"GOLF IS A STUPID GAME," Juli Inkster remarked last Friday afternoon as shadows lengthened over the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "You tee up this little ball, really this tiny ball. Then you hit it, try to find it, hit it. And the goal is to get it into a little hole placed in a hard spot." She plopped a Titleist into a soft-drink cup to illustrate golf's perverse nature, then said, "No one has ever conquered this game. One week out there and you are God, next time you are the devil. But it does keep you coming back."
Inkster knows whereof she speaks. Before last week's Nabisco Dinah Shore, the crown jewel of women's golf, her performance in 1989 clearly had been the work of the devil: In four tournaments, the 28-year-old Inkster finished 34th, 41st, 19th and 37th, and she missed the cut in a fifth. Her least embarrassing performance came at the Oldsmobile LPGA Classic in Boca Raton, Fla., which she skipped. In truth, she wasn't playing as well as her miserable record would indicate. Three weeks ago she shot a horrendous 81 in Tucson, and her putting was ghastly. To top it off, she arrived in Rancho Mirage with a cold.
No wonder one onlooker, seeing Inkster on Sunday, inquired, "Who's that?"
"Somebody named Inkster," replied a friend.
"How do you say it?"
With admiration—now. For at the Dinah Shore. Inkster shot a 66 in the first round, six under par, which put her in a perfect position to bury her opponents. She did that with subsequent rounds of 69-73-71 for a 279, nine under par. Tammie Green and sentimental favorite JoAnne Carner, who turns 50 this week and who hasn't won a tournament since 1985, tied for second five shots back. Neither mounted a challenge of any substance. In achieving her impressive wire-to-wire victory, Inkster made Mission Hills her private playground. "Plus she has great legs," said Dinah Shore, the ageless doyenne of the event.
Inkster's success is bad news for the rest of the golfers on the LPGA tour. The book on her has been that she is at the very top in talent, but that inconsistent play has kept her out of sentences containing names like Lopez, Stephenson and King. Last week may be looked back on as the time Inkster truly arrived. It's true that the Dinah Shore was her 12th victory since she joined the LPGA tour in 1983, but the previous 11 went largely unnoticed.
That's mostly because, while her putting has usually earned high marks, her play with the other clubs has often held her back. Until the Dinah Shore, which Inkster also won as a rookie—though that victory had the air of beginner's luck about it—there were whispers that she was somehow winning tournaments with only half a game. After last season she worked hard to improve the other half, and then her putting fell off. But at Mission Hills her game came together. "I played just great." said Inkster.
A key reason for her dramatic improvement was, ironically, a new putter. In Phoenix a fortnight ago, she became so exasperated with her Arnold Palmer Personal putter, which she had used for 11 years, that she switched to a Ping. "I never blame my equipment," says Inkster, "but I kept missing three-and four-foot putts. So I told myself, Hey, you have got to make a change. I didn't get rid of my old putter. I just put it on probation."
For now, she's getting much better behavior from the Ping. According to her husband, Brian, the pro at Los Altos Country Club, 45 miles south of San Francisco, she was not getting lined up properly for her putts with the old putter. A common malady, of course, but a desperate situation for a golfer who generally lives off her putting prowess. No wonder Inkster had groused on Thursday, "The key to my game is putting, and I'm really struggling with that." Brian, who has been teaching her since 1976, says, "She would line up, then keep adjusting her hands. What she had to do was just get lined up and hit it." The new putter, which has a heal-toe weighted head and a thin line on top to make it easier to line up putts, helped correct that problem and win her the Dinah Shore. Of course, Inkster's hands also had something to do with the victory.
She started Sunday's final round with a whopping five-stroke lead and apparently had only to keep breathing to win. But trouble cropped up on the par-5 11th, the second-easiest hole to birdie on the course. Inkster got a sloppy bogey, and Carner birdied, and all of a sudden Inkster was only 3 up. "Just hit the fairways, hit the greens," said Brian quietly to himself.
The situation got hairy on the par-4 12th, which has a large trap on the right and a menacing stand of trees on the left. Inkster drove her three-wood down the middle, leaving herself 137 yards to the pin. It was an easy eight-iron or a hard nine. She tried the nine and pushed it left into the rough. Then her chip barely made it onto the green, giving her a difficult 20-foot left-to-right putt with a three-inch break for a par. Carner was putting for another birdie, and it looked as if Inkster might lose two more strokes—not a good position to be in against Carner, who has 42 tour wins and a seemingly pressure-proof swing.
So what did Inkster do? She drained the putt, which is how it works when the angels are on your side. "From the day I started playing," Inkster had said earlier in the week, "if I had a 20-foot putt for a par, I knew it would go in." How prophetic. Carner missed her birdie try, and school was out. "That putt brightened her day," she later said of Inkster.
Heading for the 15th tee, Brian mumbled, "Come on. Finish like a champ." Juli did. Her putting turned aggressive, and she birdied both 16 and 18. "I don't know why putting can be so hard," she said later. "I guess it's because I expect them all to go in."
For her part, Carner, third on the all-time money list with $2,244,593 (Inkster is 16th with $1,091,061), took the defeat with her usual grace. "I'm tickled to death," she said. "I made enough money to go fishin'." Assuming, of course, that $34,000 will cover bait and sandwiches. Quipped Inkster of earner's four rounds of 71 each, "JoAnne played very well—for an older lady."
Inkster's competitive drive won her $80,000 and renewed her confidence. She is so competitive, in fact, that when something needs to be done at home—taking out the garbage, for instance—Juli insists on flipping a coin with Brian or playing some other kind of game to determine who will do the chore.
Inkster got interested in golf when she was 15 and used to go to the Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Calif., because, as she puts it, "that's where the boys were." The primary focus of her interest turned out to be the club pro—Brian Inkster. "She was just one of the kids hanging around chipping and putting, so I don't remember much about her," he says ungallantly. Somehow, she got his attention, and in 1980, just before her junior year at San Jose State, they were married. Two weeks later, she won her first of three U.S. Amateur titles. Says Brian, "She was nothing until she became an Inkster."
Whatever, she's quite something now. After Sunday's victory, Juli reflected on her immediate future: "I want it all right now. I want a birdie every hole. I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do." If she continues to play the way she did at Mission Hills, her competitors could be in for a devilish time.
After sinking a big 20-foot par putt on 12 Sunday, Inkster birdied 16 and 18 (above).
When Carner made her move on the back nine on Sunday, it was just too little too late.
Green shook a leg and tied Carner for second place, but she wasn't able to menace Inkster.