News & Opinion

Senior women merit encore performance

The best senior women’s golfers, the ones who did so much to make the Ladies PGA tour into what it is today, haven’t gotten the respect they deserve.

Their own tour barely recognized them, leaving it to Jane Blalock and the Legends Tour to provide a circuit for players after they turned 45. Thanks to major support from Steve Ferguson and Dave Harner at Indiana’s French Lick Resort, the senior women eventually got their own major championship, and five years later, in 2017, it has transitioned into the Senior LPGA Championship. The 54-hole event is played on Monday-through-Wednesday dates in October, to entice Golf Channel to provide coverage.

The U.S. Golf Association dragged its feet even more. The USGA, after much outside pressure, announced that it would conduct a U.S. Senior Women’s Open in 2015 but didn’t hold the first one until three years later.

Now it’s time for the second one. It will be played Thursday through Sunday at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C. (tee times). Though players who have reached their 45th birthday are allowed into the Senior LPGA Championship, the USGA makes them wait until they’re 50 to play in its Senior Open.

The second U.S. Senior Women’s Open won’t be much like the first, and you’ve got to wonder about the tournament’s place down the road. The second USSWO was scheduled just 10 months after the first, which was played in mid-July at Chicago Golf Club, the nation’s first 18-hole course.

That’s a short turnaround for players and staff, and the third playing will be 14 months after the second – July 9-12, 2020, at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn. No dates have been announced for beyond 2020. In short, the tournament has no firm place on the USGA calendar, and that could be a problem.

The first U.S. Senior Women’s Open was played at an exclusive private club. The second will be on a resort course that already has hosted three U.S. Women’s Opens and will host a fourth in 2022. The first had competition with a Champions Tour major tournament. Its Senior Players Championship was played in the Chicago area on the same dates. The second U.S. Senior Women’s Open will be a warmup for the U.S. Amateur, which comes to nearby Pinehurst Resort in August.

Still, there should be no such wavering over the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. The first playing was a rousing success – better than even the USGA could imagine.

“It doubled our expectations from the crowd standpoint,’’ said Katherine Thigpen, the event manager. “There was way more interest in women’s golf and these players.’’

One reason for the inaugural tournament’s success was simply that it was the first. You can only be at the first playing of a big event one time. That thinking was a factor in the warm reception that the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur had in April. Women competing for the first time on fabled Augusta National – even if it was for only the final round – was special. Everyone knew it would be, and it was.

The first U.S. Senior Women’s Open proved to be a feel-good story, too. After all the waiting, there were even a few tears shed when Nancy Lopez announced Joanne Carner as the first player to tee off.

Big Mama boomed her drive down the first fairway of a club that rarely has opened its course to tournament play and spectator traffic. Carner, then 79, shot her age that day. Now 80, she’ll try to do it again at Pine Needles.

Spectators were permitted to walk along with the players in Chicago, and every one of them – not just the big names – had at least a few followers from hole to hole. When it was over, there was exultation over Laura Davies’ 10-stroke victory and 16-under-par score on a par-73 course set up at 6,082 yards.

Now we go to Pine Needles – a good site for the tournament if not quite as eye-catching as Chicago Golf Club. The players will know Pine Needles a lot better than they knew Chicago Golf Club.

Some tidbits worth noting:

Pine Needles will have an autograph area set aside to encourage interaction between players and fans. It also will feature four competitors – Davies, Wendy Doolan, Liselotte Neumann and Michele Redman – who played in the U.S. Women’s Opens there in 1996, 2001 and 2007. Not only that, but two of the greats of women’s golf – Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon – will be in the field after taking a pass on the inaugural in Chicago.

The addition of players of that stature, with their name recognition, is a big positive for the tournament. The U.S. Senior Women's Open, at this early stage in its development, will greatly benefit from their participation.

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