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USGA to introduce Senior Women’s Open, sources say

Will Nancy Lopez have one more legitimate shot at winning her first USGA title since the 1974 U.S. Girls’ Junior? Golfweek has learned that the U.S. Golf Association soon will announce a new national championship, the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

Multiple sources, who requested anonymity because they are not permitted to speak on behalf of the association, said that only some of the details need to be ironed out and it is believed that USGA president Tom O’Toole will speak to the subject during his address at the association’s annual meeting Feb. 6-7 in New York.

“I will tell you that a lot of us really want to see this happen, but we want to be cautious about this too,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “There are still answers to questions that need to be resolved yet.”

Every championship conducted by the USGA has a female counterpart with the exception of the U.S. Senior Open, which has been contested since 1980. Davis conceded in an interview with Golfweek that the lack of a Senior Women’s Open was a glaring void and confirmed in April that the subject was back on the table.

“This has been looked at, I know, for three decades,” he said. “When I say we’ve got a championship for truly every group, that’s the one group we don’t have one for. And I think we’d be the first ones to admit that’s not a good thing. It’s not something we’re proud of.”

Over the years, the USGA cited the finances involved in sustaining an event, with factors ranging from obtaining a host site to underpinning a purse to televising the golf. The governing body also questioned whether such an event would attract a deep-enough field.

“It is our current professional assessment that such an event is not a viable championship at this time,” a USGA spokesperson said as recently as July 2013.

David Fay, the former USGA executive director, said the economic considerations that existed during his tenure no longer are a concern. The USGA is flush with money via its $93 million-a-year TV deal with Fox, which begins this year. Fay, who ran the USGA from 1989 through 2010, did an about-face last year and campaigned for the Senior Women’s Open in another golf publication. “I even coined the perfect name for the trophy: the Bell Cup,” he said. “In honor of Judy Bell (the first female USGA president) and Peggy Kirk Bell (the former LPGA player and women’s golf advocate).”

Jane Blalock, a 27-time winner on the LPGA tour and chief executive of the Legends Tour, has been lobbying the USGA for a U.S. Senior Women’s Open since the Judy Bell presidency, circa 1996-97.

“We’d just like the opportunity to shoot down the USGA’s concerns,” she told Golfweek (July 5, 2013 issue).

Blalock was given that opportunity on two separate occasions in 2014. She said her team of players and staff met with Davis in March in Phoenix at the LPGA Founders Cup and in June at Pinehurst during the U.S. Women’s Open. LPGA commissioner Mike Whan was present at both meetings. Blalock and her team prepared a seven-slide presentation that highlighted the merits for a U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

“The details, we can wait on,” Blalock said in a recent phone interview. “It would be just groundbreaking for us.”

Mary Bea Porter-King, who received the PGA of America’s 2011 First Lady of Golf Award and served on the USGA executive committee from 2001 to ’06, was a longtime advocate from the inside. She said she made a presentation to the board in 2001 or 2002, but it fell on deaf ears.

“It’s long overdue,” she said when notified by phone.

Among the details still to be finalized include the age of eligibility, the size of the field, the purse and the best time of year to hold the championship.

In the past, the USGA surveyed competitors in the U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur to garner their interest and weren’t convinced it was strong enough to justify a new championship. (The men’s Senior Open has a field of 156 and a purse of $3.5 million.)

“Things are changing now,” Davis said in April. “We are looking at it differently, saying, ‘Does it have to be 156 players? Maybe it can be a national championship with a smaller field.’”

The Legends Tour, which has more than 120 members, is set to kick off its 15th season, and the pull of competition remains strong. Eighteen of those members account for 28 of the 61 USGA-sanctioned U.S. Women’s Open titles won since 1953. That doesn’t include Lopez, 58, who finished second four times.

The age criterion also is a topic of great debate. The Legends Tour starts at 45, making Annika Sorenstam eligible later this year.

“Right now on the senior side of amateur golf, the age is 55 for men and 50 for women,” Davis said. “In the first year of the U.S. Senior Open in 1980, the age was 55 when (Roberto) De Vicenzo won. It got changed the next year. The Legends Tour right now is 45. Does there have to be consistency? No. But if you call it the U.S. Senior Women’s Open and you did go with 45 – it’s kind of a strange name. I don’t think most people that are 45 years old consider themselves seniors.

“In talking to some of the Legends players, I hadn’t thought of this, but the women tend to retire from the LPGA at an earlier age than the men do. I don’t have those stats, but they made that point and said that’s one of the reasons the Legends Tour is 45 versus 50.”

Blalock said the eligibility age should not be perceived as a dealbreaker.

“We’ve been talking about it for so long, all the players that were 45 are now 50,” she said.

O’Toole is on the record as saying he hoped the USGA would make a decision by the end of 2014.

“We will readily admit if we think we can have a strong field and there is an appetite for that championship, it is going to happen,” Davis said. “I say that and ultimately it is the USGA executive committee, our board, that has to make that decision, but I think I know the organization well enough to say that if there is a demand for it, we should do it.”

It’s still unclear how soon the championship would begin. For historical perspective, the executive committee approved the U.S. Senior Open in 1979 and the tournament was held the next year, at Winged Foot’s East Course. More recently, the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championships, which debut this year for men and women, were announced in 2013.

“I don’t think it would take as long as you think,” Davis said.

Several leaders in the women’s game were overjoyed at the news when reached by phone. If anyone matched Blalock’s enthusiastic response, it had to be Porter-King, who said, “If that’s true, I’m going to head straight to the practice tee as soon as we hang up. I just wish I had more game.”

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