf. Koreans in catfish joints? Swedes eating barbecue? Those sights may not cause heads to turn in Atlanta or Memphis, but Mississippians gawked at the visitors and treated them like royalty.
But if the livin' was easy, the scorin' was even easier. Young Kelli Kuehne, fresh off her first LPGA victory, in Corning, N.Y., tied the tournament record, in relation to par, for an opening round by firing a 64 over the 6,400-yard, par-72 course. The next day two more players shot 64—Lorie Kane and Becky Iverson—and the field turned Old Waverly into Old Wavering, putting up an astounding 62 subpar rounds. The two-round total of 105 rounds under par broke the four-day record of 89 set at Crooked Stick in 1993, and the final tally of 137 subpar rounds exceeded the number of times John Daly has withdrawn from tournaments. Inkster needed only 45 holes to get to 14 under, lower than any player had gone in the Open's history.
Whenever scores are low at an Open, there are two questions to answer: why and why not? Old Waverly played soft because it was soft—rains early in the week took the starch out of the greens and fairways—and because unseasonably cool spring nights had inhibited the growth of the rough. What's more, there was little wind last week, making it easier for players to stay out of Old Waverly's water hazards.