Inkster has seen, done it all

Juli Inkster, at the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore on March 8, is one of the LPGA's longest-lasting champions. Scott Halleran/Getty Images

It was Tuesday during tournament week, and the circus had come to the 2000 U.S. Women's Open.

That's the event that -- short of the biennial Solheim Cup -- garners the biggest crowds for women's golf in this country. Even so, there were never frenzied packs quite like this one in Gurnee, Ill., an hour's drive north of Chicago.

Michael Jordan was playing a three-hole exhibition with three LPGA players, including Nancy Lopez. Hundreds of children who had come that day for a clinic (and more than a few adults) followed Jordan, acting like 1964 teens seeing the Beatles.

In a news conference afterward, Jordan was asked who he thought would win the tournament. He knew Karrie Webb was playing well (she went on to win), but he also said not to overlook Juli Inkster, the 1999 champion.

Later, Inkster came in for her interview and was told Jordan had picked her as one of the favorites. Her face registered surprise.

"Michael Jordan?" she said. "Michael Jordan knows who I am?"

Such is life for one of the LPGA's best and longest-lasting champions. If you want a perspective on women's golf during the past three decades, Inkster could provide it. Because she has been competitive -- and down-to-earth -- for that long.

Inkster has won 31 LPGA titles, seven of them majors, and has earned more than $12.5 million in prize money. She'll turn 49 in June and has two teenaged daughters -- one of them older (19) than some of the players Inkster will face this year on tour.

When she was their age, she never saw any of this success coming. She didn't even start playing golf until she was 15. Born Juli Simpson in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1960, she didn't necessarily fit in among the standard parameters of her peers.

She didn't care.

"You've got to have a really strong belief in yourself and your personality," Inkster said. "And a will that maybe if something wasn't necessarily the 'coolest' thing to do, you still did it. When I was growing up, golf wasn't cool and sports wasn't cool for girls. I was OK with that. I was OK with doing my own thing."

Her start

Inkster, who went to San Jose State, won the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship three years in a row from 1980 to '82, a feat she believes is her greatest in golf. She married Brian Inkster, turned pro in 1983 and then had expectations so modest you laugh when you hear them now.

"I thought I'd play five years, quit and have a family, and that would be it," she said. "And 25 years later, I'm still playing. It's funny. I think because I just kind of fell into the game -- it wasn't my lifelong dream to be a pro golfer -- that I keep playing and have never felt burned out.

"Brian and I made a pact that we would never be away from each other more than two weeks, and we stuck to that. So I never played so much that I didn't stay fresh. And I took time off to have kids. Golf was never really what I was about. It wasn't who I was. It was important to me, but not the main thing in my life."

And yet, she has devoted so many years to it. All those trips to places such as Corning, N.Y., and Sylvania, Ohio, and Springfield, Ill., the grassroots stops on a tour that always has relied more on its smaller sponsors and communities than its larger ones.

Some of the big-name backers have come and gone with the changing economic times; this current one is not the first recession that Inkster has seen on the tour.

"We do have our tournaments that have been around forever, and I wish there were a few more that were still there," she said. "There are bigger corporations that have expanded their marketing, and golf is one way to do that. The way the economy is now, though, some of them are in trouble.

"But some of our key sponsors are smaller companies like grocery store chains, and they're doing OK. Everybody still has to eat. We want to play with the 'big guys' in the corporate world. But there's always a part of me that says, 'We do best in the smaller towns with the sponsors that have always been with us.'"

Inkster has listened many times to different commissioners and public relations folks preaching the selling of the sport. She has tried not to roll her eyes at suggestions she thinks are self-explanatory.

"The bottom line is, no one needs to tell me that I have to iron my shorts or be nice to my pro-am team," she said. "Or that I need to say thank-you to the sponsors. Or be respectful to other players. It's all commonsense stuff.

"Unfortunately, some people don't get that. I was brought up like that. When I first came out on the tour and I had a locker next to JoAnne Carner or Kathy Whitworth or Pat Bradley, I would go out of my way to let them do what they needed to do before I jumped in there.

"I just knew how the tour was made. It's not like when I got on the golf course, I wasn't trying to beat their brains out, because I was. But I gave them a lot of respect. Nowadays, it's different. They blow in the locker room and blow out. A lot of them don't even know who someone like JoAnne Carner is, and that's sad."

Inkster has seen a tour that had very little foreign presence when she started evolve into one such that on some weeks, an American name really stands out on the leaderboard. Inkster is a proud patriot when it comes time for the Solheim Cup, but she has never viewed the foreign explosion on the tour as a bad thing.

During her time as a pro, the success of European players was part of what elevated the Women's British Open to major status when the Du Maurier Classic disbanded. The Europeans' stars, led by Sweden's Annika Sorenstam and England's Laura Davies, became very popular among American fans, plus they drew crowds from their native countries for events overseas.

Inkster has taken part in the Solheim Cup in Sweden, where galleries were Tiger Woods-like. She has seen the growth spurred by numerous Asian players that has led to events in Asia. Plus an expansion to Mexico, spurred by the popularity of Lorena Ochoa, the LPGA Tour's current top player.

"I never would have thought in my younger years I'd be going to Thailand, Singapore, Korea and China," Inkster said. "They are phenomenal places. I've been to England, Canada, France, Sweden, South Africa. I mean, I'd never have been able to do that even when I started on tour 20 years ago."

Her 'babies'

Although the travel can be wearying, Inkster says she has been amazingly healthy. She jokes that the only physical "impediment" that has sidelined her from golf, briefly, was giving birth.

"I feel better now than I did when I was 25," Inkster said. "I've been very fortunate. I haven't had any surgeries, no back or hip problems. I don't know if it's genetics or what, but I've been very lucky."

It has been only those "babies" -- Hayley, 19, and Cori, 15 -- who really gave her pause during her career. Inkster would set up a crib in a hotel in a city where she'd sometimes awaken and have to think before she knew where she was. She felt an excessive, burdensome mother's guilt for a while as she took her eldest daughter around the country.

Her husband and friends tried to reassure her that she was not doing the wrong thing -- that she was, in fact, providing her kids experiences they'll remember their whole lives. But eventually, it was the girls themselves who convinced her.

"I started traveling with Hayley after 6 weeks, and she was sleeping in different places every week," Inkster said. "I thought, 'What if I'm raising a psycho person by doing this?'

"Then eventually, I saw how she was fine with it. I realized as long as she was with me or Brian, it didn't matter where we were. It was the same with Cori. They didn't know that not every kid has a frequent-flier card when they're 3 years old. I found out I can be a good mom and play golf, and once I got over that mental hump, it lifted a weight off my shoulders."

Being a mom actually has extended her career, Inkster thinks. She took some time off after each birth, and then the presence of her daughters at tournaments gave her something to focus on after both good and bad rounds.

In 1999, her life as a golfer and a mom came together in a way that made that season what she calls "probably my most fun year on the tour."

Inkster had won two majors in her second year as a pro, 1984, then another in 1989. But she had not won the biggest prize, the U.S. Women's Open. She had come close, in 1992, but lost in an 18-hole playoff to Patty Sheehan.

By 1999, she was a year from turning 40 and had not finished higher than tied for 14th in the Women's Open since '92. But in the sweltering heat of Mississippi in June, at a course called Old Waverly, she ran away with the tournament, finishing at 16 under par.

Later that month, Inkster celebrated her 39th birthday and won another major, the McDonald's LPGA Championship. She finished third and tied for sixth in the other two majors that year, and she also qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame.

"I would say it was the most fun because my kids were 9 and 5, and they knew," she said. "They were old enough that they understood what I did."

They also were able to appreciate it three years later when, in 2002, Inkster won her second U.S. Women's Open title. This one came on the same Prairie Dunes course in Hutchinson, Kan., where Inkster had won her first U.S. Women's Amateur title in 1980.

Inkster overcame Sorenstam on that final day in July 2002 and did it with what has been the hallmark of her career. It has been the thing that won her those seven majors and made her a valuable member of seven Solheim Cup teams.

At crunch time, few women have putted as confidently or as well as Inkster.

Her finish?

Hayley is a freshman at Loyola Marymount University now, and Cori is a high school freshman who plays basketball. Inkster says they have lived in a world significantly different from what she did in regard to girls and women in athletics.

"The stigma that was there when I was growing up is gone," she said. "Now, the homecoming queen is just as likely to also be captain of the soccer team or the basketball team."

Inkster says having teenaged daughters keeps her at least somewhat current on fashion and music trends, so she can relate better to younger players on the tour. She wishes more of them knew their history, a lament of many athletes as they grow older. But she says that when she tells her younger peers, "Look, I really need you to listen to me about this and do it," they usually do.

"Which is more than I can say for my daughters," she joked.

Inkster is pleased with the success of younger players such as Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel. She acknowledges they usually are very different in terms of mechanics than Inkster or players her age.

"We have swings like mine and Nancy Lopez's. Whatever they looked like didn't really matter, it's how they worked," Inkster said. "Nobody was telling us every day if we were on plane. I had a golf teacher I worked with maybe once every six months. Now, they all have very sound swings."

But do they always have sound foundations in life? Inkster did, because she wasn't raised to be a golf prodigy. Inkster looks at the public struggles of someone such Michelle Wie and hopes there is still a chance for her phenomenal talent to come to full fruition.

"She can be huge for our tour," Inkster said. "She's got a great swing; she bombs the ball. Fans like power, and she's got a ton of it. She could be our Tiger Woods, I still think that. I know that's a lot of pressure on her, and I don't even know if she wants it.

"But I'm happy to see her play well. I think she did the right thing going to qualifying school and earning her spot. She has to work to get the respect of other players and people. She got a lot of exemptions, and while she worked hard on her golf game, she never had to grind and make it herself. But her going to Q school, that says a lot. I think she's going to have a great year. She's got too much talent not to."

As for how long Inkster will continue to compete, she laughs and says she has no idea. She doesn't even worry about it. Other top players such as Sorenstam (who is 10 years younger) have stepped away from the game. Inkster keeps playing because she enjoys it and remains good at it.

She hasn't won a title since 2006, but she still feels competitive. It's not hard for her to keep going at this point.

"I still love the game, I even love practicing," Inkster said. "Most of the people my age, the ones I went to qualifying school with, are retired. They just can't believe I'm still playing."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.