SOUTHERN PINES, NORTH CAROLINA | Arnold Palmer used to say that the hardest tournament to win is the one you are supposed to.
It is almost certain that Arnie didn’t study the law of reverse effect, an axiom that states the more you want something, the harder it is to attain. But you don’t have to be a clinical psychologist to know that wanting something to the point of obsession invariably insures that you won’t get it.
Want to quit smoking? Better not obsess on quitting.
Want a promotion? Best that you put your head down and focus on your current job and not think about the new job too much.
And, of course, if you want to win a USGA championship, one a good number of people think you are supposed to win, the last thing you should do is think about winning.
That is why, when chatting with one of the players most likely to contend for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open title this week at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, the last thing she wanted to talk about was “winning.”
“You still have to go out there and hit the shots and make the putts,” Juli Inkster said. “This is a very demanding golf course. You have to be on your toes.”
Chalk that up as typical pre-championship pap, the kind of thing that ranks up there with “it is what it is,” in conversational uselessness.
Inkster also didn’t like the term “prohibitive favorite” being used anywhere near her name.
“It’s just words,” she said. “I feel like I have a good shot but you have to fill in all the boxes. Out here, 72 holes is a lot of golf. You’re going to leave yourself in some bad spots and you just have to try to limit your damage and move on. The key here is to hit as many greens as you can. The problem is, when I have a wedge or a 9-iron in my hand my mentality is to fire at pins. But here you can’t do that. You can hit a great shot and if it’s off just a little it will roll off one way or roll off the other way.
“Really you just have to play to different spots. And if you have a chance, take advantage of it.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s your first tournament in two years or if you played last week, it’s a USGA event. Everybody wants to win a USGA event, whether it’s a junior, an amateur, a regular (open) or a senior.” – Juli Inkster
Inkster also didn’t care to be reminded that by winning the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, she would become one of only five people in history to win three different USGA championships and join Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as winners of a USGA amateur, open and senior open.
“Yeah, that’s far from what I’m thinking right now,” Inkster said. “I would really like to just play four really good rounds out here and not ‘F’ up like I usually do. I mean, I’d just like to play and then come in and say, ‘OK, I did a lot of good things. Some not so good, but I did a lot of good things.’ ”
That’s baloney. We know it. She knows it. And she knows that we know it. Inkster wants to win. But, even though she, too, probably never read about the law of reverse effect in any textbook, she understands that wanting an outcome distracts from the process. And process is what gets you over the finish line.
Inkster, 58, has missed the cut in every tournament she’s played on the LPGA this season – four in a row dating back to March 21. Her only win recently came in a nine-hole scramble at the 3M Greats of Golf, part of the PGA Tour Champions’ Insperity Invitational. Inkster partnered with Ben Crenshaw, Fuzzy Zoeller and Bill Rogers to shoot 7 under and beat Nancy Lopez, Hale Irwin, Larry Nelson and Dave Stockton by a shot.
“Yeah, I’ve got one in a row,” Inkster said.
But she also has an edge over most of the field in this U.S. Senior Women’s Open. Inkster and Laura Davies are the only two players who compete regularly these days. Most of the rest are teachers – like Donna Andrews, who is now an instructor at Pine Needles, and Laura Baugh, who teaches at Sawgrass Country Club in Florida – or college coaches like San Diego State’s Leslie Spalding, who played the LPGA in the ’90s and early 2000s. Others like Jane Crafter and Kay Cockerill work in television. While a few, like Jan Stephenson, own golf courses and enjoy retirement.
But even if it’s been a while; even if the competitive expectations have shifted, once they get on the tee, the old feelings stir again. “You definitely feel different,” Inkster said. “But (being a favorite) on paper doesn’t mean anything. If you get to the first tee and you don’t have the jitters, you need to retire. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first tournament in two years or if you played last week, it’s a USGA event. Everybody wants to win a USGA event, whether it’s a junior, an amateur, a regular (open) or a senior. So, you get the jitters. And that’s good.”
As long as you don’t want it too much. That, as everyone knows, is the kiss of death.
Juli Inkster hits a pitch shot during the final round of last year’s inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club. Photo: John Gress, Copyright USGA
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