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Americans looking to reclaim US Open

The U.S. Women's Open begins on the Fourth of July. It rarely ends with an American holding the trophy.

Only one American has won this country's national championship in the last seven years. There has never been a more appropriate time for another to win it.

The 57th Open gets under way at Prairie Dunes on Thursday, America's birthday.

``It sure would be nice if an American won this week,'' two-time champion Patty Sheehan said. ``It would be a great tribute to American golf and to the American people. I know they would get a big kick out of it -- or a big bang.''

Sheehan won the U.S. Open in 1992 and 1994. Since then, the only American winner has been Juli Inkster in 1999. Sweden's Annika Sorenstam won in 1995 and 1996, England's Alison Nicholas in 1997 and South Korea's Se Ri Pak in 1998. Australia's Karrie Webb won the last two years.

Sorenstam, Webb and Pak have become the big three on the LPGA tour, a triumvirate that has been tough for Americans to break. They have won nine of the 15 LPGA tournaments this year, including the last five, and both majors that have been played -- the Nabisco Championship (Sorenstam) and LPGA Championship (Pak).

The last American to win on the tour? Laura Diaz at the Corning Classic on May 26.

``Annika, Karrie and Se Ri are the three to beat and until we beat them, they are the favorites,'' Inkster said. ``But four rounds of golf, I think we have a good shot.''

Inkster might be the best hope to give America's tournament an American winner.

She has finished in the top five in her last three tournaments, including a tie for second last weekend at the ShopRite Classic. Inkster won the Chick-fil-A in early May and has finished in the top 10 three other times. She's fourth on the money list this year with $538,545.

``I hit the ball well enough to play out here,'' Inkster said. ``If I get my putter going, I feel like I've got just as good a chance. To win a U.S. Open, you've got to get some breaks and good lies in the rough when you do hit it bad.''

Inkster has experience in handling Prairie Dunes' compact, undulating greens and windy conditions, winning the U.S. Amateur on the course in 1980. She didn't remember it being particularly windy then until talking to her husband, Brian, earlier this week.

``I said, `It's howling here,''' she said. ``And he said, `Juli, it howled every day you were there.'''

The wind swirls around the foreign players, too, but they keep winning. Why? Inkster thinks it might be because American kids grow up doing everything.

``It's kind of like myself raising my kids,'' she said. ``They do soccer. They do softball, basketball, swimming. I think the foreign players, they pick a sport and they do it and they do it at an early age, whether it be golf, gymnastics or swimming. They don't do everything.

``Which way is right or wrong? I have no idea. But that's kind of the way I was raised. I played all sports. I just happened to get a job at the golf course and that's why I started playing golf.''

American Dottie Pepper isn't surprised that foreign golfers keep winning the U.S. Open. The best golfers win the Open, she said, and right now the best happen to be from Sweden, Australia and South Korea.

``But that could all change in four days,'' Pepper said. ``Let's hope it does, actually.''

Inkster isn't alone among American hopefuls.

Beth Daniel has played well recently and finished second at the LPGA Championship after leading through three rounds. Diaz has struggled after her Corning victory but is third on the money list. Cristie Kerr has a win this year and ranks ninth in earnings.

Inkster thinks more Americans eventually will be contending in the Open because golf is becoming cool again among U.S. youth.

``I look at all the girls and all the young kids out there watching us,'' Inkster said, ``and if it can become cool to play, I think we're going to get, maybe not this era, but next era there's going to be a lot of good young American players and I think it's going to be time.''

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