Twenty Years Later Juli Inkster Remembers Her Shining Moment At the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open
Sometimes you want it too much. When anything in life crosses the line from aspiration to obsession, more often than not, the thing you desire remains just out of reach. It is not until you focus on the journey, not the destination, that you achieve your goals.
Twenty years ago, in the last year of the 20th century, Juli Inkster didn’t know if she would ever win a U.S. Women’s Open. At age 38, she knew the odds were not in her favor. The last person her age to capture an open was Fay Crocker in 1955 who shot 11 over par to become the first and only Uruguayan to win an American open.
Inkster knew that the days of 11 over winning scores were long gone. The tour was getting younger and stronger. Young women were longer and more determined than ever to go low. But Inkster also knew that if one of the game’s most coveted titles was in her future, 1999 was the time and Old Waverly in West Point, Mississippi was the place.
“I was playing well and I just felt like this one was probably my best shot,” Inkster said.
She’d already won twice that year – the Welch’s/Circle K Championship in Tucson in late March, and the Longs Drugs Challenge in Northern California in early April. But it had been 10 years since she’d won her last major championship, the ANA Inspiration, and 15 years since she’d won her first, also the ANA. Since her rookie year, she’d won LPGA titles from Kent, Washington to Reston Virginia, east and west and points in between. But she had never won in the deep south. Since the USGA has never held a U.S. Women’s Open in Mississippi, 1999 seemed like the perfect time to blaze new trails.
“The golf course set up well for me,” Inkster said. “Even though it was hot I played really well.”
Inkster was a shot back after one round, and tied for the lead after two. What surprised everyone was how low the leaders were going. Granted, the fairways at Old Waverly were more generous than most U.S. Women’s Open venues. But when Inkster and Lori Kane entered the weekend at 10 under, many of the USGA’s traditionalists straightened their backs and said some variation of “what on earth is going on out there?”
On Saturday, Inkster put together her third consecutive round in the 60s to reach 15-under and take a four-shot lead over Kane and Kellie Kuehne into Sunday.
“It was my most nerve-wracking win because I had a big lead on Sunday and I just didn’t want to throw up on myself,” Inkster said. “It’s yours to lose at that point. If you blow it, you’ve choked it away. And at that point, the U.S. Women’s Open was the most important tournament for me. I hadn’t won it. I’d come closer in 1992 and I didn’t get it done. That Saturday was a really sleepless night, I can remember that much.”
On Sunday, rather than focus on outcome, Inkster relied on the things that had gotten her there. “I was driving the ball well and hitting my irons well,” she said. “The first par-5 on Sunday, I had a sliding birdie putt of about 6 feet. And I just told myself, ‘Look, if you’re ever going to win this thing, these are the kinds of putts you have to make.’ I made it and that kind of calmed me down. From then on, I just played steady.
Her lead got down to three at various points but no one got closer.
“I remember on No.7, a par 3, I made a great up-and-down. I’d hit it in a bunker and it was kind of plugged. I felt as though I was leaking oil at that point and things could have gotten away. But I hit a great bunker shot for a gimme. From that point on, I pulled myself together and played well.”
On the back nine, her lead extended to six. That’s when she knew she had it; when he knew that the gremlins of opens past had been eliminated. After winning three U.S. Women’s Amateurs, Inkster would, once again, be a USGA champion.
“I hit two good shots into 17 and almost made birdie,” she said. “Then I hit a good iron into 18 and thought about my kids. They weren’t (in Mississippi) that week. They were 9 and 5 at the time. I remember telling them, ‘I’m bringing home a trophy. I’m bringing home a big trophy.’”
Looking back from the twilight of an extraordinary career, Inkster points to that 1999 open as her brightest highlight. “It’s the one I always wanted,” she said. “A lot of wins were memorable. But this was the one I coveted the most.
“You can go anywhere and say you’re a U.S. Open champion and it carries a lot of credibility,” she said. “I became one that week. It was a very big deal.”