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Alan Shipnuck
July 05, 1999
With a closing kick for the ages, Juli Inkster completed a career Grand Slam and closed in on a bigger prize
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July 05, 1999

A Slam-bam Finish

With a closing kick for the ages, Juli Inkster completed a career Grand Slam and closed in on a bigger prize

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There were so many unexpected developments at last week's McDonald's LPGA Championship that in the end only one thing made any sense: Juli Inkster had won again. With a decisive eagle at the 16th hole on Sunday, Inkster became only the second woman, along with Pat Bradley, to win the four tournaments that make up the modern Grand Slam. (She won the Nabisco Dinah Shore in 1984 and '89, the U.S. Open last month and the du Maurier in '84.) Her fourth victory of this season also pushed her to the brink of the LPGA's Hall of Fame.

Inkster's spectacular play on Sunday—her airtight six-under-par 65 deserves a place in the pantheon of great final rounds in major-championship history—was a much needed return to golf in a week full of melodrama. Beginning last Thursday at Du Pont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., the news flew fast and furious, starting with the withdrawal of a limping legend, then moving on to a stunning breakup and a faltering superstar, and finally ending with the stage debut of the Punky and Boomer Show, starring a couple of precocious kids who may one day take over the LPGA. Said Nancy Scranton, the third-round coleader who was trying to win for the first time since losing both of her parents to terminal illnesses and having reconstructive shoulder surgery within the span of a year, "This wasn't a tournament, it was a miniseries."

If so, Inkster was a dashing leading lady. Three weeks ago she won the U.S. Open, in the process reinventing herself—the way Mark O'Meara did a year ago—as a late-blooming star. Inkster turned 39 on the day of the LPGA Championship's first round, and she celebrated with a 68. Ensuing rounds of 66 and 69 earned her a share of the lead, but it wasn't until the back nine on Sunday that Inkster began to assert herself.

After clutch up and downs at the 13th and 14th holes, she came to the 465-yard par-5 16th still tied with Scranton and a hard-charging Liselotte Neumann. After a perfect drive Inkster was striding to her ball when she spied, for the first time all day, her two daughters, Hayley, 9, and Cori, 5, who had been sequestered in the clubhouse due to the oppressive 88° heat. Golf's most cutthroat mom gave the girls a wink and then crushed a five-wood from 232 yards that settled 18 feet from the hole, "a career shot" in Inkster's estimation. She banged the putt into the back of the hole for her eagle, did a little celebratory fist pumping, then ended any further suspense by sticking an eight-iron to five feet on the par-3 17th for a birdie.

With her playing partner and best friend, Meg Mallon, already tearing up, Inkster hit two textbook shots on the final hole and then made one last audacious birdie, a 20-footer that sent her into what her husband, Brian, charitably described as "a little twist combo thing," the kind of joyful boogie that is fast becoming her trademark. Inkster finished at 16 under par, one short of Betsy King's tournament record and four in front of Neumann, all of that cushion courtesy of her finishing kick. "I don't know what came over me," Inkster said. "All of a sudden the ball just wouldn't stay out of the hole."

Under the points system the LPGA adopted this year for enshrinement in its Hall of Fame, Inkster earned two points for a victory in a major championship, giving her 26 for her 17-year career, one shy of the total needed for automatic entry. There are three ways to make that last agonizing point and become the 17th player inducted (alongside the likes of Nancy Lopez, who was a last-minute withdrawal from the tournament due to torn cartilage in her right knee, which she had surgically repaired last Thursday): win a regular tour event; win the player of the year award (Inkster is first in the point standings, a nose ahead of Karrie Webb); or win the Vare Trophy for low scoring average (her 69.54 is second to Webb's 68.92). "To have won the slam is unfathomable right now," Inkster said. "To be so close to the Hall of Fame is also pretty hard to comprehend. I distinctly remember when they said they were going to change the criteria, I was slowly adding up my points, and I thought, God, I'm still seven away. I don't know if I can do that. Now, six months later, I'm only a point away. It's unbelievable."

No doubt Annika Sorenstam is also in a state of disbelief. Who would have thought that Inkster might beat her to the magic number of 27? From the start of 1995, Sorenstam's second year on tour, through last season, the 28-year-old Swede amassed 24 Hall of Fame points. So far 1999 has been a pointless year. Sorenstam has three runner-up finishes as well as five other top 10s, but she has shown an uncharacteristic fragility on Sundays.

Adding to Sorenstam's frustration has been the dominant play of Webb, her twentysomething rival. Sorenstam's husband, David Esch, once confided that during off weeks the hypercompetitive Sorenstam religiously monitors Webb's scores and their respective positions on the money list and in the Vare and player of the year standings. Webb struggled at the LPGA Championship. During a week of record scoring, she shot an inexplicable 72-72 and missed the cut for the first time in 32 starts. With her mirrored shades and robotic demeanor, Webb is often described as the David Duval of the women's game, and it will be interesting to see which of these mighty talents will be the first to solve the riddle of the major championships.

Her rival's off week brought Sorenstam little relief, though. After opening with a two-over 73, Sorenstam asked Colin Cann, her caddie since her days on the European tour in the early '90s, to meet her on the practice green, where it was agreed that both might benefit from seeing other people. The news of the breakup spread like a juicy rumor through a high school hallway, and over the next 24 hours a half-dozen caddies cozied up to Sorenstam, hoping to win her hand. The most persistent suitor was Jason Hamilton, whose boss, Lisa Hackney, shot 78-68 to miss her 13th cut in 17 starts this year. On Friday morning Hamilton left a flowery note in Sorenstam's locker expressing his ardor, and he was waiting behind the 18th green for Sorenstam and her stand-in looper, Esch, at the completion of her 68 that afternoon. Sorenstam had two options, a restraining order or a job offer, and she chose the latter. Hamilton was packing for Sorenstam on the weekend when she added two more 68s to move up to 16th place. "I needed to shake things up," Sorenstam said, adding that Cann may or may not return sometime in the future.

Calculated actions have been the hallmark of Sorenstam's success, and she was asked if the impulsive midtournament firing of her caddie could be considered an act of desperation. "I really don't care," she said. "That's a funny way of looking at it, though."

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