Juli Inkster stands on the 18th tee at West Point’s Old Waverly Golf Club, and history is within her grasp.
For four days, Inkster has turned the 12-year-old course into her own personal playground, racing out to a five-shot lead with one hole to go and making believers out of the thousands of fans who now line the final fairway, each waiting for her to complete her journey and claim golf’s biggest prize: The U.S. Open trophy. It’s a new experience for her, just as it is for everyone involved with bringing golf’s most storied championship to this small town in Mississippi.
For a moment, just before she pulled driver out of her bag and split the fairway one final time, Inkster could be seen letting out and sigh and taking in the moment, as if to say “How did we get here?”
When Old Waverly opened its doors to the public in 1988, notoriety quickly followed. Within three years the course was widely considered the finest in Mississippi and by 1991, Golf Digest had recognized the Bob Cupp and Jerry Pate-designed gem as one of the top 100 courses in America.
That’s just how George Bryan wanted it. Bryan, Old Waverly’s founder, always had big plans for the course that sits just outside West Point’s city limits. Those plans wouldn’t take long to come to fruition.
An avid golfer and a fan of the game, Bryan routinely made trips to the LPGA’s Sara Lee Classic in Nashville, which was sponsored by the parent company of Bryan Foods. Through these yearly trips, Bryan eventually built contacts and relationships within the LPGA community; relationships that would eventually help foster dreams of a major event at Old Waverly.
“We had hosted a charity event for the Palmer Home that started in 1989,” Bryan said. “In that event, we were able to bring in some marquee names from the LPGA and of course we always made the trip to Nashville for the Sara Lee Classic, so we became very familiar with the tour. One day I was talking with a friend named Judy Bell, who worked for the tour, and she made the comment that Old Waverly looked like a course that could host a U.S. Open. She suggested that we put a bid in to host, and it just took off from there.”
Armed with both hope and opportunity, Bryan and an envoy of representatives from Old Waverly, West Point and the state of Mississippi headed to Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs, Colo., site of the 1995 U.S. Open.
There, the group made a presentation to the USGA in hopes of proving Old Waverly’s viability as a major championship host.
“We made the presentation and I believe that USGA was impressed with not only the course itself, but also the level of support from both our local and state officials,” Bryan said. “We had (former West Point mayor) Kenny Dill and Charlie Williams, who was with the state Ways and Means committee. The state really stepped up and showed its support and I believe that was instrumental.”
With the presentation behind them, all Bryan and company could do was wait. The wait didn’t last long.
In the summer of 1995, the USGA announced a pair of future Open sites, including Old Waverly.
“I was excited, no doubt,” Bryan added, “but mostly, I just thought to myself, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.’”
Inkster was in the same boat. By 1995, Inkster was in the midst of building a hall of fame resume, but one with a major hole in the middle of it.
Three years prior, Inkster gave up a two-shot lead with just two holes to go in the 1992 U.S. Open, eventually losing in a playoff to Patty Sheehan. It was a loss that followed Inkster.
Though she’d win 16 LPGA events and three majors by 1999, her near-miss in ’92 looked more and more like her only chance at the U.S. Open trophy as the years passed.
A mother of two, she hadn’t won a major in 10 years and at age 38, time appeared to be running short to fulfill her Open dreams.
After a perfect drive, Inkster stands in the middle of the 18th fairway at Old Waverly, staring headlong into history – and a massive wall of people. With Old Waverly’s stately clubhouse serving as the backdrop, the final green is framed by thousands upon thousands of fans, who now encircle the multi-tiered green to resemble something of a welcoming committee for the soon-to-be champion. But not yet, there’s still work to be done…
Ahh, work. That’s the first thing that came to Bill Colloredo’s mind when he learned that Old Waverly would host the Open. Colloredo joined the staff of Old Waverly in 1987 and by the mid-90’s, he was the course superintendent, in charge of every blade of grass on Old Waverly’s greens and fairways and every grain of sand in its bunkers. It was a demanding job already, but after the announcement, Coloredo now had the added pressure of preparing for one of golf’s most prestigious tournaments. He was up to the task.
“I knew we had a lot of work in front of us,” Coloredo said. “As soon as we found out we were hosting, we began to think about making some changes to the course. The USGA made some suggestions and I had some ideas about what we could do, and Mr. Bryan had a few changes that he felt needed to be made. We completely rebuilt a few greens and altered a few holes, particularly the finishing holes.”
In the midst of getting the course ready, Coloredo’s timeline was unexpectedly accelerated.
“Originally, we were given the 2000 U.S. Open, and that’s what we were shooting for,” Coloredo said. “Due to a scheduling conflict, the USGA came back and asked if we could take 1999. And that’s what we did.”
For Bryan, the choice to move the tournament forward was an easy one.
“They actually asked us if we wanted the 2001 or 1999 Open, and we chose 1999,” Bryan noted. “It just felt like ‘99 had a certain mystique to it, so we were pleased with the way it turned out.”
As the mid-90’s progressed and the Open crept closer and closer, the pressure began to increase, as did the workload.
“In 1997 we assembled a team of experts in just about every area to help get us ready, and of course we attended the U.S. Open every year prior to ours so we could get a feel of what to expect,” Bryan said. “When our turn came, we were going to be ready.”
Inkster was starting to wonder if it would ever be her turn. With the Open disappointment of 1992 still resonating, she decided to dedicate herself to getting back to the top of her game. By 1999, Inkster was once against showing flashes of what made her one the LPGA Tour’s most consistent players. Inkster won three tournaments in ‘99 by the time the Open rolled around. This time, she would be ready.
Just before she left for West Point, Inkster received words of encouragement from an unlikely source – Patty Sheehan.
“She said ‘Juli, go out and win this thing. It’s your time to do it,’” Inkster recalled.
Right in the middle of the green. That’s where she aimed, and now that’s where Juli Inkster stood. With a five-shot lead in her possession and her opponent in the bunker on the 72nd hole, Inkster was finally at ease. Fitting, since she made everything look easy from the moment she set foot in West Point.
Players and fans were still stinging from the 1998 U.S. Open, a meatgrinder of a tournament with ankle-high rough and unforgiving greens that produced embarrassing results for the world’s best golfers. South Korea’s Se Ri Pak was the winner, or survivor, claiming the trophy with a four-round total of 6-over par. The USGA was not going to let that happen again.
One year later, Old Waverly – and Mississippi’s 100-degree heat – welcomed the golfers. After an unusually cold winter, the trademark thick Bermuda grass seen at most Opens hadn’t reached its proper maturity by the first week of June at Old Waverly. Added to the fact that the USGA wanted a more forgiving setup, the course seemed helpless during the tournament’s first two days, with over 100 golfers sitting below par after two rounds.
“We had rain just before the tournament, which softened up the fairways and greens,” Coloredo said. “When you put players this good on a course that’s had some rain, the scores are going to go low. By the time the weekend rolled around, the course began to fight back.”
For Inkster, the low numbers were a welcome sight.
“I know the course took some criticism because of all the low scores that week, but to me, it’s just a phenomenal golf course,” Inkster said. “The year before was just miserable. At Old Waverly, the rain right before the tournament helped us out, but it wasn’t just a bomber’s course. It really rewarded shotmaking and you had to use every club in your bag.
“It was a course with tricky greens and a great set of finishing holes. From No. 14 through 18, those holes are a perfect way to end a major tournament.”
Three players tied the U.S. Open record with rounds of 64 during the first two days, including 22-year-old Kelli Kuehne, who led after the first round and wound up finishing second to Inkster. By Saturday, one thing was becoming clear: The 1999 U.S. Open belonged to Inkster.
With searing heat taking its toll, Inskter was the only golfer to keep up the blistering pace, firing a 5-under 67 to shatter the 54-hole record at an Open, giving her a four-shot lead as the Mississippi sun set on Saturday night.
“The hardest part is the waiting,” Inkster said. “I felt like it was my tournament to win or lose, but having to wait that extra night was tough. I wanted to just hurry up and get it over with.”
The trophy was hers. After a final round that basically amounted to an 18-hole coronation, Inkster stood in the middle of the 18th green, applause swelling around her from every direction. Over 120,000 people made their way through the gates of Old Waverly that week, still a U.S. Open record. And at this moment, all eyes were on the new U.S. Open champion.
In the middle of the gallery, taking in the final moments of a dream 12 years in the making, were Bryan and Colloredo.
“I have a picture in my office of that scene, the 18th green on the final day,” Colloredo said. “It’s amazing to think about now. I just remember being so satisfied when it was all over.”
Bryan echoed Colloredo’s sentiments.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Bryan said. “Just watching her come up 18, with all the people crowded around the 18th green and the clubhouse. It was surreal. I’ll never forget that moment.”
Neither will Inkster, who finished at 16-under, a record that’s unlikely to ever be broken.
“I’ll never forget a minute of that tournament,” Inkster said. “You never know when it’s your time, but that day, walking up the 18th green and having the gallery pull for me the way they did, that’s what you dream about.”
Later that night, after the gallery had dispersed and the reality of catching her dream had set in, Inkster was able to take stock of the situation.
“I didn’t sleep at all that night, I was still so excited,” Inkster said. “The next day, I took a nap, and when I woke up, I realized ‘I’m the U.S. Open champion.’ It was a great moment.”
For Bryan, the next day also featured a watershed moment.
“The day after, I was playing golf with some remaining LPGA people and I just remember feeling exhausted after everything was said and done,” Bryan noted. “It was a good feeling of exhaustion, knowing we had accomplished so much.
“It was like a dream come true.”
Contact Brandon Walker at 678-1601 or email@example.com
Brandon Walker/NEMS Daily Journal