ROCHESTER, N.Y. | When her own father turned 50 many years ago, Juli Inkster recalled that she thought her dad was old, as in really old. And so, as she approached her own half-century Big Birthday this past Thursday, the veteran of 28 years on the LPGA Tour recently asked her two teenage daughters if they thought the same about their mother.
“I asked my kids, is 50 old?” she said not long after completing her first round in the Wegmans LPGA Championship. “They said, ‘Well yeah, but mom, you don’t act 50.’”
Not outside the gallery ropes, or inside them either, at least judging from Inkster’s performance so far this year, or last week at Locust Hill Country Club, for that matter. She merely rocketed up the board with a run of four birdies in a stretch of five holes in the middle of her first round and found herself leading the second women’s major of the season. She finished that day with a 71 after a few sloppy bogeys down the stretch, but for the ninth time in 10 events this year, Inkster made the cut and played on the weekend.
She obviously did not win the tournament, a feat that would have made her the oldest major champion, male or female, in the history of the game. Julius Boros did it at age 48 on the men’s tour when he prevailed in the 1968 PGA Championship. And Fay Crocker remains the oldest female major winner, at age 45 in the 1960 Titleholders when the now defunct event was considered a major.
But Inkster, arguably the most popular American player on the LPGA circuit, clearly believes she still has the ability to compete at a high level, and possibly win.
“I know I’m not going to be Player of the Year and I know I’m not going to be the No. 1 player,” she said. “But you know what, I have a lot of good friends out here…To me, it’s not a job…I love what I do. I play 16, 17 events out of the year and the rest I have off. I don’t know why I wouldn’t play. It’s not like we have a seniors tour. I love to play golf.”
And her fellow players clearly are genuinely delighted to still have her in their midst.
“She is the iron woman,” said Cristie Kerr. “She was one of the people that were my idols when I was coming up and playing golf and first getting out here. She won more majors after having kids than before, and now she has 30-some (31) wins and is the No. 1 American on the all-time money list. She is amazing.”
Said Stacy Lewis, “If I’m playing golf out here when I’m 50 years old, I don’t know. It’s pretty amazing what she is able to do. She doesn’t act like she’s 50 years old. She acts like she’s one of us. I think it’s great for the game.”
Last Monday night, several of her younger pals took Inkster out for a birthday dinner at a local Italian joint and chipped in to buy her an iPad.
“Yes, I do like gadgets,” Inkster said. “I do have to admit I’m having a little help. Morgan (Pressel) is going to help me because I couldn’t even get the thing going.”
Inkster also said her own kids, now 20 and 16, have also played a major role in “keeping me young. They’re great to travel with and we do a lot of fun stuff together. They love to shop. They love to shop for me. I don’t really go into a store anymore. They just pick clothes out and bring them home and I put them on. I listen to all their music, just because that’s what’s playing. So maybe that helps.”
But Inkster is hardly hearing her own swan song these days. She won’t say how much longer she plans to keep playing, because she really doesn’t seem to know herself. The California native still hits the ball as far as she ever has. Her putting, she said, is constantly improving. And she’s healthy, with no aches and pains to slow her down.
The only change in a Hall of Fame player with seven major titles?
“I definitely think I’ve mellowed a lot,” she said. “I used to take golf home and stew. I don’t do any of that any more. When I tee it up, I believe I can win. If I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I just like to compete. I like to see how good I can be at this age.”
Her only concession to her age these days is her steadfast insistence that even if she qualifies on points, she will not compete in the Solheim Cup matches this fall. She’s already been picked as an assistant captain to Rosie Jones, and surely will captain the American team sooner than later. But even if Jones wanted her as a wild card, she won’t play.
“Why? Because I’ve done it,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve had great memories. But I feel it’s time the younger players get out there and get the experience and learn it. I’m perfectly satisfied where I am. I don’t need to play the Solheim Cup to validate my career.”