Inkster Wins LPGA Championship

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Winning major championships never gets old for Juli Inkster, no matter how much it might age her.

Inkster was put to the test in the LPGA Championship, where in the span of five hours she had to overcome a two-stroke deficit, squandered a three-stroke lead in the trees, and finally outlasted Stefania Croce of Italy on the second playoff hole.

She became the first player in 16 years to successfully defend in the LPGA Championship, although Inkster had a much easier time last year — an eagle-birdie-birdie finish that allowed her a triumphant stride up the 18th fairway.

When she tapped in for par Sunday on the 10th hole at DuPont Country Club, she hugged 10-year-old daughter Hayley and whispered in her ear, ``I'm getting too old for this.''

Try getting everyone else to believe that.

What should be the twilight of her 17-year career instead looks like her prime, and there are few signs she is about to let up. One month down the road is the U.S. Open, where Inkster once again will be the defending champion.

``It means a lot to me personally, just to prove to myself that I can still play with these girls, and I'm still one of the top players,'' said Inkster, who celebrated her 40th birthday Saturday with a 6-under 65, the low round of the tournament.

The tour's top player remains Karrie Webb, even though the 25-year-old Australian struggled with her swing all week and squandered a chance to win the second leg of the Grand Slam and her third straight major.

Inkster and Webb now have combined to win the last five majors, and the American showed once again she is always up for the challenge.

That's just what she got — from Wendy Ward, who called a one-stroke penalty on herself and finished one-stroke out of the playoff; from the 30-year-old Croce, who waited two hours for the playoff and showed nerves of steel; and from a DuPont course that was firmer, faster, and more difficult with each day.

And ultimately, Inkster had to fight herself.

``I was struggling with my swing all week, but I hung in there,'' Inkster said.

With a bogey from the bunker on the 18th hole which allowed Croce into the playoff, Inkster closed with a 4-over 75, the highest final-round score by an LPGA champion in at least 25 years.

The course played nearly three strokes over par, and only 10 players managed to break par in the final round. The final 10 players averaged 74.4.

Croce, seven strokes back when she showed up at the course, got a putting tip from her father and put it to work with birdies on the first three holes. She had a 68 to finish at 281, then waited for the rest of the field to come back.

``I just waited around, but I didn't think I was going to get into a playoff,'' Croce said. ``I thought 4 under would win. So, even though I lost, I still had a good time.''

Not everyone can say that.

The back nine turned into a series of wrecks that wiped out the chances of four players and nearly left Inkster as a casualty, too.

— Nancy Scranton was tied for the lead at 6 under through 11 holes before she hooked her drive into the trees for double bogey, three-putted the 13th for bogey and took another bogey from the trees on No. 14.

She finished with a 73, tied for second with Ward and Se Ri Pak (71).

— Ward, who had a two-stroke lead at 8 under after three holes, was tied with Inkster at the turn until two straight bogeys, followed by a disaster at the 13th.

As she stood over her 10-foot par putt, she noticed her ball had moved ever so slightly, called a one-stroke penalty on herself and then missed the putt for double bogey. Ward had a chance to get into the playoff, but bogeyed the 18th from the rough behind the green.

``I don't feel like I lost the tournament because of that one shot,'' she said. ``I made a number of poor swings that I would say cost me the tournament.''

— Webb was at 4 under through eight holes, but then bogeyed the par-5 ninth and took double bogey on the par-5 16th, two of the easiest holes at DuPont. She finished with a 73 and at even-par 284.

Inkster had a three-stroke lead with five holes to play, on cruise control to her sixth major championship. Instead, she got lost in the woods, hitting the same tree twice on the 14th and needing a delicate chip through more trees just to assure double bogey.

A 6-foot par putt on the 18th would have taken care of the trophy. Croce decided not to watch, staying on the practice green to chip. She figured the gallery would tell her what happened.

``If they are not clapping that hard, it means that I'm going to go in the playoff,'' Croce said. ``And from the clapping, I understood I was going to go into the playoff.''

Both players made long two-putt pars on the 18th. On the par-4 10th, Inkster hit an 8-iron to the fringe 15 feet away. Croce hit 9-iron that bounded over the green into the rough, leaving her an impossible chip straight down the slope. It went 20 feet by, and she missed the par putt coming back.

That left Inkster only to two-putt for par, and the victory.

It was truly a repeat performance — thrilling finish, another LPGA Championship for Inkster, another victory for the LPGA's most famous working mother. The only thing missing was the victory dance.

``I was too tired to dance,'' she said.

But she proved she's not too old to win, not even a major.