LOS ALTOS, Calif. - As Juli Inkster leans back in an overstuffed chair in the clubhouse at Los Altos Country Club, she seems as casual as they come. It's a fitting place to talk with the 43-year-old Inkster, and not just because her personality has always been more approachable than one might expect from a winner of seven LPGA majors.
The private club, near her Los Altos residence in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, is literally like a second home for Inkster. Just a pitch shot away from that clubhouse, husband Brian is manning the golf shop in his position as head professional, while older brother Mike Simpson is patrolling the grounds as the long-time course superintendent.
The Los Altos Club is a classic Tom Nicoll design that was first opened in 1923, but is now in the process of being redesigned. With the Santa Cruz Coastal Range as a backdrop, the views from the course are some of the most spectacular in the Bay Area.
Through a career that has included seven major championships and induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame, Inkster has remained a devoted mother. Despite the travel and demands that come with being one of the great players in the women's game, her priorities remain focused on her two daughters, 13-year-old Hayley and 9-year-old Cori.
"I pick and choose my tournaments and I don't play as many as everybody else, but I'm fine with that," Inkster says. "I enjoy where I am right now. The best thing I ever did in my life was have kids. I wouldn't trade that for anything."
It was through her introduction to the game that Inkster first met Brian, when she started working as a 15-year-old in the cart barn and golf shop at Pasatiempo Golf Club, in her hometown of Santa Cruz, Calif. Pasatiempo is one of the prized works of legendary architect Alister Mackenzie, who considered the course one of his best.
Brian was working at the private club as an assistant pro and eventually moved on to the head job, while Juli was a constantly improving amateur player. Her blossoming relationship with him was partly responsible for her decision to stay close to home and attend San Jose State.
"It worked out perfectly because I could sew my oats out there and go home on weekends," Inkster says. "The best move I made was going to San Jose State because there were only six girls on the team, so I wasn't constantly qualifying. I could concentrate on trying to be a better player without the pressure of always having to qualify to make the trip."
It was an overly modest mindset for a girl who the summer before her first year in college advanced to the fourth round of the U.S. Women's Amateur and went on to be a four-time All-American. She won her first U.S. Women's Amateur the summer after she married Brian, then went on to win it the next two years as well.
"The U.S. Amateur is so different from other kinds of competitive golf because it's match play and anybody can beat anybody on any given day," Inkster says. "Someone gets hot and you're out. So, it's pretty impressive to win 18 straight matches, looking back on it."
Even more impressive was Inkster's rookie year on the LPGA, when she surprised everyone but herself in winning major titles at the Nabisco Dinah Shore and du Maurier Classic.
"It came really quick, but also I worked really hard," Inkster says. "I was always trying to improve. But winning two majors my rookie year was unbelievable. That kind of got me going, but I always felt I could play out there. I always felt that if I played week in and week out that I could eliminate a lot of stuff and contend out there."
That continued as Inkster won 10 times over the next five seasons, but her productivity fell below her standards after she had first child Hayley in 1990. From that point through the 1996 season, she won just two tournaments.
"I played six weeks after I had Haley, and it was a big adjustment because I had played seven years without kids," Inkster says. "I got a lot of help from my parents, but I really dealt with a lot of mental anguish. I was thinking, Am I doing this right? I'm playing bad golf, I'm hauling my kid around, is she going to turn out to be psycho? It was all the mental anguish that working moms deal with. Hayley was probably two when I came to the conclusion that she didn't know a different life than that. As long as she was with Brian and me, that was the most important thing. That's when I kind of let up and started getting back into becoming a better player."
After having Cori in 1994 though, Inkster got refocused on the game, much to the credit of Brian, who encouraged her and introduced her to Denver teaching pro Mike McGetrick.
"I worked with him in Denver for three days and he said, 'To get back to where I think you need to be, it's going to take a year,'" Inkster says. "I was like, 'A year? No way. I want to do it now!' But it was about a year, and I saw steady improvement. I started playing very consistently and I'd never been that way before. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and I think that gave me hope."
The reward for that hard work was the 1999 season, when Inkster won the U.S. Women's Open and LPGA Championship at the age of 38. It earned her induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame, something she admits she "never, ever dreamed of being able to do."
Says Inkster, "My Hall of Fame was my two kids. But to be able to have a family and make it into the Hall of Fame and keep playing successful golf has been incredible. I look at all the people who are in the Hall of Fame and I still don't feel like I belong there. They announce it on the first tee, 'World Golf Hall of Fame and LPGA Hall of Fame,' and I'm like, 'Who is that?'"
All the accomplishments and accolades have saddled Inkster with the awkward balance of celebrity status and motherhood. She says her kids, who still often travel with her to tournaments, have handled it all in stride.
"The girls understand that my job is different from the other moms' jobs, but they're very proud of what I do and they still enjoy coming with me, which is great," Inkster says. "They'll come home and say one of their friends wants me to sign something, and they just laugh. Or we'll be having dinner somewhere and someone will walk by and say, 'Hi, Juli' and they wonder how people know my name. They sometimes have a hard time grasping it, but as far as they're concerned, I'm their mom and everyone at school knows I'm just Hayley and Cori's mom."
And Hayley and Cori's mom continues to shine on the golf course, despite the LPGA's transition to a tour dominated by younger, foreign players. Last year, at 42, she won another U.S. Open, and won twice this year, including last May's Corning Classic with a final-round 62. Her 30th career win came in July at the Evian Masters in France. And despite a losing effort by her American team in the Solheim Cup, Inkster went 3-1 and won her singles match over Carin Koch of Sweden.
Inkster maintains that her success over the years - and recently during a time when many players are past their primes - is owed mainly to a resilient mindset gained from a lifetime of competing with two older brothers.
"There are a lot of good players who don't win, so you've got to have some kind of heart and you've got to be able to play aggressive and not worry about your mistakes," Inkster says. "That's the way I always played. I always felt like the bigger the stage, the better I played."
October 4, 2003
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