'A great thrill' for Juli Inkster

Juli Inkster - 1999, 2002

Juli Inkster is a native Californian who grew up in the Golden State. But Kansas felt just like home to her in July 2002, when she won her second U.S. Women's Open title.

"I had a history there," Inkster said.

In 1980 at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kansas, Inkster had won the first of her three consecutive U.S. Women's Amateur titles. Then in 2002, Prairie Dunes was the site of the U.S. Women's Open.

Inkster entered the final day of that tournament two shots behind Annika Sorenstam. The Swede was in the midst of her most successful year, as she won 11 times in 2002. But not at Prairie Dunes.

"I kind of came out of nowhere to win the U.S. Amateur there," Inkster said. "To come back 22 years later and win the U.S. Open, I had a real connection to the Kansas people.

"Believe me, I felt it. And maybe Annika felt it the other way a little bit. It was like I had home-court advantage; they rallied around the American player."

Inkster, then 42, made that easy for the fans on the last day because she kept giving them putts to roar about. Sorenstam, in a pairing behind Inkster, knew the heat was on.

"My putter was hot that week; the hole looked like a Frisbee," said Inkster, who had just 25 putts Sunday as she closed with a 66. "I kept my foot on the gas, and then I looked up and had a two-shot lead going into 18."

Sorenstam finished with an even-par 70 and had to settle for one of her two runner-up finishes in the Women's Open.

"I didn't lose today; Juli won," Sorenstam said that day.

It was the second U.S. Women's Open title of Inkster's career. Both came in what Inkster called the "second act" of her career -- after she'd had her two daughters.

Her first U.S. Women's Open championship was in 1999 at Old Waverly in Mississippi. That year going into the final round, Inkster had to sleep on the lead. Or at least try to.

"I didn't sleep at all that night, thinking, "How could I mess this up?' " Inkster said. "I had some tough moments early where I had to fight through it. But on the back side, I played fairly well and won by five shots.

"It was a great thrill, like, 'I've done it, and this is something I've always wanted in my career. I feel fulfilled.'"

Inkster had come close to winning one other U.S. Women's Open title, and that was in 1992. But Patty Sheehan prevailed by two shots in an 18-hole playoff, a loss that Inkster called "devastating."

"You just never know if you're going to have another shot at it," Inkster said. "You can have a great, phenomenal career, but being American and winning your major tournament ... you can go anywhere in the world and say you won the U.S. Open and everyone knows what it is. It kind of validates and separates you as a player. It's huge."

In a stretch from 1995 to 2002, Inkster was the only American to win the U.S. Women's Open, which was a sign of things to come. In the past nine years, only two Americans -- Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer -- have won the title considered to be the most prestigious in women's golf.

"I think it's the most mentally and physically challenging," said Inkster, who has 31 LPGA victories, seven of them majors. "You really have to have all aspects of your game working. It's not always the person who's hitting or putting the best that wins. It's the person who can handle the stress and the pressure that comes with the U.S. Open."