August 23, 2012
No LPGA golfer has a richer or longer Hampton Roads history than Juli Inkster. She won the 1988 Crestar Classic at Sleepy Hole and repeated in '89 at Greenbrier Country Club. She made every cut of the tour's first seven tournaments at Kingsmill.
Still, it was a pleasant surprise to see Inkster among those committing to play in the LPGA's return to Kingsmill next month after a two-year hiatus.
That's because Inkster, at least to those of us who follow women's professional golf casually, has been off the radar. Indeed, recovering from offseason elbow surgery, she has played in only four events this year.
Her results — two made cuts and no rounds in the 60s — have been modest, her presence anything but.
"Typical Juli, I think she probably beat all the expectations of how fast she'd get back," LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. "What's impressive about Juli is, for as much golf as she's played, she's been incredibly durable.
"It's great to have her back. Not only is she a phenomenal player, but she's kind of a calming influence on tour. She's in charge, whether she knows it or not."
With 30 seasons on tour, Inkster, 52, is the circuit's elder stateswoman. She's won 31 tournaments, including seven majors, and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000. Her 33rd U.S. Women's Open appearance last month — she missed the cut with rounds of 79 and 82 — tied a record set by Marlene Hagge.
Aside from 1990 and '94, when she missed time having her two daughters, Inkster always has played a full schedule. But her right elbow began barking in late 2010, and in January doctors reattached a tendon and repaired her ulnar nerve.
After missing the cut in her first two starts, she tied for 40th at the Evian Masters and for 54th last week at the Safeway Classic.
Inkster's Hampton Roads victories couldn't have been more different. She eagled the par-5 18th at Sleepy Hole in 1988 to defeat Rosie Jones, Nancy Lopez and Betsy King (strong foursome there) in a sudden-death playoff; a year later, in miserably cold and wet conditions at Greenbrier, she cruised by five shots.
Lack of sponsorship drove the LPGA away from Hampton Roads in 1992, and the tour didn't return until 2003 at Kingsmill. Inkster didn't miss a beat.
She not only made every cut on Pete Dye's par-71 River Course, but also contended, tying for eighth in 2003 and for second in '04, two shots behind Cristie Kerr. In 2007, the year after her most recent victory, Inkster aced Kingsmill's par-3 13th hole in the opening round.
Inkster, Kerr, Natalie Gulbis, Lorena Ochoa and Angela Stanford are the only players to make all seven cuts at Kingsmill, and all but Ochoa, who retired in 2010, are expected to compete when the LPGA returns Sept. 6-9.
Much has changed since the tour left Kingsmill in 2009. Whan took over as commissioner in 2010, while Stacy Lewis, then a rookie, has morphed into the LPGA's top money winner in 2012.
Inkster is among the constants, even as she battles injury and uses a belly putter.
"Talk about a role model," Whan said. "If you had to put somebody on the table and say, here's my example of someone who truly gets it, who treats the fans, the (sponsors) and the media like a partner, she is the walking and talking living example of that.
"So the rest of us, at least in the last few years, have just been smart enough to follow her lead."
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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