I don't think I give myself enough credit," Juli Inkster was saying on Sunday night, following her victory at the McDonald's LPGA Championship, and she knows that others have sold her short too. Inkster had the poor timing to arrive on the scene in the early '80s, during the heyday of glamour girls such as Nancy Lopez and Jan Stephenson, and she had rather stubbornly begun to play her best golf in the late '90s, just in time to get overshadowed by Karrie Webb. Over that span Inkster—who turned 40 last Saturday—has quietly turned into a player for the ages. With her successful defense at the McDonald's, she has now supersized her r�sum� to include six major championships, as many as any active player. In fact, only a celestial fivesome can claim more majors than Inkster: Patty Berg (15), Mickey Wright (13), Louise Suggs (11), Babe Zaharias (10) and Betsy Rawls (8). Still, recognition has been so slow to come to Inkster that even she has a hard time believing her dizzying accomplishments. "It makes my head spin," she says. "What happened last year still makes it spin."
Like Mark O'Meara before her, Inkster in 1999 reinvented herself as a late-blooming superstar, winning five tournaments, including the U.S. Women's Open, and kicking down the door to the Hall of Fame. O'Meara, like a lot of other golfers who reach the pinnacle late in life, was content to cash in and check out, but this year Inkster has come back better than ever. Despite having played in only 10 events coming into the LPGA Championship, she had a victory (her 23rd), three seconds and a pair of thirds. When someone intimated early last week that she might be over the hill, Inkster shot back, "I'm on top of the hill—and it's a long plateau."
What makes Inkster's game so timeless is not any new-school pyrotechnics, but the kind of golf that never goes out of style—eerily consistent ball striking, steady putting and a knack for never beating herself. She was thoroughly tested at this LPGA Championship by a setup that would have done the USGA proud. Last year Inkster scorched the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., to the tune of 16 under, a stroke shy of the tournament record. A new superintendent was brought in, and DuPont suddenly grew some fangs in the form of gnarly four-inch rough and greens that were as hard as granite countertops. Par was a good score, which is why Inkster didn't panic after opening 72-69 (one under on the 6,408-yard par-71 layout). That left her in a three-way tie for ninth, five back of Laura Davies, who had been nearly flawless in overpowering what she calls her favorite course on tour. Inkster knew that DuPont would be even more difficult on the weekend, but she figured she would play better. Having teed it up in only two events since mid-May, she was struggling to find the rhythm and timing on her unorthodox but highly effective swing.
For a 40th birthday, Saturday was as pleasant a day as could be hoped for. Inkster finally found her swing, hitting 17 greens and shooting a 65, the low round of the week. Afterward she was presented with a cake and a huge bouquet of balloons and was serenaded by the fans around the 18th green. The icing was that Inkster, at seven under, had moved into a tie for the lead with Wendy Ward, a 27-year-old Texan with a sweet drawl, a long, solid swing and the look of someone ready for a career break-through. Ward has idolized Inkster since Ward reached the LPGA tour in 1996, and they now share a coach ( Mike McGetrick), along with frequent practice rounds. Of Inkster's surge up the leader board, Ward said, "We expect Juli to do things like that. She's probably the most competitive person you'll meet out here."
Inkster so dotes on her two daughters that this spring she took six weeks off in large part to coach 10-year-old Hayley's basketball team. Beneath the soccer mom veneer, though, is a cutthroat closer: Heading into Wilmington, she had turned her last five third-round leads into victories.
Sunday brought a stiff, swirling wind and ballooning scores. Inkster played the front nine in one over, making the turn tied with Ward and Nancy Scranton. Lurking on the leader board was Webb, bidding for her own piece of history. At the season's first major championship, March's Nabisco Championship, Webb had the eye of the Tiger, devouring the field by a tournament-record 10 strokes. She had also won the major before that, the du Maurier Classic last fall, so Webb rode into Wilmington hell-bent on becoming the fourth woman to win three consecutive majors, joining Pat Bradley (1985-86), Wright ('61-62), and Zaharias ('50). "I have built my whole year around the majors," Webb said before the tournament.
Winless in five tournaments since the Nabisco, she began the LPGA Championship fighting her swing. She hit only 10 greens during the first round and had to scramble for a 72. On Friday she struck the ball with more authority, but 33 putts doomed her to a 70. Webb sneaked into contention with a 69 on Saturday, and with birdies on the 3rd and 4th holes of the final round she moved to four under, three back of the leaders. Though she was sitting on what would have been the winning score, Webb couldn't hold her game together. Her demise began with a bogey on the eminently birdieable par-5 9th, and a homely double at the 16th ended her chances at victory. She shot a final-round 73 to finish ninth and afterward was surly in the face of routine questioning, keeping at least one of her streaks alive.
With Webb out of the picture, the rest of the contenders were left to duke it out on the back nine, and what followed was not exactly an infomercial for the quality of play on the LPGA tour. The top four players heading into the final round collectively shot 13 over par on the back side on Sunday. This included a skanked three-wood by Scranton that never got higher than knee level and led to a double bogey. Ward, who had been swinging beautifully all week, developed a terminal case of the hooksies, bogeying 10 and 11 and then, at the par-3 13th, taking a killing double bogey. After yanking a four-iron into the bunker and blasting on, Ward was addressing an eight-foot putt for par when, following a quick glance toward the hole, she looked back at her ball and could no longer see the logo, which she always places face up. "It wasn't me that moved the ball," Ward said. "It was a matter of the ball just not having time to settle. You do your best to set the silly thing down right, and you think it's going to stay put." Though no one else noticed the infraction, Ward, who was playing in the final pairing in a major for the first time, summoned an official, was assessed a one-stroke penalty and then, understandably rattled, missed the ensuing putt to make the 5.
Inkster, by virtue of four straight pars on the back nine, was three strokes up but, proving that Sunday's dispiriting play was contagious, promptly clanged two approach shots off the same tree on the par-4 14th hole. That led to a double bogey that sliced her lead to one, over Ward and Stefania Croce, a 30-year-old Italian journeywoman who was already in the clubhouse, having shot a 68, which tied for the low round of the day.
Nothing had changed when the final twosome reached the 72nd hole. Ward missed the fairway, missed the green and then missed a 15-footer for par, dooming herself to a lifetime of nightmares featuring an oscillating ball. Inkster's shot out of a greenside bunker ended up within eight feet of the pin, leaving herself a putt for par and the victory. Improbably, she blew the putt, and Croce, a charming character heretofore known mostly for the Continental flair of her wardrobe, was suddenly in a major championship playoff. The ending was predictable—Inkster made two textbook pars, biding her time until Croce cracked. She complied by flying the green of the second playoff hole and failing to get up and down.