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Juli Inkster still going strong at 40

"I'm going to enjoy it. I mean, this will probably never happen again.'' --Juli Inkster, after winning the 1999 LPGA Championship.

She fooled us again.

A year ago, Juli Inkster snatched the two missing pieces of the Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open and the LPGA Championship just 21 days apart. Then, she capped a dream season by winning one last tournament to qualify for the Hall of Fame.

She had every reason to call it a career.

Her daughters are 10 and 6, and Inkster spends as much time watching them play softball and soccer as they do watching her win golf tournaments. Her husband, Brian, is the head pro at Los Altos Golf and Country Club, which has an exclusive membership in Northern California.

There have been times this year when Inkster would chop up the back nine and wonder what she was doing out there. What else was there to prove?

She answered that herself after winning the LPGA Championship on the day after she turned 40, becoming its first repeat champion in 16 years and winning her third major championship in the last five played.

"I love to compete,'' she said. "It's in my blood.''

Mickey Wright had the sweetest swing. Kathy Whitworth had the most victories. Babe Zaharias had the athleticism and star power, while Nancy Lopez had the charisma.

Inkster is defined by her competitiveness, a quality that is not easy to define.

"I don't know where it comes from, but it's pretty amazing,'' said Brian Inkster, who has known her since she was 15. "I would never have bet that her level of play would be quite as good this year. But I would never bet against Juli.''

Know this about Inkster. She plays from the tips at Los Altos, and takes as much satisfaction out of beating the club's top players as winning on the LPGA Tour.

"She is just as competitive out here,'' he said.

Inkster is not the first player to win so many majors this late in her career.

Two years ago, Mark O'Meara became the oldest man to win two majors in a year by claiming The Masters and the British Open. He capped off his year by coming from behind to beat Tiger Woods in the World Match Play Championship in England.

Then he rewarded himself, raking in the riches afforded to sudden stardom. O'Meara hasn't been the same since, and the next opportunity to hear from him might be from the broadcast booth.

Inkster also had a chance to cash in and declined. Her focus has never wandered far from family, or from the her passion.

"I got a lot of opportunities to travel around the world and play, but that's not me,'' she said. "I'd just as soon play out here and be close to home. I'm going to play in tournaments that I want to play in, but not tournaments I think I should play in.

"I don't play for money. To me, it's got to be an awful lot to leave my kids for a week.''

Of course, there are vast differences between them, starting with the number of zeros on the check. And O'Meara spent 18 years on the PGA Tour, almost all of them at a high level, before he finally realized his dream of winning a major.

For Inkster, it almost came too easily.

Juli Inkster celebrates her win at the LPGA McDonalds Championship.Allsport.

Before anyone heard of Tiger Woods, she became the first player in almost 50 years to win three straight U.S. Women's Amateurs (1980-82). In her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, she won two majors. In her first six full years, she won 13 times and three majors.

After she started a family, she won four times without a major over the next eight years and thought about packing it in.

"It killed her to be where she was,'' Brian said. "She really likes being considered by her peers as a top player. That's something she doesn't want to let go.''

Inkster will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the World Golf Village in November. She was the first one to play her way in under the new qualifications criteria, but her record speaks for itself.

Only five other women have won more majors. The LPGA Championship was Inkster's sixth major, joining Patty Sheehan, Pat Bradley, and Betsy King as the most among active players.

Inkster was in no mood to reflect, not with the U.S. Women's Open three weeks away. Besides, she had a swing to fix.

"I probably don't give myself as much credit as I should because it keeps me hungry and makes me work hard,'' she said. "I guess I'm never really satisfied with where I'm at. Maybe when I sit back in my rocking chair at 41, I'll have more thoughts on that.''

Maybe at age 41, she'll win yet another major. And she will have fooled us one again.


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