When Juli Inkster tees it up Thursday afternoon at Sebonack Golf Club, the World Golf Hall of Famer will set a record for number of appearances in the U.S. Women’s Open.
In addition to making an unprecedented 34 starts in the grueling event, Inkster, who turned 53 on Monday, will also be the oldest competitor among 155 other golfers, including the youngest winner in LPGA history, Lydia Ko, as well as Jessica Korda’s 14-year-old sister, Nelly, the youngest contender in the field.
Inkster, who will play thanks to a special exemption by the USGA, will shatter the record for graybeards held until now by Marlene Hagge. The 31-time tour winner and owner of two U.S. Open titles will be chasing — along with everyone else, including defending champion Na Yeon Choi — Inbee Park for Open glory.
Park, the world No. 1 who has dominated women’s golf with five victories in 12 starts this season (including back-to-back Ws coming into the week), is the odds-on favorite to win the event. Should she do so, the 24-year-old who made the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open her first win on tour, will become only the second golfer in history to triumph in the first three majors of the season. Babe Zaharias last accomplished that feat in 1950.
“I just love the U.S. Open,” Inkster told reporters Wednesday, on the eve of the 68th playing of the event. “Growing up, that was the championship everybody wanted to win, so just being able to win it twice is a great thrill….I’m looking forward to playing. It’s a great golf course. It’s tough. It’s going to be a good test, so we’ll see what happens.”
Ko, who made history with her win at the 2012 Canadian Women’s Open at 15, may have something of a home-field advantage this week. The now-16-year-old Kiwi, an amateur who was born in South Korea, has enlisted the looping services of Louis deKerillis, assistant pro at Sebonack, which opened in Southampton, N.Y., in 2006.
“The head pro here, Jason, he is a New Zealander, so we kind of got to know him first, and then he connected us with Louis,” Ko said. “He’s definitely very helpful….It is pretty much his home course. He knows the course way better than me, especially when…I’m in pressure mode, I think that’s when he’ll help the most.”
Fifteen, by the way, is the same age at which Inkster began tinkering with a golf club.
“Most of these girls are starting off really young playing, and by the time they get out here, they’ve played 10 years of competitive golf,” Inkster said. “It’s just a lot of golf, a lot of wear and tear on your body. I didn’t even start playing until I was 15. So I think it’s just different times and a lot of different great players coming from all over the world.”
Inkster will play the first two rounds with Christina Kim and Katherine Hull-Kirk. They’ll kick off their Open at 2:09 p.m. ET Thursday on the first tee.