When the best women golfers in the world tee it up July 4-7 at the U.S. Women’s Open, most eyes will be focused on the so-called Big Three of women’s golf: Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak. After all, the trio has combined to win 58 titles and 11 majors since 1998.
But don’t overlook Juli Inkster, the wily veteran who is a not-too-distant fourth. The LPGA Hall of Famer has 11 victories and three majors since ’98 and is heading back to Prairie Dunes Country Club, site of the first of her three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur victories.
It was August 1980, Inkster had been married for two weeks and hadn’t practiced in longer than that. She arrived in Hutchinson, Kan., with a rusty game and low expectations. Six days later, Inkster was a surprise champion, beating Carol Semple Thompson, 2 and 1, in the semifinals and Patti Rizzo, 2 up, to win the championship.
“I know (Rizzo) thought she was going to beat me,” Inkster said. “I came out of nowhere to win that thing. No one expected me to win there.”
Inkster, 42, hasn’t been back to Prairie Dunes since, and much has changed since her previous visit. This time she’s returning with nearly 22 years of marriage under her belt (husband Brian is a golf professional), two daughters (Hayley Carole, 12, and Cori Simpson, 8), 27 professional victories and six major championships.
“I’m looking forward to going back,” Inkster said. “It’s a great match play golf course and it will be interesting playing stroke play. I’m sure it’s going to play firm and fast, and like any Open, the premium is on getting the ball in the fairway.”
Inkster knows she still has the game to win another Open. She won the event in 1999 at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss., and already has a victory this year at the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship. At the two previous majors this season, Inkster tied for 19th at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March and tied for fourth at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship earlier this month.
Karrie Webb won the 2000 Women’s Open at The Merit Club in Gurnee, Ill., and repeated last year at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C. She will come into this year’s Open on a high note. She earned her first 2002 victory June 23 at the Wegmans Rochester LPGA.