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Jim Murray

She Has Written the Script; Only Score Is Missing

March 22, 1985|JIM MURRAY

Jack Nicklaus never did it. Neither did Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Gene Littler, nor any other household name in the game.

More to the point, neither did Babe Didrikson, Patty Berg, JoAnne Carner or Louise Suggs.

Of all the modern players, only Juli Inkster ever won three straight national Amateur golf championships. Before that, you had to go all the way back to Glenna Collett and Virginia Van Wie to find players who had so dominated an event. Collett won the Amateur in 1928, '29 and '30, and Van Wie in 1932, '33 and '34.

It had also been done late in the 19th Century by a woman named Beatrix Hoyt, but she qualified for the 1897 tournament by shooting 108, and for the 1899 event with a 97, leading to the suspicion that winning three straight titles then was not quite the feat it was to become.

Bobby Jones won five Amateur championships in seven years but could never put three in a row. Nicklaus won two out of three to close out his amateur career, but not the one in between. Deane Beman won that one.

The gulf between the amateur game and the pro game is popularly believed to be so wide as to be unbridgeable, but even a casual look at the ranks of both categories produces remarkable duplication.

If you excel at the amateur level, chances are you have built a bottom to a career that will carry on. You canvass the roll of past Amateur champions in the men's circuit and you find, in addition to Jones and Nicklaus, Littler, Jerry Pate, Craig Stadler and Lanny Wadkins, to say nothing of Palmer, Mark O'Meara and Beman.

Nicklaus walked right from an Amateur championship in 1961 to the Open championship in 1962. Bobby Jones used to win Open championships--four of them--while he was the reigning Amateur champion.

So, Inkster thought it would be a box of candy to cross over from trophy golf to bankbook golf. As the best amateur golfer in the world three times over, she set out in a field of 150 lesser lady golfers to win her professional card in qualifying school in 1983.

She didn't even make the cut.

"It was a humiliating experience," she remembers. "Here I thought I was one of the world's great golfers and I couldn't even play with the big girls."

One of the things a champion learns in any phase of the game is never to look back.

"I was really shocked," Juli said. She did, however, take stock of the conditions of the qualifying school, an eye-of-the-needle initiation in which only 12 out of 150 women get accredited. She came back nine months later to the second qualifying school and not only got her card, but shot the low score.

On the tour, she carried on in the tradition of Amateur champions. She won the fifth tournament in which she played and, before her rookie year was out, went on to win two of the women's major tournaments, the 1984 Nabisco Dinah Shore and the DuMaurier Canadian Open. She won $186,501 as a rookie and $217,000 overall for the calendar year.

Juli Inkster's life story and love story are right out of a Rock Hudson-Doris Day plot, anyway. All it needs is the hit song.

It all began when she was Juli Simpson, this cute little 15-year-old daughter of a fire captain in Santa Cruz. She used to show up at the driving range, wearing a golf cap and mud on her nose. She got $3.25 an hour for picking up range balls and re-charging golf carts for the head pro at the Pasatiempo golf course.

Warner Bros. would have loved the rest of the script--hunk gets girl:

Golf pro Brian Inkster goes from hollering at this funny little ball girl to noticing that she had this real cute little swing, to say nothing of those big brown eyes. He goes to work on the swing. He's tough, demanding, a perfectionist until all of a sudden he begins noticing other parts of her besides the grip. Next, he begins to find that he can't stand to see her cry, even when the weight shift is all wrong for the tee shot. Also, he notes the weight shift is just fine for the disco.

You can guess Reels 8 and 9. There are four straight years as an All-American at San Jose State, a victory in the California state amateur at Pebble Beach, and then--a little Mendelssohn, Professor!--orange blossoms and wedding bells. Sure box office. They don't make movies like that any more.

Juli went from there to her three straight amateur championships in 1980, '81 and '82.

But all this is prologue to the threshold the Inksters are poised over today. Juli, a seasoned pro of 24, is the defending champion in the Nabisco Dinah Shore to be played April 4-7 at Mission Hills in Palm Springs. The good news is, it is worth $1 million to her if she can repeat as champion. And no one is better at repeating today than Juli Inkster.

The Dinah Shore is probably the most prestigious women's event this side of their Open. It is the women's equivalent of the Masters.

But, since, as with the men, a national Amateur title qualifies as a major victory, Juli Inkster can, with a win here, roll her total of majors to six, the fastest start any player ever got on the game's honor roll.

The answer to the trivia question: "Which one of the following golfers won the most major tournaments in a career, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones or Sam Snead?" may be "None of the above. The answer is golfer Juli Inkster."

After all, she is the only one of the above ever have to won three U.S. Amateurs back to back.

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