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Down to earth
What does a US Open Champion do the morning after she's lifted the trophy? Well, she's lucky enough to get to sit beside me on a red-eye flight from Kansas still feeling elated, if absolutely exhausted.

Yes, to my surprise, I was settled into my seat ready for a long trip home (four flights and over 24 hours - sympathy please!) on a 6.30 am flight from Wichita to Chicago on Monday when who should come and sit beside me but Juli Inkster.

Twelve hours earlier I, like so many others, had witnessed her fantastic final day performance at Prairie Dunes when she came from two behind Annika Sorenstam on the final day to win by two shots with an absolutely stunning 66.

It was the best score of the week over an unbelievably tough course, and to do it under such circumstances confirmed that Inkster might be one of the more mature champions - but she is still far from passed her prime.

Anyway, back to morning after the night before. Having reiterated my congratulations, and acknowledged that I was the lucky one getting to sit beside the new champ, I then became a little mystified as to why Juli - who lives in California - was on a flight to Chicago. Also, her husband (who had been with her in the airport) was nowhere to be seen.

'Aren't you going in the wrong direction?' I inquired. 'No,' she said with a slightly rueful smile. 'Brian's away home but I'm on my way to do a company day for Nabisco (her sponsors).'

Anyway, during the couple of hours, we had a good old natter, touching on a variety of topics from the Solheim Cup (she thinks Europe has a good chance) and how she is looking forward to coming to Turnberry for the Weetabix British Open in a few weeks' time.

But how had she celebrated her second US Open? Dinner, champagne, flowers? Not quite. Juli, husband Brian and caddie Greg had snatched a bite to eat in Applebees (a US fast food chain) while watching a baseball game on the TV.

'They had beers - I had iced tea!' she said, laughing. 'By the time I got away from the club it was really quite late. I think I managed about two hours sleep.'

In fact, she had originally intended to fly out on Sunday evening - but the victory forced the change of plans. Despite the goddam early hour, she had already spent an hour or so at the airport trying to rearrange her day's itinerary.

Not exactly the usual image of the life of a superstar. It made me wonder if Tiger Woods had faced similar problems after he won at Bethpage a few weeks ago?

Anyway, Juli was happy to devour the local paper that was emblazoned by her final day fist-pumping moments that greeted a second US Open triumph to set beside her 1999 version. Amazingly, it was also her second triumph at Prairie Dunes - a great course, but stuck out in the middle of nowhere (Well, as good as. Actually, it is in a place called Hutchinson).

It was in 1980 that Juli, then a newly-married 20-year-old, won the first of a record three successive US Amateur Championships. As she began her convoluted journey home, Juli admitted she was looking forward to seeing her two daughters - Hayley (12) and Cori (8) - and a fortnight's break from the Tour.

I asked if either of the girls was showing an interest in the game, and she said that they both play a little. 'It-s difficult,' she admitted. 'We (hubby is a club professional) would love them to become keen on golf, but we don't want to push them. A the moment, they play a lot of sports.'

As for her trip to Turnberry, Juli is hoping it is third time lucky in Scotland. She has been twice before - as a member of defeated Solheim Cup sides at Dalmahoy (1992) and Loch Lomond (2000).

'Thank goodness I was in a winning team at Muirfield Village in 1998, otherwise I would be thinking that I'm some kind of jinx,' she admitted. She went on to admit, 'though, that while she loves the cut and thrust of the Solheim, she would like to see the really fierce competitive hype die down a little.

As the 'plane touched down, Juli was beginning to look a little bleary-eyed. The adrenaline-rush of 12 hours earlier was clearly beginning to wane. As we left, we exchanged sympathies - she was sorry for me facing such a long trip home, while I suggested that conducting a clinic for Nabisco clients probably wasn't the way she would have chosen to spend her first day as the 2002 US Open Champion. With a show of good humour, she agreed.

But, by now, Juli will be back at home in Los Altos, California. At last, she will be able to enjoy the aftermath of a great triumph - and get a good night's sleep.

©    10 - JULY 2002

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