Interview: Juli Inkster

Looking through the windshield and in the rear view mirror with a 31-time LPGA winner

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Juli Inkster has checked nearly every box in her glittering career. She’s won amateur championships, tour events (31) and majors (7), played on and captained international teams, given Hall of Fame acceptance speeches and served as an ambassador to the game. But even now, at 62 years old, she’s got things on her to-do list. We picked up Inkster in The Golfer’s Journal van while at Lancaster Country Club—site of the 2024 U.S. Women’s Open—to hear about where she’s been, and where she’s going.

Tom Coyne: You look at some of the women’s players now—they are 14, 15-years-old playing in majors—but you were late by today’s standard. How did you get started?

Juli Inkster: I fell into it. I had two older brothers. My dad was a fireman. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and at 15, we had to get jobs—my older brother stocked liquor shelves, and my younger brother worked on a golf course parking carts and picking up the range, and I’m like, “I think I can do that.” I rode my bike up there and I was intrigued by the game. I got some lost-and-found clubs in the back, made myself a set and started playing.

My first love is basketball, but at 5’8” and not being able to jump, I wasn’t going to go very far. I just started playing golf. Going into my sophomore year of high school, the boys golf coach found out that I was playing. He called my parents and said, “Hey, would Juli like to go out for the boys’ team?” So I did. I made the JV team my sophomore year and then my junior and senior year made varsity. When I graduated from high school, I tried to qualify for the U.S. Open. I made it and just blossomed from there.

So within three years of really starting to play, you’re in the U.S. Open?

Yes. Indianapolis Country Club, 1978. I shot 80 my first round and then 72, 72, 73.

That’s incredible. So where was this golf course you grew up on? 

We lived on the 14th hole at Pasatiempo. My mom still lives there. 

Oh my gosh, Juli. You buried the lede there

I know, I know. We had a great fairway. We had a lot of kids that lived on 14 and 13. We grew up playing baseball and football and flashlight tag there before the golf course became sacred ground. A group would be on the tee and we’d have to move the game off to the sideline. Then they’d play through and the game was back on. We sold golf balls and lemonade. We did everything but play golf. 

My mom had this cowbell that she would ring. She’d ring the cowbell and everybody knew that the Simpsons needed to go home. [Laughs.] It was a great way to grow up.

How does growing up playing Pasatiempo shape your game? 

Well, I was never the best ball striker or the best putter or had the best shot game, but I always felt like I was the best grinder. I never gave up, but I also never knew when I was going to turn it on. I just put my heart and soul into it for 18 holes. I marveled at people that, when they finished 18 holes, looked like they never started. I always looked like I went 14 rounds with Muhammad Ali when I got done.

Juli inkster

Where do you think that grinder mentality came from? 

We were always an athletic family. My dad played professional baseball for three years before he got married and started having kids. Being the youngest and having two older brothers, every day was survival. I just learned how to survive. I think I’m a lot like my dad. My dad was a girl dad before it was cool. He was really supportive of me playing golf. 

I don’t think you can teach someone to be a grinder. Either you are or you aren’t. That’s the way I grew up. It was just kind of “get the ball in the hole, no matter what it takes.” 

I guess it worked. You’ve won championships in three different decades. Do you ever think about winning another? 

Yes, the U.S. Senior Women’s Open is the one I want. I’ve been trying. I’ve finished second twice. Last year I didn’t putt very well, so I think I finished 12th, but that’s the one I’m shooting for. My game is good. I don’t play as much anymore, but I still like working on it. It’s ingrained in myself and, like most golfers, I just like to play.

“I don’t think you can teach someone to be a grinder. Either you are or you aren’t.”

What about the ladies game as a whole? How do you feel about where it’s at?

It’s the strongest it’s ever been. A lot of these corporations, like ProMedica and AIG and Chevron and KPMG, they’re really elevating the women’s game and elevating women’s sports and women’s initiatives. 

Right now we have a big disparity in our purses. At Pine Needles we played for $10,000,000 and the week after I think we were playing for $1,500,000. It’s a big difference. My job is to keep growing the game. The people before me grew the game and hopefully the people after me will keep growing the game.

Speaking of purses, what do you make of this whole LIV Golf situation

I’m not a big fan. My thing is how much do you need? All these guys have made a ton of money. Their pension plan is probably the best retirement in the world. Then the human rights part of it—being a woman, it bugs me. But that’s why we live in America. You can make choices.

Do you think it lasts?

I think the Saudis are here to stay. They might not get the young guys playing right now, but they’re probably going to get a lot of the college kids coming out and put a lot of money in front of them. I still think the PGA Tour is the best tour in the world. I’m disappointed in some of the guys that have left, especially the ones who have girls and maybe some even have gay or LBGTQ kids. I just don’t think that’s the right way to treat people.

juli inkster

You were a big advocate for finding a way to balance golf and family while on the tour. What was that like?

When I first had [my daughter] Hayley in 1990, we didn’t have daycare or maternity leave. Six weeks after giving birth, I would start playing tournaments again because you have to keep your spot. But I made it a point that, if I was going to play golf, I was also going to have my kids with me.

When Charlie Meacham came on board as commissioner in 1990, he started the Smuckers daycare. It was huge for players like Judy Dickinson, Nancy Lopez, Cathy Marino, Cathy Gerring and myself who had kids out there. We could drop our kids off at tournaments and know that they were safe and well taken care of and have peace of mind to play. 

Now, we have a great daycare. We have great maternity leave. But back then, I really didn’t know how I was going to do it. Just like I play golf, I mother like that too: I’m a grinder. I tried to do as much as I could with them, and they knew that when I wasn’t with them, I was out doing my job. My job is different from most of their friends’ mom’s jobs, but it’s still a job.

I imagine golf looks a lot different to you than when you started.

It does, but, for some reason, it never really bugged me that there were all-men’s clubs. If they didn’t want me, that’s fine. I always figured it was their loss because I’m a lot of fun and I love to play and I mostly play with guys.  

Just look at the courses we’re playing now. Believe me, when I came out, we played some really rough golf courses. A win is a win no matter where you play, but the rotation for the women’s majors coming up is great: Muirfield and St Andrews for the AIG, the Chevron is going to be in Houston now at a great golf course, the KPMG [Baltursol and Congressional]. 

That really elevates the women’s game when we play historic golf courses, courses that the men have played. People that are watching can say, “Oh, I remember so and so hitting it there.” It means a lot. The game has changed, it’s changed for the better, and I think it’s changed me.