"GOLF IS A STUPID GAME," Juli Inkster remarked last Friday afternoon as shadows lengthened over the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "You tee up this little ball, really this tiny ball. Then you hit it, try to find it, hit it. And the goal is to get it into a little hole placed in a hard spot." She plopped a Titleist into a soft-drink cup to illustrate golf's perverse nature, then said, "No one has ever conquered this game. One week out there and you are God, next time you are the devil. But it does keep you coming back."
Inkster knows whereof she speaks. Before last week's Nabisco Dinah Shore, the crown jewel of women's golf, her performance in 1989 clearly had been the work of the devil: In four tournaments, the 28-year-old Inkster finished 34th, 41st, 19th and 37th, and she missed the cut in a fifth. Her least embarrassing performance came at the Oldsmobile LPGA Classic in Boca Raton, Fla., which she skipped. In truth, she wasn't playing as well as her miserable record would indicate. Three weeks ago she shot a horrendous 81 in Tucson, and her putting was ghastly. To top it off, she arrived in Rancho Mirage with a cold.
No wonder one onlooker, seeing Inkster on Sunday, inquired, "Who's that?"
"Somebody named Inkster," replied a friend.
"How do you say it?"
With admiration—now. For at the Dinah Shore. Inkster shot a 66 in the first round, six under par, which put her in a perfect position to bury her opponents. She did that with subsequent rounds of 69-73-71 for a 279, nine under par. Tammie Green and sentimental favorite JoAnne Carner, who turns 50 this week and who hasn't won a tournament since 1985, tied for second five shots back. Neither mounted a challenge of any substance. In achieving her impressive wire-to-wire victory, Inkster made Mission Hills her private playground. "Plus she has great legs," said Dinah Shore, the ageless doyenne of the event.
Inkster's success is bad news for the rest of the golfers on the LPGA tour. The book on her has been that she is at the very top in talent, but that inconsistent play has kept her out of sentences containing names like Lopez, Stephenson and King. Last week may be looked back on as the time Inkster truly arrived. It's true that the Dinah Shore was her 12th victory since she joined the LPGA tour in 1983, but the previous 11 went largely unnoticed.
That's mostly because, while her putting has usually earned high marks, her play with the other clubs has often held her back. Until the Dinah Shore, which Inkster also won as a rookie—though that victory had the air of beginner's luck about it—there were whispers that she was somehow winning tournaments with only half a game. After last season she worked hard to improve the other half, and then her putting fell off. But at Mission Hills her game came together. "I played just great." said Inkster.
A key reason for her dramatic improvement was, ironically, a new putter. In Phoenix a fortnight ago, she became so exasperated with her Arnold Palmer Personal putter, which she had used for 11 years, that she switched to a Ping. "I never blame my equipment," says Inkster, "but I kept missing three-and four-foot putts. So I told myself, Hey, you have got to make a change. I didn't get rid of my old putter. I just put it on probation."
For now, she's getting much better behavior from the Ping. According to her husband, Brian, the pro at Los Altos Country Club, 45 miles south of San Francisco, she was not getting lined up properly for her putts with the old putter. A common malady, of course, but a desperate situation for a golfer who generally lives off her putting prowess. No wonder Inkster had groused on Thursday, "The key to my game is putting, and I'm really struggling with that." Brian, who has been teaching her since 1976, says, "She would line up, then keep adjusting her hands. What she had to do was just get lined up and hit it." The new putter, which has a heal-toe weighted head and a thin line on top to make it easier to line up putts, helped correct that problem and win her the Dinah Shore. Of course, Inkster's hands also had something to do with the victory.