Pat Bradley peeked into my bag on the first tee at Chicago Golf Club and pulled out the Karsten I pitching wedge I’ve been using since high school. (My dad has a backup in the garage.)
“Is this conforming?” she asked, noting that some U.S. Senior Women’s Open hopefuls had their clubs checked by the U.S. Golf Association, as the rules had changed since they last competed.
That exchange elicited two thoughts: 1) Wow, this championship took entirely too long to come together. 2) I can’t wait to see it unfold.
For three consecutive years in the early aughts, Bradley flew out west to the USGA’s annual meeting to lobby for a U.S. Senior Women’s Open. She didn’t get much traction. Perhaps they’re waiting for Nancy Lopez to turn 50, she decided. That milestone birthday came and went, and still no championship. (Lopez, now 61, won’t compete due to recent knee surgery.)
“They accounted for every age group but us,” said Bradley, a 67-year-old LPGA Hall of Famer with six major titles. “They knew deep in their hearts that it wasn’t complete.”
On a steamy day in suburban Chicago, Bradley held court at the oldest 18-hole golf course in the land, delighting all with rich stories from the past and unbridled enthusiasm for the USGA’s newest championship. Finally, after decades of conversation and prodding, stars from the LPGA’s Golden Era are getting their due.
“Bethy, if this doesn’t look exactly like a nose,” Bradley said as she walked between the bunkered nostrils of the Principal’s Nose and down its grassy bridge on the par-4 sixth.
Bradley was getting a second look at the masterpiece of Charles B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, who took a boring piece of land and transformed it into one of the great walks in golf. Bradley made sure everyone in the group felt comfortable. More than that, a colleague noted, that we mattered.
“Alrighty pro,” Bradley said as I stepped up to the tee box on the par-3 third, a Biarritz. I looked up at the legend, a 31-time winner on the LPGA, and smiled at her choice of words.
Pro-ams have long been an LPGA specialty. At this intimate championship outing, the warmth and appreciation of the participants on hand served as a preview of what’s to come July 12-15.
“This is the ultimate,” said Mary Jane Hiestand, a 59-year-old exempt amateur who will be playing in her 44th USGA championship but first Open.
A women’s event hasn’t been hosted at Chicago Golf Club since 1903. One of five founding members of the USGA, the club joins Shinnecock in hosting national Opens in three different centuries.
There will be courtesy cars and leaderboards and a seven-figure purse ($1 million). But, in a new twist for pro golf, roped off areas will be limited to the tees and greens. Players wanted to be able to interact with fans, who are encouraged to walk down the middle of the fairways. This also keeps people out of the rough, which was particularly lush in mid-June but is expected to thin out in the summer heat.
“It will be worth buying a ticket just to see JoAnne Carner strut her stuff,” Bradley said.
Carner, 79, remains the only player in history to win the U.S. Girls’ Junior, U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open titles. She’ll be joined by the likes of Amy Alcott, Helen Alfredsson, Laura Davies, Betsy King, Sandra Palmer, Jan Stephenson and Juli Inkster. Hollis Stacy, a three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion, was exempt into the field but her sister, Martha Leach (an amateur), won a qualifier to earn her spot.
The biggest test the USGA faces at Chicago Golf Club is finding that setup sweet spot, a challenge made more difficult by competitive rust. The inaugural championship is both a celebration and an Open. It’s meant to test but not embarrass.
To get it right, USGA officials have attended Legends Tour events, conducted a distance study at the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, sat in on range sessions with various players and asked caddies at Chicago Golf Club to take notes when participants came out to practice.
Bradley was above average off the tee in her prime, hitting it about 250 yards. She has lost about 15 to 20 yards. But now, there are hybrids! The highest iron Bradley carries is a 6-iron, a stark contrast to the 2-iron.
“We didn’t use it unless we were in the trees,” she noted.
The first tee shot (hopefully struck by Carner) will be significant. The problem: Only the last two rounds of the event will be televised for a grand total of four hours.
The best way to appreciate this iconic venue and some of golf’s most treasured characters is to witness it first-hand from the middle of the fairway. But for those who can’t make it to Wheaton, this championship deserves more exposure.
The U.S. Senior Women’s Open is finally here.
Now the USGA must find a way to help more people see it. Gwk
(Note: This story appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golfweek.)