Fri, Jul 04, 2003 - Page 22 News List

Inkster faces off with 13 year olds

US WOMEN'S OPEN Juli Inkster didn't even begin to play golf untill she was 15. Now, at 43, she's competing against a new crop of amazingly youthful challengers

AP , NORTH PLAINS, OREGON

Michelle Wie, 13, from Honolulu, Hawaii, tees off during a practice round for the US Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Oregon, on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AP

As Juli Inkster prepared to defend her US Women's Open title, it was hard for her to comprehend that a pair of her challengers are just 13 years old.

Inkster, 43, didn't even start playing until she was 15.

"The only reason I really played golf was I got a job working at the golf course in Santa Cruz, parking carts and picking up the range one summer, and I decided maybe I'll just start," she said. "And really, the reason why I started, it gave me something I could do that I didn't have to compete with my older brothers."

A star was born. Inkster has gone on to win seven major championships, more than any other active player on the LPGA Tour. She has 29 victories overall, and earned her place in the Hall of Fame in 1999.

Three years after she took up golf, Inkster played in her first Open. That was in 1978, 11 years before Michelle Wie was born.

Wie and Sydney Burlison, both 13, are the youngest among 14 teenagers playing in the Open, which started Thursday at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.

"I could be a mother to all of them," Inkster said. "But that's what makes the Open so special. It's an open championship. You get the young, the old, the foreign, American, all mixed in, and on a great golf course."

It will be Inkster's second visit to the 11-year-old rural course, nestled in farmland west of Portland, where the 1997 US Women's Open also was held.

Alison Nicholas won that year, edging emotional favorite Nancy Lopez, who was never able to win an Open. Inkster tied for 14th at even-par 284, vexed by the 18th hole at the club's Witch Hollow course.

"I've got that all mastered now," she said Wednesday. "That's my domain."

Last year, Inkster beat Sweden's Annika Sorenstam by two strokes at Prairie Dunes County Club in Hutchinson, Kansas, for her second Open title. She also won in 1999.

The victory put a storybook ending on a 22-year journey: Inkster burst onto the scene in 1980, winning the first of three straight US Women's Amateur titles at Prairie Dunes.

At 42, she became the second-oldest player to win the Open. Babe Zaharias won in 1954 at 43.

Age has given Inkster some perspective.

"You know, I still get nervous, and you want to get off to a good start. But it's a different type of nervousness, it's not a do-or-die, `If I don't birdie this first hole, I'm not going to win this tournament,'" she said. "It's just more the US Open and the aura of the whole thing that you get nervous about."

While Inkster, Sorenstam, Australia's Karrie Webb and Pak Se-ri of South Korea are the favorites to win the Open this year -- they've combined to win 15 of the last 17 majors on the LPGA Tour -- it's the teenagers who are grabbing a lot of the attention.

Especially Wie, who won the US Women's Amateur Public Links two weeks ago to become the youngest to win a USGA tournament for adults.

While Inkster has a chance to become the oldest winner of the Women's Open, Wie could become the youngest by seven years. Pak was 20 when she won in 1998 at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin.

"Everyone comes here to win. Of course, I want to win," Wie said.

"But I just want to make par on every hole, play consistently, try not to make too many mistakes, and hopefully I'll make the top 10 or win."

Golf wasn't even on Inkster's radar when she was 13. So the fact that so many teenagers are playing in this year's Open is a bit surprising to her.

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