It’s not like the ring of her phone came as a total surprise; Jenny Bae was tipped off in advance. Her coach at the University of Georgia mentioned to the senior star that a call from seven-time major champion Juli Inkster could be coming and she should be prepared.
Bae had a record-setting 2022-23 season, finishing in the top five on eight different occasions, and Bulldogs coach Josh Brewer hinted that something special could be in the works.
“He said make sure you keep the phone on, and you’re wide awake. You’re going to get one of the biggest important phone calls of your entire life tomorrow morning at 9,” Bae recalled. “I was like, oh, okay. So I was freaking out the entire night. Woke up super early. Just couldn’t sleep. I got the phone call and she says, ‘Hi, I’m Juli Inkster,’ and she announced the award and I think I was quiet for about 30 seconds or so.”
Bae had been selected as the 2023 recipient of the Inkster Award presented by Workday, an honor that recognizes the highest-ranked women’s Division I collegiate golfer in her final year of eligibility for the 2022-23 college golf season. A fifth-year senior, she finished the season as the fifth-ranked women’s college golfer in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings and fourth in the Golfstat rankings.
But for all her accomplishments, Bae’s phone etiquette went out the window when Hall of Famer Inkster was on the other end of the line. On Wednesday, in advance of the LPGA’s Portland Classic, the award’s namesake wondered if she’d even properly connected with the rising star.
“I was like, are you there?” Inkster said.
“I was so in shock,” Bae added. “I was like, is this really Juli Inkster on the phone with me right now telling me I just got the biggest award of the year? I was super excited, super pumped. After our phone call, I called my coach, my parents, guess what just happened and who just called me. That day, I can say, is one of my best mornings I’ve ever had in my life.”
The honor was well-deserved for Bae, who captured titles at the Illini Invitational and the Athens Regional, where she posted the two lowest scores in Georgia history. She compiled a 70.75 season stroke average, the lowest single-season stroke average in Georgia history. She also finished runner-up at the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur, falling to Rose Zhang on the second playoff hole.
As a result of winning the award, she received an exemption for this week’s event, which takes place at Columbia Edgewater Country Club in Portland, and Bae will automatically advance to the second stage of LPGA Q-School from Oct. 16-20 at Plantation Golf and Country Club in Venice, Florida.
And while this week’s LPGA debut will certainly test her nerves, Bae has plenty of experience to draw on. On top of her stellar collegiate career, she’s added a pair of wins on the Epson Tour this summer.
Inkster, who has 31 LPGA titles and a pair of U.S. Opens under her belt, said she thinks the Georgia product is well-equipped to play with the world’s best this week. When asked if she offered Bae much advice, Inkster insisted she simply told the 22-year-old to savor the experience.
“She’s done a great job all right,” Inkster said. “I think she knows what she’s doing. I think Georgia really prepared her for the next stage. But also right now it’s maybe a little overwhelming, but it’ll settle in. The main thing is right now I’m sure she’s trying to soak in everything, play in everything, practice, but my philosophy is you really need that time to get away from the game and have other outside activities that keep your mind fresh.
“So my thing is, yeah, when you’re out there, you play, you play, you play, but then you’re home you need time to rest, you need downtime. Then you get back to working. It’s not about the quantity it’s more about the quality. That’s kind of what I try to stress to these players just starting out.”
As for her first taste of the LPGA, Bae knows that Portland will offer a special test where many of the game’s greats have previously thrived.
A total of 10 past champions of the event are LPGA Hall of Famers, including Inkster. The others are Judy Rankin, Donna Caponi, Amy Alcott, Nancy Lopez, Betsy King, Patty Sheehan, Dottie Pepper, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa.
But she insists she’ll keep Inkster’s advice top of mind.
“I think as expectations go, I’m just going to go out there and try my best on every hole and shot that I have. Just being able to have the opportunity to participate in this tournament is a huge accomplishment for me,” Bae said.
“I think I’m just going to go out there and try to enjoy myself as much as I can.”