News & Opinion

Senior women finally come of age

FRENCH LICK, Ind. – This is progress, no doubt about it.

Barely a year ago, there was one glaring void in the golf tournament schedule. Senior female professionals were being ignored, by the LPGA and USGA. Now, thankfully, that’s no longer the case. That group of players, most of whom contributed so much to the growth on the LPGA, now have two full-fledged major championships to put the spotlight on their game.

The first was the Senior LPGA Championship, played here on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort last July. The second was the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, played three months ago at America’s first 18-hole course, Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill.

Now the Senior LPGA Championship is poised for its second staging, today through Wednesday, with England’s Trish Johnson defending her title (tee times). She won wire-to-wire last year, finishing at 4 under to claim a three-shot victory over Michele Redman and a $90,000 first prize.

Laura Davies, also from England, won the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open by a whopping 10 strokes over runner-up Juli Inkster three months ago and pocketed $180,000 from a $1 million purse.

Both championships were a long time coming. After finally committing to hold a U.S. Senior Women’s Open, the USGA needed three years before putting on the event.

“I was just hoping I’d still be alive to play in it,’’ said JoAnne Carner, who, at 79, was given the honor of hitting the first tee shot.

Unlike the men’s PGA Tour, the LPGA didn’t provide a circuit for its older players. That was left to former star Jane Blalock, who created The Legends Tour in 2001. Other than designating the circuit as its “official’’ senior tour, the LPGA wasn’t involved in its operation until last year.

The Senior LPGA Championship grew out of the 4-year-old Legends Championship, basically a creation by Blalock, Steve Ferguson, the chairman of Cook Group, which owns the French Lick Resort, and French Lick director of golf Dave Harner. They did it up right the first year, putting the tournament together with a Symetra Tour event that celebrated the centennial of the nearby Donald Ross Course, site of LPGA Championships in 1959 and 1960.

This year, the Symetra and Senior LPGA events were separated, the main reason being that TV coverage was deemed a must for the Senior LPGA. Weekday dates made it attractive for Golf Channel, and October always has been a good month to showcase the bright fall colors of southern Indiana. The Symetra event remained in July.

The Senior LPGA is for players 45 and older, but the tournament also included an Honors Division for its older stars on Sunday. Those 50-and-over were eligible for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

The 54-hole Senior LPGA Championship will feature an 81-player field and a $600,000 purse, and players can ride at French Lick, the tourney site for at least four more years.

By comparison, the U.S. Senior Women’s Open started with 10 nationwide qualifying rounds to whittle the 462 entries to the 120 who started the 72-hole competition at Chicago Golf Club. The Open is a walking-only event that will be played at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C., in 2019.

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