Juli Inkster in mix one last time

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Juli Inkster won the U.S. Women's Open in 1999 and 2002, two of seven major championships in her career.

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Juli Inkster said she isn't changing her mind. She didn't even sound tempted. This is her record 35th -- and last -- appearance in the U.S. Women's Open. She will turn 54 on Tuesday, and she's ready to ride off into the sunset to be a television analyst and an occasional competitor.

Not so fast, Jules. It's not out of the question that you might win this thing for a third time.

Inkster, the oldest player in the field, shot the best round of the tournament -- a 4-under 66 -- on Saturday and found herself at 2-over 212, tied for third. The U.S. Women's Open champion in 1999 and 2002, Inkster will be in the mix again going into Sunday's final round.

I love where I am right now. I look at the young girls out there, and I'm like, 'Wow, I'm so glad I'm not starting.'
Juli Inkster

"It's great, it never gets old," Inkster said of the applause that enveloped her Saturday as she walked up the 18th fairway at steamy Pinehurst No. 2.

Indeed, admiration doesn't get old, but unfortunately, players do. However, Inkster didn't sound as though she was lamenting her bygone youth earlier this week.

When asked how many more times she planned to play this major championship, Inkster said, "This is probably my last one."

No big announcement. No tears. Are you kidding? This is Inkster, the sarcastic quipster who admirably has managed to be an epic competitor while never losing perspective.

Is she sad about this being her final Women's Open?

"No, not at all," Inkster said. "Shoot, I've played in 35 of these. So that's pretty impressive. I love where I am right now. I look at the young girls out there, and I'm like, 'Wow, I'm so glad I'm not starting.' "

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A stalwart for the U.S. in Solheim Cup play, Juli Inkster will be the captain in 2015.

Inkster said she is happy her career came when it did. For the bulk of it, most of the LPGA Tour events were played here in the United States. The newer tournaments that are now overseas have helped the tour financially but have made travel harder for players. That's especially true for those who might want to have a family while still competing, the way Inkster and her husband, Brian, did with daughters Hayley and Cori, born in 1990 and '94.

Plus, Inkster started out in an era when most players on the tour went to college first. In fact, Inkster didn't even start playing golf until she was 15. Lucy Li, the 11-year-old who qualified for this tournament and shot two rounds of 78, just might have five appearances in the U.S. Women's Open under her belt by age 15.

"I grew up playing against my college buddies," said Inkster, who went to San Jose State and turned pro in 1983. "The camaraderie and the bantering we had ... I think it's just different out here now. Not that it's good or bad. It's just more of a job."

It's fair to say that Inkster is one of the more underappreciated American athletes of her generation. She has 31 LPGA Tour victories, seven of them majors. She's played on nine U.S. Solheim Cup teams and will be the Americans' captain in 2015. And how's this for longevity: Inkster had at least one top-10 finish on the LPGA Tour every year from 1983 to 2011.

Along the way, she's always been the same self-deprecating, down-to-earth person. Consider the 2000 U.S. Women's Open at the Merit Club outside of Chicago. There was a special guest who played a few holes with the pros early that week: Michael Jordan.

The NBA legend met with the media and was asked who he thought might win. Jordan named Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam and then added, "And don't forget about Juli Inkster."

Later, when Inkster was told Jordan had picked her as one of the favorites, she looked stunned.

"Michael Jordan? You mean the Michael Jordan?" Inkster said. "I can't believe Michael Jordan knows who I am."

Inkster happened to be the U.S. Women's Open defending champion at the time. But no matter the circumstances, she never expected to be in the spotlight. She always considered herself a grinder, a bulldog out on the course who could just hang in until she wore you down.

As her 66 on a tough Pinehurst course Saturday proves, Inkster is also very talented. She says she just doesn't have the concentration anymore to consistently grind like she used to, but she still has her great days.

"I always think I can be competitive, but I just don't play much anymore," she said. "I still hit the ball relatively good, but I hit a few loose ones and miss a couple of short putts. And you just can't win that way. I'm not as sharp as I used to be."

But maybe she can have one more magical day. Inkster is a big baseball fan -- a Bay-area native, the Giants are her team -- and she was asked if she'd like to go out of the U.S. Women's Open in Ted Williams' fashion. As in, a home run in the last career at-bat.

"That would be nice," she said. "But I've got a long way to go. This game is so weird. The first day I played great. [Friday] I played horrible. Today I played great. Hopefully, I'll break the pattern and have a good one [Sunday]."

No matter how Inkster says goodbye to the U.S. Women's Open on Sunday, she's already enshrined as one of this tournament's most beloved protagonists.

"I'm just going to enjoy it," Inkster said. "It's a great golf course. So enjoy the walk."

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