Q&A: Two-time U.S. Open champ Juli Inkster

Julie Inkster makes birdie on No. 16 during the final round of the 2002 U.S. Women's Open at Prairie Dunes.
Julie Inkster makes birdie on No. 16 during the final round of the 2002 U.S. Women's Open at Prairie Dunes. ( Getty Images )

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Juli Inkster’s name is synonymous with American golf. The Hall of Famer has won 31 LPGA tournaments, including seven majors – notably the 1999 and 2002 U.S. Women’s Opens. The Open returns next week to Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, where in ’92 Inkster lost in an 18-hole playoff against Patty Sheehan. Inkster, who recently turned 50, talked with Golfweek’s Beth Ann Baldry about her Open experiences:

What is it about the U.S. Open that gets you fired up?

Growing up, it’s every American girl’s dream to win the U.S. Open. It’s the pinnacle of American golf. The courses are set up different. It’s not only the physical challenge; it’s the mental challenge.

What is your favorite Open venue?

I really enjoyed Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan. I won the U.S. (Women’s) Amateur there, too. It had a small-town feel to it, great golf course. I just had good vibes there.

What’s it like playing in a grudge match against Patty Sheehan in that ’92 playoff at Oakmont?

If she wasn’t such a good friend of mine, I probably would’ve gone over and questioned the drop she got on 18. But I didn’t, and I kind of regret that. Patty birdied the last two holes to get in a playoff and then played good in the playoff. She would’ve never made birdie if she had to hit it out of that rough. I took it really hard. You just don’t know how many times you’ll have to win a U.S. Open.

What happened?

We’re going up 17 and we’ve had thunderstorms all around. We’re both in the fairway. It’s kind of a short par 4, and the siren goes off for a rain delay. It was, like, a two-hour rain delay. We come back out, we both hit good shots, Patty birdies and I lip out. I have a one-shot lead going into 18. She hits her drive to the right in the rough and she’s kind of on a downhill lie. She calls a USGA official over and says, ‘I’m taking relief for casual water.’ I don’t know how there could be casual water on a sidehill, but, anyway, she took relief. Her two club lengths got her into the fairway, and from there she hit it on the green. She hit a great shot and a great putt, but I think it made my first (Open) win even sweeter when I did win.

Toughest loss of your career?

Yeah. And I lost the ’92 Dinah Shore that year also, to Dottie Pepper, two good friends. Those friends kill you every time (laughs).

Didn’t you take (Patty) in after an earthquake?

We went to school together (at San Jose State). She was a senior and I was a freshman. She lived over in the Santa Cruz Mountains, on the way over to my parents’ house. We were both at the World Series game in 1989 when the earthquake happened. She wasn’t able to get back over the hill to get to her house, so she stayed at our house for a few days.

Where do you keep your U.S. Open trophies?

I had a replica made. I either keep it at Pasatiempo or Los Altos. And you get the little gold medals. I don’t have a clue where those are.

Tell me about running down Annika Sorenstam with that final-round 66 in 2002 at Prairie Dunes?

It was Annika’s tournament. I think I was 2 or 3 (shots) back starting the day. I was (in a group) ahead of her. I was playing with Shani Waugh, who is a perfect pairing partner for me. I was very relaxed. I really had nothing to lose. I played very aggressive, and it paid off. I went at a lot of pins I probably shouldn’t have and I made some good putts. I chipped in once. Everything worked for me that day.

Once you retire, do you see yourself coming back to play in an Open?

No. They’re just so hard. I don’t think you just come out and play an Open. My last win was 2002, so I’m exempt through 2012. Unless it was at Pebble Beach, I might. Other than that, I’m not really feeling it.

Will you play through ’12?

I can’t answer questions like that. I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow.

What was the most rewarding thing about raising a family while playing?

One, they could see the U.S., see different parts, how people live. The other thing I wanted to instill is that you can have both. You can do what you love to do and have a family, just as long as they are with you. I was very fortunate when I raised my kids. We played mostly domestic, and they came out every week with me.

Does anything stand out?

Haley had a lot of ear infections growing up. It seemed like every week I was at a different pediatrician. Lot of sleepless nights because they were sick. I remember a lot of nights, I didn’t get out of my golf clothes until 10 p.m.

What do you think of the trend of players retiring to start a family?

It’s so different. We travel so much internationally, and it’s not really safe or fair to bring your kids that far. . . . I think you have to have the mentality that if you’re going to raise a family out here, your family comes first and golf comes second. For a top player like Annika or Lorena (Ochoa), I don’t think they could do that. I never had any qualms about it because golf for me was a passion, not a job.

Do you think we’ll ever see another Juli Inkster?

I don’t know. It’s really hard on these moms. I’m sure you will, eventually somewhere. I hope so because I do think it can be done.

Any particular Open shot that sticks out in your mind?

I’ll never forget in Hutchinson, Kan., (in 2002) on the 16th hole I sank about a 25-footer for birdie, and the crowds were huge. Halfway there, I knew it was in, and I think the whole crowd knew it was in. The roar was just deafening.

Do you ever watch any of those events?

You know what? I never watch anything.

Why?

I don’t know. I think that’s why I never had my Hall of Fame party. I’m weird that way. I don’t like people to talk about me. I like to fly under the radar.I just like to do my own thing, be my own person and enjoy what I’m doing.

Amateurs have a great history at the Open, and usually one or two fare well. Any special memories?

I qualified for the Open in 1978 (Indianapolis Country Club) as an amateur. I’ll never forget getting there, and I think my locker was close to Hollis Stacy – just a bunch of big-name people. First of all, I never grew up wanting to be a golf pro. I just kind of fell into playing golf. . . . I remember shooting 80 my first day, which I didn’t think was bad, and then the next three days I shoot 72 and make the cut, shoot 72-73. It was just like, Wow, it’s not that hard. From then on, I was just kind of intrigued by the whole golf thing. I do remember getting to the practice range and seeing all those Titleists. I think I fleeced a few.