PINEHURST — Juli Inkster said she was “good” still – that this would remain her final U.S. Women’s Open despite traveling back in time Saturday and playing much younger than her 53 years.
She said she was a bit exhausted by it all – the preparation and the practice time, and then the competition itself.
“It’s a grind,” she said of competing in these events. “It’s a lot of work. The practice rounds and then the playing and 5 1/2-hour rounds. It’s just – I’m good with it.”
Still, for long stretches Saturday at Pinehurst No. 2, Inkster, who had missed the cut in each of her past four U.S. Women’s Opens, played like a younger version of herself. She drove well and hit enviable iron shots and made greens – all but one – and even then she was still able to putt.
She finished 4-under par 66, which left her at 2-over for the tournament – not too bad a place to be for a 53-year-old who plans to make this Women’s Open her last. All the while, wherever she went late during her round, the galleries at Pinehurst came to life.
“Come on, Juli,” people screamed, and, “Way to go, Juli.” When she walked up the 18th fairway, Inkster received a standing ovation and, when she narrowly missed a birdie putt to finish her round, there was a loud groan. She tapped in for par and walked down some steps to turn in her scorecard, all the while smiling widely.
“It never gets old,” Inkster said of the support that enveloped her. “It’s nice, especially when you’re playing well.”
Saturday was especially sweet – and a bit mellow, too – because Inkster’s 66 came with her old caddie, Greg Johnston, on the bag. Inkster’s regular caddie, Ralph Scarinzi, couldn’t make it this week. He wanted to be with his fatherwho is recovering from surgery.
So Inkster and and Johnston, who text regularly and keep in touch, reunited for one final Women’s Open. They’d won two together – in 1999 and 2002.
“We were a good team then,” Johnston said, “and we’ve been best friends ever since – the whole time, anyway. So it’s been pretty natural for both of us, I think.”
Johnston caddied for Inkster for 12 years, and then left in 2006. He worked with Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson, two of the most promising young players in women’s golf, and now Johnston has another chance with Inkster for a meaningful Women’s Open Sunday.
“We were having a good time,” Inkster said of working with Johnston. “Greg is like a brother to me and he worked for me for years. And then he dumped me. But that’s OK – most brothers do.”
At 53, Inkster is the oldest player in the field at Pinehurst. She played Saturday alongside Sandra Gal, a German who is nearly a quarter-century younger. They had played together before, maybe “a handful” of times, Gal said, but not like this.
Not with Inkster hitting iron after iron into the green, and then making putt after putt.
“It was just so much fun to watch,” Gal said. “She’s such a legend and being able to see how great of a person she is. She’s so light and always joking, but yet she has such tremendous focus.”
Inkster had the game to go along with it on Saturday. Her 66, which came amid five birdies, was her best score in a U.S. Women’s Open since 2002. She had missed the cut in six of the past seven Women’s Opens, but for 18 holes on Saturday she was the player she was in her prime.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter