News & Opinion

Just like old times at Senior Women’s Open

WHEATON, Ill. – The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which teed off on Thursday in suburban Chicago, has been a celebration of women’s golf. It resembled a high school reunion, too, with the best pros and amateurs of the past re-connecting during three days of practice rounds and pre-tournament activities.

More than anything, though, this tournament for women who have reached their 50th birthday was overdue. In fact, it was long, long overdue.

JoAnne Carner – the only woman owning titles in the U.S. Girls Junior, the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open – said she had been waiting for the senior event for 29 years; she’s now 79.

“I was just hoping I’d still be alive to play in it,’’ Carner said.

Jane Blalock first presented the concept of a senior tournament for women to the U.S. Golf Association after a captivating 1998 U.S. Women’s Open ended in a playoff victory by South Korean Se Ri Pak at Wisconsin’s Blackwolf Run. That tournament triggered a big change in the women’s game, giving it a more global appeal, but it didn’t change the USGA’s view on senior women playing with money on the line. 

Blalock formed her own Legends Tour, which provided some competition for players after they turned 45 but had little support even from the LPGA. Last year, in an effort to beat the USGA to the punch, the LPGA conducted its first Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort.

That only accentuated a glaring absence in the USGA tournament schedule. The organization already had a U.S. Junior, a U.S. Amateur, a U.S. Mid-Amateur, a U.S. Senior Amateur and a U.S. Senior Open for men and similar national championships for women, with that one exception.

Despite years of pressure from fading stars on the LPGA (and some of the top amateurs, as well), the USGA was reluctant to find a place for a U.S. Senior Women’s Open. Once a commitment was made, it took three years in the planning stages to launch the tournament.

Finally, on Thursday at historic Chicago Golf Club, Carner smacked the first tee shot and the event became a reality. Minutes earlier, USGA executive director Mike Davis made some opening remarks before a stirring rendition of the national anthem by Grammy winner Heather Headley. The legendary Nancy Lopez, who can’t play because of knee problems and the walking-only requirement for the tournament, added player introductions.

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JoAnne Carner hits the first shot of the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open on Thursday at Chicago Golf Club.

© USGA/CHRIS KEANE
JoAnne Carner hits the first shot of the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open on Thursday at Chicago Golf Club.

After Carner’s 7 a.m. tee shot, made in front of a gallery standing four deep, a few tears mixed with enthusiastic applause. Chunks of the gallery from the opening ceremonies followed each threesome, walking with the players down the fairway. It was a feel-good thing all day long and likely will remain so until the first champion is crowned on Sunday.

The tourney’s reception in the Chicago area was a warmup, though it didn’t hurt one bit that it was held on America’s first 18-hole course. Chicago Golf Club is hosting its 12th USGA championship, but the bulk of them were in the first two decades after the course opened in 1893. Before this week, the last time the club opened its gates to the public was in 2005, for the Walker Cup matches.

Clearly there is a mystique about Chicago Golf Club, and Juli Inkster called it “a perfect place to hold this first one.’’

Lopez wasn’t the only former LPGA great missing from the field.

“We’re missing a few of the legends,” Inkster said, pointing out that Beth Daniels, Meg Mallon, Kathy Whitworth and Patty Sheehan were absent, “but we’ve got a lot of good ones.’’

American Elaine Crosby shot 3-under 70 for the first-round lead (scores)

The tournament drew 462 entries, and the starting field of 120 included 29 amateurs and 62 survivors of the nationwide qualifying rounds. The finalists included players from 12 countries, with 95 from the U.S. They took on a course set up at 6,082 yards with a par of 73. Green speeds were around 12 on the Stimpmeter.

And there was decent crowd support despite some miserable planning by the Senior Women’s Open being played on the same dates as two other big golf events in Illinois: the Constellation Senior Players Championship, one of the five majors on the Champions Tour, and the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic.

The Senior Players is at Exmoor Country Club, about an hour’s drive northeast of Chicago Golf Club, and the John Deere Classic is a two-hour drive to the west, in Silvis. Next year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open will have the stage to itself, at Pine Needles in North Carolina.

Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is in his ninth year as golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and in his 29th year as golf columnist for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website and operates lenziehmongolf.com. Email: lenziehm@gmail.com; Twitter: @ZiehmLen