Mechelle Voepel

SPORT SECTIONS
Sunday, July 7, 2002
Updated: July 9, 4:54 PM ET
Against all odds, Inkster beats Sorenstam




HUTCHINSON, Kan. -- Annika Sorenstam takes a two-shot edge in the final round of the U.S. Women's Open, and you think it's all over. You're sure Sorenstam is just too much for anybody save Karrie Webb or maybe Se Ri Pak to wrestle down from behind at an event this big.

And Webb didn't make the cut (more on that shocker later) and Pak barely did, so she was too far back entering the weekend to do much except increase the size of her check.

Juli Inkster
With this birdie on 16, Juli Inkster virtually completed the daunting task of beating Annika Sorenstam on a Sunday.

So it was Sorenstam's tournament. Some people were so sure.

Some people were so wrong.

It was Juli Inkster's tournament. She had one of the best putting days in Open history -- one of the best putting tournaments, in fact -- and shot a final-round 66 to finish at 276 on the par-70 Prairie Dunes. She beat Sorenstam by two strokes.

"I felt like all the pressure was on Annika,'' Inkster said. "She's the No. 1 player in the world, she had a two-shot lead. I just felt if I could get off to a reasonable start, I would have a shot.''

So, the attention was all on Sorenstam, who'd won six previous events this year. Sorenstam has been working out like a demon the last two years, and most of the time you can see it paying off on Sundays as she either passes people or simply holds her ground while they fall back.

Inkster's putting was great the first three day of the Open but she didn't like the rest of her game at all, saying Saturday after a 2-over 72, "I don't know what's wrong. I'm searching.''

Jill McGill, who's never won on tour, came out of nowhere to be tied with Inkster in second place going into the final round. But it being her first time in such a position at a major championship, you had the feeling she wasn't going to be a factor Sunday. (And she wasn't, shooting a 78.)

So ... again, it was Sorenstam's to win. That's what everybody thought. Even Inkster said, "I don't like spotting her two shots. I just have to go out there and see if I can make them up.''

Meanwhile, Sorenstam shot a 69 Saturday and looked very much in control. She didn't seem overconfident, but rather just the right amount of confident. Saturday, she hit every fairway and reached the green in regulation 15 times.

She's not a great putter, but she's good enough, especially considering how many chances she give herself. Sorenstam, who won the Open in 1995 and '96, was going to close the door Sunday.

Except Inkster beat her to it.

Inkster could pass for any suburban mom in the country. She and husband Brian have two daughters, Hayley and Cori, who are into everything: swimming, soccer, softball, etc. It took Inkster a while to understand it was fine for her to be a golfer and a mom.

"Juli really struggled in the early years with our kids, because she thought she should be with them all the time,'' Brian said Sunday. "But she came to realize we have two wonderful kids, and they understand what she does and that they were going to be OK. And then she said, 'I'm not done yet.' ''

And she still isn't. Inkster rededicated herself to golf around 1996, when Hayley was 6 and Cori was 2, and by '99 she was back at the top again. She won the Open and another major, the McDonald's LPGA Championship that year.

Before the 2000 Open at the Merit Club north of Chicago, Michael Jordan made a guest appearance and told the media, when asked who he picked as the favorite to win, "Don't forget about Juli Inkster.''

Inkster's response: "I can't believe Michael Jordan knew who I was.''

It's kind of amazing how Inkster has quietly become perhaps the best of her generation.

I felt like all the pressure was on Annika (Sorenstam). She's the No. 1 player in the world, she had a two-shot lead. I just felt if I could get off to a reasonable start, I would have a shot.
Juli Inkster

Nancy Lopez, 45, is the most famous, and has the most titles (48) of the 40-and-over gang still active. But Lopez hasn't been competitive since 1997 and is playing her last full year on tour. She got an exemption into the Open and didn't make the cut, although she was still the most popular person in Hutchinson.

Betsy King, who'll be 47 next month, has more titles than Inkster, 34 to 27, and a tournament named after her. But Inkster has more majors, seven, than King, six. Inkster is, in fact, the only American woman to win the Open in the past eight years.

Inkster hit every kind of putt you can think of these last four days in the hot Kansas sunshine. She saved pars from far away every round. She chipped in for a monumental birdie Sunday. She made other birdies that people often don't make at big events.

"My putting hung in there for me,'' said Inkster, who averaged 1.46 putts per hole for the tournament, leading the field.

So afterward, Sorenstam was asked how she would get over the disappointment, even though we knew we wouldn't totally buy her answer.

Americans don't really understand Swedes, who are entirely too calm. What is road rage like in Sweden anyway? A series of hard stares?

Sure enough, Sorenstam said she played the best she could, and Inkster was just too good, and that this wouldn't haunt her, and she'd leave the grounds smiling, and she'd be fine by Monday.

Sorenstam is such a Swede. She's impenetrable. She'll probably win her next tournament by 15 strokes, kick everybody's tail, and say she wasn't motivated by losing the Open, Inkster was just too good that day.

Of course, we accept Sorenstam as she is, because she's actually pretty neat. Even if she doesn't freak out or cry or is ever a big laugh riot.

(Aside: Can you think of any intentionally funny Swedes? We can only come up with two. One is Helen Alfredsson, the LPGA player who unfortunately hasn't won an Open and given us the best winner's news conference since another rollicking quick wit, the legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias. The other is not a real person, but rather the chef from "The Muppet Show,'' known for, "Er-der-fer-der-fer-der-fer-de-fishie.'' ABBA and Jesper Parnevik shouldn't count as intentionally funny.)

Annika is Annika, not as shy as she used to be, but still pretty shy. She was classy Sunday, and if she chooses not to let us in on how she just might pound her head against the wall over not winning this time -- especially with Webb not in the way -- that's her business. At 31, she's got more Opens left.

Inkster does, too, but obviously not as many. She said she's sure she'll play at least one more full season, then she'll have to re-evaluate. She's in the best shape of her life and she's never been happier with everything: golf, family, the whole package.

"I don't take these days for granted,'' Inkster said.

And neither should we.

OK, now that we've explained how Inkster, at 42 still carrying the banner for American women's golf, pulled this off, we have to tell you about why the Open was in Hutchinson, Kan.

First, where is Hutchinson? Not far from Wichita, the Sunflower State's biggest city. The Open was here for two main reason: because Prairie Dunes is an excellent course (players loved it, even Webb despite missing the cut) and because Wichita native Judy Bell pushed for it.

Bell served as the U.S. Golf Association's president in 1996-97, the first and only time a woman has held that role. Her dream was to get the biggest event in women's golf back to her native Kansas, where it was also held in 1950 and '55.

That '50 tournament, by the way, was won by Zaharias and it was there, in Wichita, that the LPGA officially launched its existence.

Bell spearheaded the effort to get the Open to the Dunes, which has played host to other USGA events. And so on the first day of festivities, last Monday, there were two of the LPGA founders, Patty Berg, 84, and Marilynn Smith, 73, giving a clinic and talking about the old days and how great today's players are.

It was so sweet to see them, and it seemed the perfect setting for one of the players they rave about, Webb, to make history. She was trying to become only the second person, male or female, to win three Open titles in a row. The only other one was a Scotsman named Willie Anderson in 1903-05, slightly pre-dating "SportsCenter.''

Webb seemed poised to do it. She doesn't get nervous, she likes pressure, she's not overwhelmed by "history'' because it's not something she pays much attention to.

So there is really no acceptable explanation for what happened to Webb, how she bogeyed her first two holes Thursday and then proceeded to look as if she'd hardly touched a club in a couple of months. When, in fact, she'd won two weeks ago and prepared hard for this event.

Webb told media members after her first-round 79 -- her worst score in her 6½ years on the LPGA tour -- that she normally didn't believe in bad omens, but when she'd been announced as being from Florida on the first tee, instead of her native Australia, it kind of threw her off.

Which suggests voodoo might have been used on Webb, because normally she's so laser-focused they could have announced she was Daisy Webb from Dogpatch, USA, and she wouldn't have noticed.

By the end of the week, though, everyone was noticing Inkster, and wondering if she was in control of that voodoo because her putter was certainly working some magic.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.


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