PINEHURST, N.C. — The way she played Saturday at Pinehurst No. 2, you’d think Juli Inkster would want to reconsider declaring this as her final U.S. Women’s Open.
Inkster shot a tournament-low 4-under-par 66 in the third round to move into a tie for third and put herself in contention for the championship entering Sunday’s final round.
“Let's just say I'm in a lot better shape today than I was yesterday,” Inkster said. “I knew I had to come out here, if I wanted to do anything, and have a good round and I was able to put it together today. So who knows tomorrow? I'm just going to enjoy it. It's a great golf course, so enjoy the walk.”
Inkster made five birdies and a bogey Saturday to move up from a tie for 28th into the tie for third, and cut the amount of shots she trailed leader Michelle Wie from 10 to just four. Wie now shares the lead at 2-under 208 with Amy Yang.
Inkster is playing in her record 35th Women’s Open and said Wednesday it will be her last. She’s standing by the statement. “I’m totally fine with it,” she said. “I've played 35 of them. Is one more going to really make a difference, one way or another? I don't think so. It's a grind. It's a lot of work. The practice rounds and then playing and 5 1/2-hour rounds. I'm good with it.”
She has a chance to become the tournament’s oldest winner. She turns 54 on Tuesday, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias is the oldest winner at 53 years and 6 days in 1954.
“You can think and you can dream all you want, but the bottom line is you've got to come out and make the shots,” Inkster said. “So, tomorrow I've got to come out and make the shots.”
Inkster finished more than three hours before the lead twosome of Wie and Lexi Thompson. She birdied the par-4 first hole with a 15-foot birdie putt, par-5 fifth with a wedge to 8 feet despite hitting her tee shot into the native area and having to punch out, and the par-4 seventh with a chip to 4 feet on the shortened hole.
She bogeyed the eighth with a three-putt from 30 feet, but rebounded with a birdie on the par-5 10th with a bunker shot to 15 feet and the par-4 12th with a wedge to 3 feet.
A 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would have tied her for the low round of the past two weeks at Pinehurst with Martin Kaymer hung on the right lip of the cup but didn’t drop.
She hit 13 of 14 fairways in regulation and missed just one green – the par-4 fourth – and it was by a couple feet. “I’m very proud of myself and the way I came back today and played,” Inkster said.
Inkster was warmly greeted by applause as she approached the 18th green. “It's great. It never gets old,” Inkster said. “It's nice, especially when you're playing well. I felt that right out of the hopper on No .1. I had a really good round today.”
Inkster is back this week with Greg Johnston, the caddie who helped her win the 1999 and 2002 U.S. Women’s Opens. She hadn’t made the cut to the weekend in the tournament in the past four years and six of the past seven, and she hadn’t worked with Johnston since the mid-2000s.
“It’s been seven or eight years since we've been back, so we were having a good time,” Inkster said. “Greg is like a brother to me and he worked for me for 11 years. And then he dumped me, but that's OK. Most brothers do.”
Though she reaffirmed Saturday that she won’t return for another Open, other players are skeptical.
“Someone [told] me that this is probably her last U.S. Open,” Wie said. “So I saw at 4 under today and I was like, ‘Yeah, right,’ you know. She's got a lot of years left in her.”
Lexi Thompson outdueled Michelle Wie in the final twosome in the final round of the season’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, to earn her second major championship in April.
But paired with Wie in the final twosome in the third round Saturday, the 19-year-old Floridian couldn’t keep pace.
Thompson trailed by three at 1-under 139 entering the round and pulled within a shot of Wie on the front nine, but she dropped seven shots to par in the span of nine holes and shot a 4-over 74 to drop into a tie for seventh at 3-over 213.
“I think it was just an off day,” Thompson said. “It just went kind of wrong today and my irons weren't really on. I didn't hit my driver good at all. I just was overturning it and it got me in trouble a lot of the time.”
Thompson missed four fairways and seven greens in regulation and struggled with her short game.
She played aggressively from the outset and pulled within a shot of Wie with birdies on the third and fifth holes to reach 3 under. She rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the third and two-putted from 15 feet on the par-5 fifth.
But her round unraveled with consecutive double bogeys on the par-4 eighth and par-3 ninth holes. She missed the eighth green to the left, tried a bump and run with an iron that came up short of the green, then used a putter for a shot that raced across the putting surface and two-putted from 30 feet.
Her 7-iron from 170 yards on the ninth hole bounced over the green and she took a drop into a divot in a drop area. A putt attempt bounced out of the divot and came up short of the green, she putted 12 feet past and missed the bogey putt.
“I started off well and I made a bad mess on No. 8,” Thompson said. “And I actually hit a perfect shot on 9, it just went about 3 or 4 yards too far. And I had a bad drop, it went right in a hole. Got a little unlucky, but I didn't ball strike it very well and I missed a few short putts.”
Thompson got one back on the par-5 10th, though she had an 18-foot eagle putt, and gave it back on the 11th with a drive against a clump of wire grass in a native area to the left of the fairway. Thompson missed a 5-foot par putt on the 14th to fall to 2 over and followed it with bogeys on 15 and 16.
She holed a 25-foot putt on the 18th hole that curled several feet to her left for a birdie. “Any time you see a putt go in on 18 and hear the fans cheer that loud for you, it definitely gives you a lot more confidence going into tomorrow,” Thompson said. “It was a tough day over all, but I ended with birdie, and it felt good.
“… Anything can happen on the final day of a U.S. Women's Open. So I think I still do have a chance, I'm just going to go out there with a positive attitude tomorrow and take one shot at a time and pretty much just visualize good shots out there and commit to them.”
Wie has not only separated herself at Pinehurst No. 2 with her play, but with her look and putting technique, as well.
Wie created her own putting stance that has her bending over with her back almost parallel to the ground. The style has been called the “Table Top”, but her short-game instructor, David Leadbetter, has renamed it.
“We call it the draw bridge because her back is slowly moving up. By the time she’s 50 she might be upright again,” Leadbetter told Golf Channel “… But she’s very comfortable right now.”
Wie was among the tournament leaders in putting with 55 putts through two rounds, though her average increased with 34 putts in the third round. She flattened her putter 4.5 degrees prior to this week, finally accounting for her new putting style.
“I'm using the same putter since I was 16, 17, before I started bending over, so I guess it makes sense,” Wie said.
Wie has been sporting colorful strips of tape on her left leg around her knee this week that she says help her with a leg that sometimes gives her problems.
“It just helps to keep the swelling down, just kind of keep my knee in place,” Wie said. “I just think it looks cool, too. It makes me look really hard.”