Inkster Wins U.S. Women's Open

Sunday, July 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) _ On a Prairie Dunes course where her she first made a name for herself 22 years ago, Juli Inkster turned in a career-defining performance Sunday to beat Annika Sorenstam and win the U.S. Women's Open.

Inkster closed with a 4-under 66, matching the lowest final-round score by an Open champion, for a two-stroke victory. It was her seventh major, most among active players.

This one might have been the sweetest of all.

She faced a two-stroke deficit against Sorenstam, the best player in women's golf who has been virtually unstoppable all year. Tougher yet, Inkster had been struggling with her swing throughout the week.

She relied on grit, determination and a short game that ranks among the best.

Pumping her fists and whipping the Kansas crowd into a frenzy at every turn, Inkster made consecutive birdies from off the green on the front nine to take the lead, then buried Sorenstam with two of the biggest putts of the tournament.

She kept a one-stroke lead by holing a 15-foot par putt on par-3 15th as Sorenstam watched from the tee box, a familiar sight at this tournament.

Then, Inkster made a 12-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole that gave her a three-shot margin when Sorenstam missed a 4-foot par putt behind her.

Inkster finished at 276 and earned $535,000, the largest payoff in women's golf.

``I hope I don't wake up for a while,'' she said. ``It was awesome.''

Inkster, inducted into the Hall of Fame two years ago, first broke onto the scene when she won the first of three straight U.S. Amateur titles at Prairie Dunes in 1980. Twenty-two years and two daughters later, she's tougher than ever.

Sorenstam was helpless.

She shot par or better all four rounds on a difficult course, and it wasn't enough.

Sorenstam closed with an even-par 70 and finished at 278. She won the first major of the year and was third at the LPGA Championship last month.

``I did everything I could,'' Sorenstam said. ``I think I played great golf. Juli played excellent. She really outplayed me. There was nothing I could do. I gave it all, and I'm happy about that.''

Inkster also won the Women's Open three years ago at Mississippi, and is the only American to win her national Open the last eight years.

Inkster became the second-oldest player to win a major _ Babe Zaharias was 43 when she won the Women's Open in 1954. She also joined Zaharias as the only women to win two majors after turning 40.

``I think to win at any age is tough _ 42 is just a little tougher,'' she said.

Inkster was determined from the start, pumping herself up with an intensity rarely seen this side of Tiger Woods.

``When Juli birdied the second hole, the look on her face ... I just knew Annika was going to have to shoot under par to win,'' said Shani Waugh, who played in the next-to-last group with Inkster and shot 72 to finish third at 283.

Raquel Carriedo also had a 66 and finished fourth at 284.

Sorenstam didn't wear the shiny red shoes she had on at the Nabisco Championship when she won the first major of the year, but she did have a few other good-luck charms.

First, Woods left a message on her cell phone. ``Keep doing what you're doing,'' the Masters and U.S. Open champion said. ``Go out and win this thing.''

She also had a Japanese tattoo sticker on her left ankle that said, ``Believe.''

As if the Sunday pressure wasn't enough, the heat index was 104 degrees as the last two groups set out for the final round at Prairie Dunes.

Inkster was up for the challenge. She stuffed her tee shot into 3 feet on the 142-yard second hole for birdie, saved par from in front of the green on No. 4 and then really brought the crowd to life by making a self-deprecating prediction come true.

``As much chipping as I'm doing, sooner or later I'm going to chip one in,'' she had said Saturday evening after saving seven pars.

Sure enough, she chipped in from about 40 feet on No. 6. The cheers could be heard all the way back to the sixth tee, and Sorenstam realized she had a fight on her hands the rest of the afternoon.

Another loud roar followed.

Up ahead on the par-5 seventh, Inkster rolled in a 25-foot putt from just off the fringe. As the gallery rose in unison to watch it drop, Inkster thrust her fist toward them, then pulled it back toward her body.

The put Inkster at 3-under and in the lead for the first time.

Sorenstam was steady as ever, that rhythmic swing finding only fairways and greens. She needed to be a little bit better.

Sorenstam made her first birdie on No. 7 with a 12-foot putt, but gave back the shot _ and the lead _ by missing her first green short on the difficult eighth hole and failing to hole a 7-foot par putt.

She never caught Inkster the rest of the day, haunted by one loud roar after another that rocked Prairie Dunes.

Inkster fed off the emotion, constantly talking to herself and pumping herself up after shots. When she finished, she ran up a corridor of fans, slapping hands as she headed to the scoring trailer to sign her card.

Moments later, she was holding the biggest trophy in women's golf.