With all the talk from the rest of the field about firing aggressively at pins and mounting a final-round challenge, Juli Inkster was never really threatened today on a record-breaking run to her first U.S. Women's Open championship.
Though she missed two birdie putts from five feet and another from less than two, Inkster was in total control of her game and her emotions. She stretched her four-shot, 54-hole lead into a five-shot victory over veteran Sherri Turner. Kelli Kuehne, Inkster's spunky 22-year-old playing partner, had a balky putter and finished alone in third, seven shots behind.
Inkster, 38, had only two bogeys today in posting a round of 1-under 71. She had just four bogeys all week, leaving her at 16-under 272, shattering the Open record of 10 under by England's Alison Nicholas in the 1997 event at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon. Then she delighted the crowd at the trophy presentation by spelling "M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I."
"It's been a great week, a dream come true," Inkster said before accepting a winner's check of $315,000. "I played just as good as I have been. I hit it aggressively and I stayed with my game plan. I'm very much spent, but it's a great spent."
This was the lowest-scoring Open by women or men, one that included a women's-record 136 sub-par rounds, but only 10 today with the wind up and pins placed in precarious locations typical of a final round. This event also will be remembered for a spectacular performance by Grace Park, the 19-year-old from South Korea who will turn pro next week. She shot 73 to finish at 5-under 283, the lowest score by an amateur in the event's 54-year history, and the first amateur to finish under par in an Open.
"I'm proud of myself for finishing so well and finishing my amateur career with another accomplishment," she said after tying for eighth, despite a double bogey at No. 8 when she was penalized by a rules official because her caddie found her ball by stepping on it in high grass. "But I'm glad the tournament is over because I got a little shaky."
There was nothing shaky about Inkster, whose victory today was the 20th of her career and third of the season. She came to Old Waverly as the LPGA Tour's third leading money-winner, with eight top-10 finishes, including two victories. She'll leave with an extremely popular victory among her peers, and the cheers of many of her fellow professionals ringing in her ears.
Inkster said she had trouble sleeping on Saturday despite her four-shot lead. She was tossing and turning and worrying that her swing would somehow desert her overnight, then telling herself "you've got the game to win this thing."
"When I got here, I couldn't wait to get to the first tee," she said. "I felt a lot of energy and support from my fellow players. I felt them rooting for me. As a player, it's the greatest compliment you can have."
Kuehne, a two-time U.S. Amateur champion, tried to put some early pressure on Inkster. But she managed only one front-side birdie at the second hole, with Inkster then making birdie with a five-footer there to stay ahead by four.
"I couldn't put any heat on Juli because she was playing so steady," said Kuehne, who had a costly double bogey at the 18th with a tee shot in the water that cost her a share of second place. "She's a great lady, an incredible player.
"Her score says it all. She just smoked in."
Of the four players within seven shots of the lead starting the day, only Turner (71) managed to break par, and she had to sink a 216-yard 7-wood from the eighth fairway for an eagle to do it. Inkster had a three-shot lead over Kuehne when they made the turn to the back nine, opened it to four with a birdie to Kuehne's bogey at the 10th and never was threatened by her competitors thereafter.
If there was a defining shot, it came just before the national TV cameras were turned on at the short, 177-yard seventh hole. Inkster pushed her tee shot into the greenside bunker, and when she walked up to get a closer look, was mortified to see her ball surrounded on both sides by mounds of sand about 15 yards from the pin. Kuehne had a 15-foot birdie putt there, and a critical two-shot swing seemed entirely possible. With sand flying, Inkster hit her shot within inches of the cup for a tap-in par.
"That's when you know it's just her day," Kuehne said.
Inkster said she recalled watching her friend Meg Mallon practicing the same shot at the Solheim Cup last year and having no difficulty getting the ball close to the cup. Mallon told her to take a big swing and open up the club face, and that was her thought as she stood over the ball.
"It was bad," she said. "The sand was different than what we'd been playing. It was soft and fine, and the ball was just sitting down there in a big crater. . . . That was an all-world bunker shot, just huge."
Though Inkster missed a two-foot par putt for her last bogey of the tournament on the next hole, Kuehne started to falter on the back side under the pressure of a U.S. Open Sunday. Inkster knew all about that, having lost in a playoff to Patty Sheehan, in 1992 when Sheehan forced an extra 18 holes by making birdies on her last two holes.
"That was heartbreaking," said Inkster. "I was devastated for a long time. . . . I talked to Patty earlier this week and she said, `You know Juli, it's your time to win it.' To come back and win it today, no one can take that away from me. I'm the U.S. Open champion, and I always will be."
The Records Fall
Records set or tied in the 54th U.S. Women's Open:
Lowest score: Juli Inkster, 272 (272 by Annika Sorenstam in 1996).
Lowest score in relation to par, men's or women's open: Juli Inkster, 16 under (women's record: 10 under by Alison Nicholas in 1997; men's record: 8 under, four times).
Best start by a champion: Juli Inkster, 65 (66 by Patty Sheehan in 1994).
Best score by an amateur: Grace Park, 283 (290 by Jenny Chuasiriporn, 1998).
Most sub-par rounds: 136 (89 at Crooked Stick, 1993).
(Previous records in parentheses)
CAPTION: Juli Inkster has only four bogeys en route to her first U.S. Women's Open championship.