It had been nearly three years since Juli Inkster won a tournament, and she wasn’t getting any younger.
The LPGA Tour, on the other hand, was becoming a teenage hangout. The younger they were, the better they played, so what could a 45-year-old mother of two with swing problems do but gracefully accept the inevitable?
Here’s what Inkster did: She worked harder this past winter than she had in years. She got into the best shape of her life. She told herself she could win again and on Sunday, she did just that, capturing the Safeway International by two strokes over Sarah Lee. Headline idea: This was one for the aged.
“We’ve got a lot of good young Americans coming,” Inkster said. “But we have a couple of good, old Americans, too.”
Sunday was a day to get in some warm pajamas, turn on the television and watch the NCAA tournament. The final round began with a hailstorm. Temperatures dipped into the low 40s and play was delayed for 1 hour, 53 minutes.
What did Inkster do to pass the time?
She got in some warm pajamas, turned on the television and watched the NCAA tournament.
“Kansas killed me,” Inkster said. “I had them going a long way.”
If there was anybody on the leader board who could thrive in the miserable conditions, it was Inkster. This is her 24th year on Tour. She’s won six major championships and is a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Lee, meanwhile, was 0-for-90 in her brief career, and 19-year-old Aree Song, who started the day in second place, had yet to translate her enormous talent into a victory.
The question was whether Inkster’s revamped swing would hold up under pressure. It’s a gamble, to overhaul a swing so late in a career. But Inkster felt she had no choice.
“I couldn’t keep playing the way I was playing. It was driving me crazy,” said Inkster, who dropped to 24th on the money list in 2005, her worst showing in a decade. “I couldn’t repeat my swing four days in a row.”
Inkster took just one week off in December rather than the whole month, as was her custom. By late January — and the start of the LPGA season — she was convinced she could win again.
On Sunday, she was the Inkster of old, the selfproclaimed “grinder” who’s won two U.S. Opens. She shot a 5-under 67 and had just one bogey in the cold, wet weather.
“It was the first time in a long time I honestly knew where the ball was going,” Inkster said.
Inkster was fortunate to win. Lee had a two-shot lead after 13 holes but double-bogeyed No. 14 and bogeyed No. 17. Still, Inkster had to birdie the par-5 18th hole to secure the win, and she calmly hit her chip shot within three feet and made the putt.
As she walked off the green, Inkster was hugged by several players, including 19-year-old Paula Creamer, who’s just three years older than Inkster’s oldest daughter, Hayley.
Turns out the girls on LPGA Tour still admire their elder.
“I’ve always said I’ve looked up to Juli,” Creamer said. “She’s a role model for everyone out here. She’s been a fantastic player, she works hard and she has a family. She has it all.”
Those words, and Creamer’s hug, meant as much to Inkster as the victory did.
“There’s nothing like respect from your peers,” she said.
As she went a year, then two, without a win, Inkster often was asked how long she’d continue to play on the LPGA Tour.
Her answer: As long as she can.
“I play 20 weeks out of the year and I get the other 32 off,” she said. “And I love what I do. And my kids know what I do. And they get to travel with me and see the world. So it’s a great job. I don’t know why I would want to do anything else.”
It had been just a few minutes since Inkster won a tournament, and she was feeling as young as ever.