By Ron Kroichick
San Francisco Chronicle
Juli Inkster acts like a professional athlete half her age. She occasionally works out with her daughter Hayley, who bragged about her mom’s enduring ability to complete a handstand or cartwheel on command.
“She’s a spitfire,” Hayley said. “She’s very young at heart, and she’s a lot of fun. That’s a pretty awesome combination.”
Inkster, at 53, still competes against players in their teens and 20s on the LPGA Tour, the world’s highest level of women’s golf. She takes to the course this week at Lake Merced Golf Club for the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic, the tour’s first event in the Bay Area in almost four years.
But this chapter of Inkster’s life is winding down, after a playing career stretching more than three decades and leading to the World Golf Hall of Fame. She’s one of only three Northern Californians honored in the hall, along with San Francisco natives Johnny Miller and Ken Venturi.
As she scales back her playing schedule, Inkster is preparing to launch the next phase of her career — as the United States captain for next year’s Solheim Cup in Germany (a team event matching the U.S. against Europe) and as a television reporter for Golf Channel.
They are natural steps for one of the most accomplished women’s players ever — her 31 LPGA wins, including seven major championships, are tied for 16th all-time — even if Inkster is not sure whether she can replace the adrenaline rush of elite competition.
She’s always savored the tension of charging down the stretch in contention, dating to her days growing up in Santa Cruz and later as a three-time All-American at San Jose State (she now lives in Los Altos). As those chances dwindled in recent years, Inkster found perpetual challenge in working on her game.
Kay Cockerill, a good friend and Golf Channel reporter herself, described the way Inkster often loses track of time during practice rounds. She lingers on the green, trying to sharpen her chipping and putting, until other players finally beckon her to the next hole.
Cockerill portrayed Inkster as passionate, persistent and a bit consumed — so the transition to captain/broadcaster offers a distinct test.
“I think in some ways it’s going to be hard,” Cockerill said. “She just loves to compete. That’s what always made her so good, so not having that in her life is going to be an adjustment.”
Surrounded by sports
Inkster grew up in a home alongside the 14th fairway at Pasatiempo Golf Club, with sports influences all around.
Her dad, Jack Simpson, was a professional baseball player in the 1950s and her two older brothers, Danny and Mike, were good athletes as kids.
Juli played basketball first, then seriously picked up golf at age 15 after she landed a job at Pasatiempo (where she would meet Brian Inkster, her future husband). She became so good so quickly, she played on the boys team at Harbor High.
After roaring through the amateur ranks and making an early splash in the pros — she was LPGA Rookie of the Year in 1984 — Inkster found herself at a crossroads in the mid-1990s. She went four full seasons without a victory (1993-96) as she learned to juggle her career and family life, with young daughters Hayley and Cori. Inkster seriously considered not playing on tour anymore, only to ultimately decide she would try to balance both.
That meant taking the girls on the road whenever possible — weekends, spring break, summer. Hayley and Cori grew to appreciate their abundant travel experiences as kids, especially in retrospect. Hayley, who graduated from Santa Clara, now is 24 and works at a software company in Palo Alto; Cori, 20, is a student at Villanova in Philadelphia.
Inkster can tell many stories of life on the road with small kids, from airplane adventures to staying awake all night to deal with an ear infection. Her favorite: She once took Hayley and Cori to a tournament in England, when they were about 9 and 5. Inkster didn’t realize she had rented a stick-shift car until she already had loaded it, so she learned on the fly while driving on the “wrong” side of the road — and quickly getting lost in a pre-GPS world.
Finally, after going through the same roundabout a second or third time, young Hayley piped up from the backseat: “Mom, we’ve already been here. We need to go another way.”
This highlights the uncommon hazards of mixing motherhood and a big-time sports career.
“It was full of challenges,” said Brian, the longtime head pro at Los Altos Golf & Country Club. “Juli’s fear was that we weren’t doing the right thing by our kids. That wasn’t the case, but as a mom I’m sure you’re thinking about it when you’re at the Residence Inn in Rochester.”
Said Hayley: “She was Superwoman. She’s amazing at what she does, but I never once felt her career came before her family. It never felt like she wasn’t there.”
And when Inkster was home, she made a point of becoming hyper-involved. She fixed lunches, drove the carpool, went on field trips and coached Hayley’s basketball team. She achieved her goal of wanting to be Mom during those times, not “Juli the golfer.”
Some LPGA stars, such as Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam, prematurely retired from the tour — Ochoa at 28 and Sorenstam at 37 — to start a family. Other players have sought guidance from Inkster on how she simultaneously carved out a Hall of Fame career and raised two well-adjusted children.
“She’s definitely a role model for so many young women playing sports,” Cockerill said. “It’s not been easy at times, but she’s proven you can do it. She set the bar for having it all.”
Nudging toward TV
Inkster dabbled in television in the mid-1990s, while she contemplated her professional future after Hayley and Cori arrived.
Ever since then, friends on the television side have routinely asked if she wanted to pursue a second career in broadcasting.
She was tempted at times, but Inkster always stuck with her first career.
Now, though, the fiercely competitive landscape of women’s golf — and the reality of Father Time — is nudging Inkster toward television. She will work five LPGA tournaments this year for Golf Channel, starting with next month’s Kingsmill Championship in Williamsburg, Va.
Inkster hopes to add “zip” to the telecasts, though she’s also wary of getting into trouble with her candor. She hopes to give viewers more insight into the personalities of the players, rather than focusing on the game’s strategic elements.
“Everybody has their different little niche,” Inkster said. “I just need to find mine.”
She hopes to find a competitive outlet in her role as Solheim Cup captain, a prestigious position to which the LPGA named Inkster on March 18. The Solheim Cup is the women’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup, a men’s match-play event heavy on patriotism and occasional rancor.
Just as the Ryder Cup has become more intense in recent years, with Europe ending longtime American dominance, the Solheim also has acquired fresh cachet in golf circles. Last year’s event in Colorado included striking tension between the two sides, as Europe rolled to victory in front of boisterous crowds.
Inkster openly craves retrieving the trophy for her country, but she also hopes to restore a sense of civility.
“We play against these (European) girls all year long,” she said. “They bring out their ‘I hate America’ face, which I know they don’t. And we bring out our ‘I hate Europe’ face, which we don’t. So it just needs to be a little more camaraderie and a little more fun.”
No matter the outcome, Inkster probably will emerge as a popular captain. She has long served as a mentor to young LPGA players, many of whom are similar in age to her daughters. Inkster knows how to relate to them, and she covets the Solheim Cup’s team dynamic — a sharp contrast to the solitary nature of pro golf.