2002: Splendid short game secures Inkster’s title

Hutchinson, Kan.

So much for the usual fairways-and-greens formula that produces U.S. Open titles. Of the 69 players who played on the weekend at Prairie Dunes, Juli Inkster ranked 56th in driving accuracy and 13th in greens in regulation, hitting more than 11 greens only once in four rounds.

So, how on earth did Inkster prevail at the 57th U.S. Women’s Open? Simple. Look no further than the shortest clubs in her golf bag. She was magnificent with her 52-degree and 60-degree Titleist Vokey wedges, getting up-and-down time and time again from greenside predicaments. And she was even more magical with her Odyssey White Hot 2-Ball putter.

Otherwise, Inkster might have been relegated to the role of bit player at the Open – shooting higher scores when her ball-striking was not sharp in Rounds 2-3 – and not the golfer still in the best position to catch the normally uncatchable Annika Sorenstam on Sunday.

Inkster led the field in putting with 105 putts, averaging 26.3 putts per round. Consider the fact that Sorenstam, the runner-up, had 123 putts (30.8) over 72 holes. More significantly, on the weekend, Inkster needed only 50 putts – 12 fewer than Sorenstam.

How important was putting? Se Ri Pak, who hit the ball solidly for four rounds – ranking first in driving distance (274.8), fourth in driving accuracy (49 of 56 fairways) and second in greens in regulation (averaging 13.3 per round) – had 130 putts, three-putting seven times in the first two rounds. Inkster, who struggled with her putting earlier in the season, did not have a three-putt the entire tournament.

The greens at Prairie Dunes, a stately course conceived by architect Perry Maxwell (nine holes opened in 1937) and later completed in the 1950s by his son, Press Maxwell, feature the famed Maxwell rolls, and nobody negotiated the tricky undulations better than Inkster.

The greens were nothing like the linoleum-like surfaces at Bethpage Black in New York for the U.S. Open, which were running more than 14 on the Stimpmeter. The greens at Prairie Dunes ran about 9.5-10.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t just that Inkster and caddie Greg Johnston had the lines figured out. Inkster’s speed was nearly flawless.

“The speed was great,” she said. “All my putts were right around the hole. . . . That’s what helped me. When your speed is good, it makes the hole bigger.”

Sorenstam, meanwhile, struggled with the pace of the greens on the back nine in her opening round, three-putting Nos. 12 and 14 in a rare three-bogey stretch. That stretch of holes – the 363-yard 12th, which calls for an approach through a skinny chute of cottonwoods; the brutish 387-yard 13th; and the dogleg-left, short-but-sneaky, 342-yard 14th – troubled Sorenstam throughout the week. She played those holes 5 over while Inkster played those same holes four strokes better over four days. In a tournament decided by two shots, that was significant.

Players looking to shoot in the red numbers at Prairie Dunes needed to take advantage on the first seven holes, and that’s what Inkster did in the fourth round, making three birdies. From No. 8 on, the course is a real bear. Of the five players who went to the back nine with any realistic shot at victory Sunday – Inkster, Sorenstam, Shani Waugh, Jill McGill and the red-hot Raquel Carriedo – only one was able to play the back nine under par in any single round.

Who was the player? Inkster, of course, who shot 1-under 34 Sunday, then hoisted the U.S. Women’s Open trophy above her head. On a course that tested every facet of one’s game, Inkster may not have hit the ball the crispest, but she certainly showed the best short game, and her intensity and focus put her over the top.

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