PINEHURST — With much of the attention for the U.S. Women’s Open focused on the youngest member of the field, Juli Inkster, who turns 54 next week, reminded everyone that she’s still got it.
Inkster shot a 1-over 71 in her opening round on Pinehurst No. 2, tied for 11th place in her last U.S. Women’s Open. She’s a full 42 years older than 11-year-old Lucy Li, the youngest player in the tournament, and she had a few years on her playing partners, too: 31-year-old Natalie Gulbis and 23-year-old Cheyenne Woods. But Inkster’s number was lowest where it counted most, on the scorecard, as Woods shot an 8-over 78 and Gulbis a 9-over 79.
“That's the beauty of golf,” Inkster said. “I can still come out there and compete with them, no matter what age we’re at.
“I don't know if they enjoy playing with an old lady,” she deadpanned.
It was clear, though, that Woods and Gulbis, especially, enjoyed playing with Inkster. After Gulbis sank a long birdie putt on No. 3, Inkster gave her a fist bump and told a story from a past round at Myrtle Beach as the pair walked to the fourth tee box. Inkster kept the mood light while the pace of play screeched to a halt at times – it took more than five hours for them to finish their round – telling tales from the old days of the LGPA Tour.
“Just hearing how it was back when she first got out was interesting,” Woods said of Inkster, who debuted on the tour in 1983. “It’s gotten a little bit more intense. More intense and better events.”
Inkster showed what 35 years’ worth of U.S. Women’s Open experience could do after the group left the fourth green, debating whether they were allowed to hit practice pitches and putts after they finished a hole. Inkster – who first played in this event as a 15-year-old in 1978 – thought so, and she called over a rules official to verify, which he did.
“Good one, Jules,” Gulbis said.
“Thirty-five years, babe,” Inkster said back.
“It helps when the round is as slow as it was today,” Gulbis said of the camaraderie, “because it makes for we can have good small talk, and Juli is always great for stories and has a really great demeanor to her.”
The group didn’t take practice putts and chips, as the going got tougher once they started on No. 5. Woods’ second shot on the par-5, from the left natural area, was so errant that she had to call “fore!” to warn Inkster and her caddie. Woods played her third shot from the far right-hand side of the course, just inside the ropes, into the left bunker in front of the green, joining Inkster. Moments later, Gulbis’ chip from just in front of the green was left as well, and it funneled down with Woods and Inkster. Woods and Gulbis took bogeys – the wise veteran was able to save par.
While she was chatty at times, Inkster was steely intense at others, stomping her feet and tapping the shaft of her putter against the brim of her hat to show frustration. Ultimately, though, her round was much more satisfying than those of her playing partners.
“I like this golf course, because I think it weeds a lot of players out,” Inkster said. “This is my type of golf course.”
Woods described her ball striking as horrible and her putting as “just as bad.” With a laugh, she said, “guess that’s why I was 8-over.” The killers for her were the double-bogeys on Nos. 11 and 16, the latter coming when a 3-foot bogey putt hit the edge of the hole and spun out. Woods isn’t yet on the LGPA Tour – the 2012 Wake Forest graduate is a member of the Ladies European Tour and plays often on the Symetra Tour, one step down from the LPGA. She earned her first professional win in February, at the Ladies Australian Masters and advanced to the U.S. Women’s Open through sectional qualifying.
“She’s a good player,” Inkster said of Woods. “She’s going to develop. She really wants to be out here, and she really wants to compete out here. She hits it long enough. She’s a little rusty in the short game area, but she can work on that. Fundamental-wise, she’s got a really good swing.”
That’s the swing Earl Woods taught her, the one she used to post the lowest single season and career scoring averages at Wake Forest. Throughout the round, fans yelled, “Go Deacs!” and Woods raised an arm in acknowledgment. And on the 348-yard, par-4 No. 13, Woods showed the group how it was done, sticking her second shot closest to the pin and waiting for both Inkster and Gulbis to putt twice before finishing her birdie.
“Sorry to make you wait so long,” Inkster said as they walked to the next tee.
Woods laughed. One of many the three shared during the round.