PHOENIX – Juli Inkster will tell you there’s no secret to her longevity.
There’s no mystery as to why she climbed onto another leaderboard Friday and remains so competitive at 50 years old.
“I guess because I still love the game,” Inkster said in the first round of the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup.
With a 4-under-par 68, Inkster is in the hunt in the opening American event on the 2011 LPGA schedule.
If Inkster wins, she’ll be the oldest player to win an LPGA title at 50 years, 8 months and 24 days old. She would surpass Beth Daniel, who was 46 years, 8 months and 29 days old when she won the Canadian Women’s Open in 2003.
While Inkster’s aiming to win this week, she’s not driven to be the oldest player to win a tour event. In fact, you get the feeling she would rather not be reminded she’s the oldest player on tour every time she gets into contention.
“It’s not like I’m 80 years old,” Inkster said. “I’m 50. I know I’m competing against 20-, 25-year-olds, but I’m sure I could beat half of them on a treadmill.”
Inkster wants to win just to enjoy the sensation and satisfaction again.
Reminded her last victory was the Safeway International in Phoenix five years ago, she scrunched her face trying to remember.
“I guess, yeah,” Inkster said. “Just being the oldest player to win doesn’t mean that much, but winning out here would mean a lot.”
Inkster says she doesn’t just love to play, she still loves to practice and work on her game. She loves it enough to play a tournament for free, which she and every other player are doing this week. Notably, Inkster is doing so as a show of support for the women’s game.
But Inkster loves the tour, and she wondered openly after her round about the timing of the new event, given the few opportunities LPGA pros have today.
“Mike has a good idea, I just think it’s hard for us as professional golfers to play for free,” Inkster said. “We only have a certain amount of tournaments, and this is what we do for a living. We’re going to see how it goes. It has a lot of good things about it, and things that could be tweaked.
“I hate to say it, but the people who lose the most are the caddies. They only work a certain amount of weeks. If your boss is getting zero, you’re pretty much getting zero. So I think we’ve got to find a way to make it financially good for them.”
Players receive a stipend this week that covers their caddie’s base pay and expenses, but caddies won’t be getting the percentage of winnings they typically get.
“If I actually did win this week and was able to give the whole purse to charity, I’d feel pretty good about it,” Inkster said. “But I wouldn’t want to do it every week.”
Inkster’s designated charity will go to a San Jose, Calif., homeless shelter.
“If we had another six, seven, eight domestic opportunities, I think this would be great,” Inkster said. “I also do think it’s important for myself and for some of the top players to play because we’re supporting the commissioner, we’re supporting RR Donnelley and we’re supporting the LPGA founders. I do think it’s important we’re here to play.”
There would be something fitting should Inkster win this week.
The Founders Cup is all about more than honoring the pioneers who started the tour 61 years ago. It’s about honoring the game’s tradition. Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Patty Sheehan and Betsy King played a special exhibition in front of the first threesome off Friday morning. They drew a large crowd. Inkster’s a large part of the game’s history. The Hall of Famer has won 31 LPGA titles, including seven major championships.
“I’ve played in Phoenix forever,” Inkster said. “All the gray hairs here loved me. I’ve played in Phoenix every year we’ve had a tournament here.”
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell