PINEHURST — There were hugs after it ended, and loud cheers and a long ovation that lasted all the while Juli Inkster walked off the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 and down the stairs to sign her scorecard.
Before disappearing down the steps, she gave a slight smile and small wave, looking a little unsure of how to handle all the attention and support she received amid her 35th and final U.S. Women’s Open. She wished she could have done better.
Inkster shot a 4-under-par 66 Saturday that left her with hope that she would contend Sunday. But then she bogeyed the first hole on Sunday, and then the fourth, and also Nos. 6, 7 on her way to a 5-over 75. All the while, the cheers never ceased.
“It’s really hard, they were so pulling for me, but it’s really hard to acknowledge them when you’re 5-over par and struggling,” Inkster said. “It was very nice, especially the reception on No. 1 tee and reception on 18, and all around the golf course. It was great. (I’m) very, very, very honored.”
Inkster, 53, was the oldest competitor in the field. She played in her first U.S. Women’s Open in 1978. The first four times she played she left without winning any money. In time she became one of the best women’s golfers in the world, a winner 31 times on the LPGA Tour.
She turns 54 Tuesday, and so wherever she went Sunday people wished her a happy birthday. When she was walking down the fifth fairway, a group of women chanted in unison, “Happy Birthday, Juli!” One said she and Inkster soon would share the same age.
Inkster acknowledged with a wave and kept walking. For decades, she has been among the most recognizable figures in women’s golf. Her final Women’s Open was a renaissance of sorts. Her 66 on Saturday was her lowest round in a Women’s Open since 2002, when she won for the second time.
Any hope that she could keep it up – that she could continue to turn back the clock – quickly evaporated Sunday. Inkster hit 17 greens in regulation Saturday. By the second hole Sunday, it was already impossible to match that. She wound up missing the green in regulation 12 times.
Even so, after a while, her final round became a live tribute – a chance for people who have followed her career to show their support. One was her playing partner, Stephanie Meadow, who gave Inkster a high-five when Inkster made a birdie putt on No. 17.
“She’s a star, she’s a legend,” said Meadow, 22, who was playing as a professional for the first time. “So just to be beside her was unbelievable and to have the crowds there was a lot of fun for me too.”
Meadow described Inkster as an “idol,” and for so many younger women’s golfers, that’s what Inkster has been. After Saturday, Michelle Wie, who won by two shots, expressed doubt that this would be Inkster’s final U.S. Women’s Open.
Inkster, after all, provided plenty of evidence that she could still compete – that she had something left.
“You’re going to harp on that,” Inkster’s caddie Greg Johnston said Saturday of her age. “But she’s a very young 53-year-old. I mean, she’s in great shape. Mentally, she’s way stronger than most people out here at any age have ever been.”
Johnston caddied for Inkster during her two Women’s Open victories. They reunited this week after Inkster’s regular caddie couldn’t make it. When Inkster stepped to the first tee Sunday, there was still hope that there could be some magic left.
About five hours later, she had finished in a tie for 15th. No one would have known it by the reception she received.
She said she would remember moments like that and that it had been a “fun week.” But after 35 of these, she said, “I’m not going to miss much” – at least not about how difficult and grueling they can be.
“(I’m) just very proud to have won a couple,” Inkster said, “and I can always say I’m a U.S. Open champion. I think that’s what I take away from it.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter