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Fifty just a number for Inkster

Juli Inkster had to confess. When her father was 50 years old, she thought of him as an old man. So last week, with her own big day fast approaching, Inkster asked her 16- and 20-year-old daughters: "Is 50 old?"

"Well, yeah," they told her. "But Mom, you don't act it!"

She certainly didn't act it Thursday. Inkster celebrated her 50th birthday by challenging for the lead in the LPGA Championship and consistently driving the ball past players who weren't even born when she won the first of her seven major titles in 1984.

Inkster finished at 1-under par 71, good for a tie for 11th place on a difficult Locust Hill course made even more dastardly by swirling winds, the occasional drizzle and one particularly nasty downpour late in the morning round.

There were also periodic outbursts of "Happy Birthday," sung by fans and volunteers who were aware of Inkster's personal milestone. In fact, it was shortly after being serenaded at the 10th hole that Inkster drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the par-5 11th hole, moving her into a tie for the lead at 4-under par.

It seemed almost surreal at that point -- a Golf Hall of Famer leading a major on her 50th birthday. Inkster was sort of sheepish about the whole thing. After all, what woman wants people making a fuss about her age? It was nothing extraordinary. She has won 31 LPGA titles, seven majors. She's still active on tour. What was the big deal?

"Oh, it's great," Inkster said. "But sometimes I feel sorry for the other players. Paula [Creamer] and Jiyai [Shin] didn't seem to mind, though. So I guess it was a good threesome for me."

Inkster was asked how it felt to play so well at 50. She said it felt the same way it did last week, when she was 49. Sure, most of her tour rivals are young enough to be her daughter. But she thinks of them as equals and friends. She has fun with them. And she still has game.

"It means that I'm playing good golf and I'm 50," Inkster said. "Why wouldn't I play? I know I'm not going to be player of the year. But you know what? I have a lot of good friends out here and I love to play golf. I get asked all the time and I wish I had a better answer, but I don't. My only answer is that, to me, it's not a job."

In her younger days, she wouldn't have been in such an engaging mood after her discouraging back nine. After surging into the lead, Inkster became wayward with her driver. That's bad news at Locust Hill, where they've narrowed the fairways and grown out the rough like a bad '70s hairdo.

Inkster bogeyed the par-4 13th when her shot from the deep rough left her above the green with a putt that was impossible to stop. She bogeyed 14 after sailing an approach into a stiff wind and well over the green. That dropped her out of the lead for good.

Then, this being Western New York, rain disrupted the party. Inkster hit her drive on the par-4 16th into a steady drizzle. By the time she got to her second shot, it was a heavy downpour. Inkster waited as long as she could, then chopped her second shot short of the green. Play was stopped for 15 minutes -- though the rain let up after five.

"We're in Rochester," Inkster said. "It happens quick. Often and quick. That's golf. You've got to deal with the elements."

She has been dealing with it for 28 years. Inkster, a native of Santa Cruz, Calif., is third on the LPGA career money list with $12.8 million (Annika Sorenstam leads at $22.6 million). Inkster has the most wins of any active player. She played in last year's Solheim Cup and has more match wins in that Ryder Cup-like event than any other American.

And she's not done.

Inkster has made the cut in eight of nine events this year. It'll probably be nine out of 10 by the end of today's second round. Inkster's game has been coming around of late. She believes she can win. It's one thing that never gets old. She sees Tom Watson contending at 60 and figures she has a lot left.

"Believe me, I'm nowhere near a Tom Watson," she said. "But he plays for the love of the game. He doesn't need to play. He plays because he likes to compete, and because he likes to hit shots. It's not always about the endorsements or the wins for older players. It's about the game of golf. I think it's great for the young players to see."

The LPGA Tour is in a crisis, having lost sponsors and tournaments in the United States. Lorena Ochoa and Sorenstam have retired. The sport could use more stars, more dynamic young Americans. It needs more women like Inkster, who have a passion for the game and an enduring hunger for the sheer competition.

"It didn't feel any different today than it felt yesterday," Inkster said. "Maybe I'm fooling myself. I don't know, but I feel like I'm in good shape. I don't have any aches and pains."

Her family isn't with her this week. So she had no birthday plans, either.

"Tonight, I think I'll go to bed early," Inkster said. "I'm tired."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com