Inkster Shares Lead at U.S. Open

Friday, July 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) _ An Australian again leads the U.S. Women's Open. Only it's not the one who always seems to be there.

Not even close.

On a day when two-time defending champion Karrie Webb shot a 79 for her worst round on the tour in six years, fellow Aussie Shani Waugh claimed a share of the lead Thursday at the 57th Open.

Waugh's 3-under-par 67 on a Prairie Dunes course that got tougher as the opening round wore on left her tied with Americans Laura Diaz and Juli Inkster, the 1999 Open champion and only U.S.-born golfer to win this event in the last seven years.

``I've been playing well coming into this tournament the last two weeks, so it's a nice surprise,'' said Waugh, who has yet to win in seven years on the LPGA Tour. ``But I'm not shocked. Put it that way.''

Shocked described Webb's feeling after her miserable round. Seeking to become the first woman to win the Open three straight years, Webb sprayed shots all over the blustery course.

The 9-over score was her worst on the tour since 1996 and left her groping for an explanation.

``I thought I had as good a chance to win this year as I have in the past two,'' Webb said. ``Obviously things changed. I don't know what it was. If I did, I wouldn't have hit so many off the planet today.''

Webb played in the afternoon, when a hot sun baked the course and conditions were harshest. None of the 75 players who teed off in the afternoon broke par, leaving only six players in the 60s.

Kim Saiki had a bogey-free 68, while Lorie Kane of Canada and Catriona Matthew of Scotland were at 69.

Waugh found the relatively tame morning conditions to her liking. Starting on the back nine, she was even at the turn and then made four birdies in seven holes.

But with a chance for sole possession of the lead, Waugh three-putted from 60 feet on her final hole, her 5-foot putt for par bouncing off the lip.

``I was putting pretty aggressively,'' Waugh said. ``That was probably my weakest attempt to make a putt. I knew it was going to break right to left. I didn't hit it firm enough. A bit of nerves, I guess.''

A sizzling start carried Inkster into the lead. She was 4 under after just six holes and was never worse than 3 under after that.

``It seems like in an Open, you're going to have one day where you're going have a mediocre round,'' Inkster said. ``If you're off to a good start and get yourself in position, that really helps.''

Inkster, too, had a chance to finish 4 under before bogeying her final hole. With her ball in a small depression in the first cut of rough on No. 18, Inkster's sand wedge came out a little thick and landed short of the green.

``I always get that bogey the last hole,'' Inkster said. ``But I made a lot of good birdies and par saves, so I've got to take that with a grain of salt.''

Diaz failed to make the cut in her first two appearances in the Open, but was all smiles Thursday.

She hit a 4-iron to 5 feet on No. 13 to get to 1 under, then had to work hard for a birdie on the next hole. Her wedge hit the base of the pin and bounced back 25 feet, but she holed the putt.

Diaz hit a 9-iron within 3 feet on the 500-yard 17th for another birdie that gave the United States another leader on Independence Day. Diaz played the part, wearing a red, white and blue ribbon in her hair and painting her fingernails blue with stars.

``I don't think there is anything easy about this golf course,'' Diaz said. ``I hit it closer on the back nine more times, so I was able to make a few more birdies than I did on the front.

``But I didn't find either nines easy. I think it is a very challenging golf course, as the U.S. Open should be.''

It was challenging for most of the golfers. Only 15 shot par or better and 15 others failed to break 80, including two-time champion Patty Sheehan and Nancy Lopez, most likely playing in her final Open. Both finished at 81.

Annika Sorenstam, a winner six times in 12 starts this year, skidded to a 70 after going 3 under through seven holes. She needed 18 putts on her last eight holes, knocking some 8 feet past the cup and leaving others 4 feet short _ a rare occurrence for the tour's dominant player.

``I kind of lost a feel there for a bit and it cost me a few shots,'' the Swedish star said. ``That's something I'm going to work on and try to improve.''

Another one of the favorites, 1998 champion Se Ri Pak, bogeyed three of her first seven holes and closed with two straight bogeys for a 74.

Webb planned to join Pak on the practice range, looking to regroup for what shaped up as a Friday round for survival.

``Hopefully,'' Webb said, ``I can work a few things out and shoot a few under and at least play on the weekend.''

Not words usually spoken by a champion.