According to the USGA’s website, the Bob Jones Award “recognizes an individual who demonstrates the spirit, personal character and respect for the game exhibited by Jones, winner of nine USGA championships. It is the highest honor bestowed by the USGA.”
This year’s recipient meets all those qualifications and many more.
Juli Inkster is on a short but distinguished list of players who have won three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateurs. Beatrix Hoyt won three in a row before 1900. Alexa Stirling won three between 1914 and 1920 with a two-year break in competition in ’17 and ’18 for World War I. Glenna Collette – who would become Glenna Collette Vare, the Vare Trophy's namesake – captured three in a row from 1928 through 1930, and then Virginia Van Wie did it from 1932 through 1934. In the 98 years since then, only one player has hoisted the Robert Cox Trophy (the oldest and most beautiful trophy in American golf) three times in a row. Juli did it in 1980, 1981 and 1982.
The significance of that achievement might be lost in the avalanche of accomplishments Inkster piled up thereafter – a Hall of Fame career that included 31 LPGA Tour victories and seven professional majors – but it is, as the ever-understated Inkster might say herself, a pretty big deal.
“The USGA is the ultimate governing body of golf,” Inkster said to a small group of journalists before the Bob Jones Award was officially announced. “They always really test you, not only physically, but mentally on the golf course. I got my first case of that playing in the U.S. Amateur. Being able to win three of those…” Her voice trailed off and then she said, “Looking back on my career people ask me, What's your greatest accomplishment? One would be the Solheim Cup captain (she helmed the U.S. squad three times with a 2-1 record). But the other one would be winning three U.S. Amateurs in a row. Winning 18 matches in a row at three different golf courses in three different years is really hard to do.
“So, that's really what I've been most proud of.”
Inkster would, by today’s standards, be considered a late bloomer. She didn’t take up the game until she was 15, following her father, whom she affectionately called “a hack” around Pasatiempo in Northern California. She used an interlocking grip, not because of anything in her own makeup, but because that was what Jack Nicklaus used. And she read everything she could, often picking up books behind her dad to learn about the history of the game.
At her first U.S. Women’s Amateur, she also engaged a little petty larceny. “That was the first time I ever traveled out of California,” she said. “I qualified at 18 for the U.S. (Open) at Country Club of Indianapolis, and I used to play with the golf balls that I found in the canyons at Pasatiempo. I get (to the range at CCI) and (the range balls) are all brand new Titleists. So, I did take a few home with me.”
It was 17 years between Inkster’s last U.S. Women’s Amateur and her next USGA title, the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open at Old Waverly in North Mississippi. She continues to have fond memories of that week. “You get to a point where you think, ‘You know, I'm 38, 39, am I ever going to win a U.S. Open?’” Inkster said. “But I'll never forget driving into Old Waverly, I'm by myself, having a great year, playing really well, and I just told myself, I said, ‘If you're ever going to win an Open, this is the time to do it.’
“On the second hole, par-5, I had about a five-footer for birdie, and I told myself, ‘If you're going to win the Open you’ve got to make these.’ I made that.
“I don't know, I was very calm, very confident in my game. And the course set up well for me.
“But then I think I had a four- or five-shot lead going into the last round and I'm thinking, ‘How can I mess this up?’ Because it is just my tournament to win and my tournament to lose.
“I know I didn't get any sleep that night. I kind of was leaking oil the first seven or eight holes, and then had a little talking to myself and played well really well coming in and ended up winning it.
“It's funny, I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday but little things like that, I just will never forget the talk I had with myself in the parking lot at Old Waverly.”
She would win a second U.S. Women’s Open three years later, her fifth USGA championship.
But that’s not why Inkster is the obvious choice for the Bob Jones Award. She has, for years, been a mentor to up-and-coming players. Whether it is dispensing advice in player dining or scheduling a practice round with someone who needs bucking up, “Momma Jules” has always been there.
“You know, I was competitive on the golf course, but not really competitive with my peers,” she said. “I always wanted to see, especially younger players, succeed.
“Being an LPGA player and traveling on the road is not easy. Especially for a really good collegiate player coming out, sometimes they struggle and lose confidence. If they want help, I help them. If they don't, I kind of stay away.
“I think a lot of people starting out were kind of scared to talk to me because of my reputation as a winner. They wouldn't come up to me. But once they figured out that I'm just a down-to-earth person, then I think more people started to come up to me.”
The USGA caught this one dead solid perfect. No one exemplifies the character and respect for the game better than Juli Inkster. She truly is the Bob Jones of our age.