There are a lot of words that describe Juli Inkster. Passionate. Competitive. Talented. Funny. Loyal. But the one that tells more about her than any is Mom. Inkster brought all of those qualities into the team room as captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup team and the woman who follows will have big hugs to fill.
The tough love that came with those Mom hugs was a huge part of how Inkster got her players to buy into her message that the shots struck on the golf course speak for themselves and don’t need to come packaged in face paint and punctuated by cutesy celebrations.
After a heartbreaking 14½ to 13½ loss to Europe, decided when Suzann Pettersen made by the last putt on the last hole of the last group, Inkster said this would be it for her as captain, a reign in which she led her team to victories in Germany and Des Moines before Sunday’s stunning defeat in Scotland.
“No. No. No,” Inkster said after one of the most exciting competitions in any sport concluded. “I'm not even getting on the call. But I will be there in Toledo, that's for sure.”
Inkster came within a half-point of bookending her career with a three-peat that would have matched the one that started her career. She burst on the scene in 1980 when she won the first of three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateurs at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan., where in 2002 she would also win the U.S. Women’s Open.
If there was any disappointment in the way things ended at Gleneagles, Inkster didn’t show it. Instead, she focused on the incredible display of talent and sportsmanship by both teams, noting that the intensity of the competition made Sunday a great day for women’s golf and women’s sports.
“You know what? I told them afterwards, the sun's going to come up tomorrow,” Inkster said. “It was great for women's golf. We played great. I mean, yesterday was just a brutal day of golf. And today the sun came out and we saw a lot of great golf. You know what, the Europeans played great. You tip your hat. And you move on to Toledo.”
Certainly, the dramatic conclusion to the closest the competition could possibly be sets the stage for Inverness Golf Club and the 2021 Solheim Cup.
“I would say it's an honor to play under Juli Inkster and the three assistant captains,” said Lizette Salas, who has played four Solheim Cups, including all three with Inkster as captain.
“She just encourages us to play with heart and class and integrity,” Salas said. “And that is something that -- it's indescribable. And she's an incredible role model on and off the golf course. And this team is going to miss her. But I know she'll be there in Toledo.”
Inkster, 59, has had a career of enormous breadth and depth. Beginning while at San Jose State University she won those three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur titles, the first to do that in nearly 50 years.
She turned pro in 1983 and in 1984 was Rolex Rookie of the Year, beginning a career in which she would win 31 times over a remarkable span of 24 seasons – 1983 through 2006.
Inkster won seven LPGA majors and completed the career Grand Slam, winning the ANA Inspiration, KPMG Women’s PGA and U.S. Women’s Open twice each and the du Maurier Classic once. All that earned her a spot in both the LPGA and the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated accomplishments in Inkster’s career involves that Mom thing. She gave birth to Hayley in 1990 and Cori in 1994. With the support of her husband Brian, a teaching pro, and the LPGA’s traveling Smucker’s Child Development Center, Inkster resumed her career – with a vengeance.
The woman who won three U.S. Women’s Amateur titles and three LPGA majors before becoming a Mom went on to win four more LPGA majors after her second daughter was born. And along the way, she used her career as a touring pro to teach life lessons to her children.
In 2007, when Inkster joined Betsy King’s Golf Fore Africa group on a humanitarian mission to help the orphans of Rwanda, Juli took Hayley, then 17, and Cori, 13, with her. Rwanda had been ravaged by a genocide in 1994 in which nearly a million people were killed in 100 days. And then AIDS came. A country of eight million people had one million orphans.
I was also on that trip and we saw a lot of difficult things. Sometimes we were all out of our comfort zone. When we walked through the crowded streets of Kigali, Juli would lead our little pod followed by Cori then Haley with me bringing up the rear. We were like a family of ducks finding strength in numbers. I marveled at Juli’s bravery as a Mom.
When we would attend a meeting or briefing or were simply having a meal, I always sat next to Juli because it was like hanging out with the bad kid in class. She always had a funny comment about everything. She made me laugh – and she made her girls think. For Juli, life is an experience and you learn from your experiences – all of them.
“You know what, I'm really happy where I'm at,” Inkster said after the bruising defeat at the hands of Europe. “I've had the honor to do this three times. And it's been an honor.
And I'm 2-1. We're 2-1. I thought that's been good. I'd be making a lot if I was a baseball player.”
Inkster’s observations are usually served up wrapped in humor and sometimes you have to step back, stop laughing and appreciate how wise she is. “It's not really about the wins and losses,” she said. “It's about the memories and the camaraderie. I knew Jess and Nelly a little bit. I didn't really know them that well, and I feel like I've gotten to know them great. And they're going to be a big part of my life going forward. And that's what it's about. It's about making those friendships and making those memories. And to be a part of a team is -- that's why I do it. That's why I love to do it.”
Spoken like a Mom. It’s not about us as individuals; it’s about us as a family. Three times, Juli Inkster was the Mom of the U.S. Solheim Cup family. And no matter what the scoreboard says, every time she was a winner. Just ask any of her kids.