PINEHURST, N.C. - This may only last a day, a fleeting 24-hour glimpse into the past, but there was something special about seeing 53-year-old Juli Inkster’s name firmly planted on the leaderboard throughout the day Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2.
A last go around is never easy, and for Inkster, this will likely be her last U.S. Women’s Open – a tournament she’s won two times. Countless great athletes over the years either didn’t know when to hang it up or couldn’t really follow through with it after they said they were going to. The great ones always have supreme confidence, and the admission that they can’t play consistently like they used to is never an easy divulgence. Where does the competitive fire that’s driven them for so long get rerouted to? It’s the age-old conundrum when deciding whether to walk away: Is it better to go out on top - showing you can still do it – or ride off into the sunset knowing your best days are behind you and it’s officially the young gun’s turn?
As competitive as Inkster is, there’s little doubt where she wants to be on the weekend. But either way, she’ll be content with the decision to walk away from the championship it took her 20 attempts and 39 years of an illustrious career to first capture.
“I mean, it would be nice. But I don't think it's important. I'm really -- I'm okay with the decision,” Inkster said. “I like this golf course, because I think it weeds a lot of players out. This is my type of golf course. If I keep playing the way I'm playing, I think I've -- Stacy is playing unbelievable. So I don't know if anybody can catch her. But I feel like I can have a good tournament.”
Inkster certainly got off to a good start. On a day where the scoring average was 75.83, she put together a three birdie, four bogey round for a 1-over-par 71 to leave her four shots back in a tie for 11th.
“You know what, I actually played pretty good,” Inkster said. “I drove the ball very well. I hit a lot of good iron shots. I putted it okay. Made some good par putts, 4 or 5 footers. I really only hit really one bad, bad shot. And that was on 16. I was between a 5-iron and a 4 rescue and I choked up on the 4 and hit it in the bunker. But overall I played pretty good.”
There’s precedence on the PGA Tour of a 50-plus player climbing into contention and pushing back the calendar for a feel-good story on the weekend. Tom Watson, at 59 years old, nearly won the 2009 British Open. This could be Inkster’s turn, playing in her 35th U.S. Women’s Open – a tournament record – with the chance to become the oldest major winner by eight years.
“I played with Cheyenne Woods, I don't know how old she is. She looks young. They all look young. Natalie Gulbi looked young, too. I don't mind playing. I enjoy playing with them,” Inkster said. “I think it's fun. I don't know if they enjoy playing with an old lady. But I really have -- I really enjoy it. I think that's the beauty of golf. I can still come out there and compete with them, no matter what age we're at.”
To put it into perspective how impressive Inkster’s play is, only eight players in the field this week were born when she first teed it up in the 1978 U.S. Women Open. Over the years, she’s seen some of the best and most difficult tracks host this event – Oakmont, Cherry Hills, Baltusrol, etc. – and thinks Pinehurst has been a tough but fair test, exactly the kind of venue the USGA seeks for this championship.
“It's tough. I mean, it's tough,” Inkster said. “It's like, some holes, where do you hit it? I thought they set it up really good. I thought they did a good job of moving a couple of, few tees up, to kind of get where everybody is at on this golf course, because they moved a few tees up and there's some really high scores out there. But I thought they set it up well.
“I want to say maybe there's a half a dozen holes I felt like I could really go at the pin, maybe five. And then the rest you just got to hit it where you need to hit it.”
Where she hits it Friday will determine whether she challenges Stacy Lewis and Michelle Wie at the top of the leaderboard on Sunday or whether she falls back and misses the cut completely. Still, Inkster’s strategy remains unchanged from that first Open when she was just an 18-year-old in her first U.S. Women’s Open.
“No, I still try really hard,” Inkster said. “It's just in my DNA.”
Inkster will turn 54 on Tuesday. What a birthday gift this could be. Could there really be a better way to walk away from the championship she loves?
Regardless of whether she does end up climbing into contention on the weekend with a chance to make that story happen, it sure was fun while it lasted.