JoAnne Carner, 79, remarkably shoots her age at U.S. Senior Women's Open

USGA/Chris Keane

JoAnne Carner, 79, remarkably shoots her age at U.S. Senior Women's Open

Professional

JoAnne Carner, 79, remarkably shoots her age at U.S. Senior Women's Open

WHEATON, Ill. – It wasn’t until after JoAnne Carner married that she realized husband, Don, typically ducked inside for a quick shot to calm his nerves before heading to the first tee at mixed foursomes events. Carner, 79, took a drag on a cigarette before striping the first drive at the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open but refrained from any liquor. She did, however, peg up her golf ball long before honorary starter Nancy Lopez announced her name. This wasn’t Big Mama’s first rodeo.

The scene at Chicago Golf Club shortly before 7 a.m. was intimately rich. Grammy and Tony award-winning artist Heather Headley’s stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner set the tone for an emotional start to golf’s overdue major.

Lopez wiped away tears before she’d even reached her perch on the first tee. Hall of Famer Amy Alcott stood among fans along the ropes to see Hollis Stacy, Sandra Palmer and Carner kick off the championship. It feels like a high school reunion at Chicago Golf Club – one that includes a series of stern tests.

Carner playfully knocked her knees together for the crowd. “Are you ready?” Stacy asked.

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” Carner replied.

As Lopez rattled off Carner’s impeccable resume, Big Mama cupped her hand to her ear in jest. Only a few chirping birds could be heard as Carner stepped to the ball with a driver she’s only had in the bag for a week.

Thwack!

Carner hits it about 225 yards these days, but her swing felt as mighty as ever to those who have long looked up to the eight-time USGA champion. She threw her hands toward the ball, urging it to run down Chicago Golf Club’s firm and generous fairways. Once more she was the longest in the group.

“All these players gave their lives to the LPGA. To see them come out, work hard and play,” said Lopez tearing up. “I just hate that JoAnne couldn’t play this many years ago … she was my idol.”

The last time Carner walked a golf course, she reckons, was 2004. When asked if she hit the gym to prepare for this championship, Carner shot back: “Do I look like I hit the gym?”

Every summer Carner takes her yacht to the Bahamas with two couples and her sister. They set sail this year on June 8, and Carner rented a villa at Green Turtle Key. There was no golf to speak of on the trip, which means that when she returned to Lake Worth, Fla., on June 30, it was time to cram.

At Chicago Golf Club, things got more intense when Carner discovered that the wedge she had used for three decades was nonconforming. The club’s head pro helped her sort out a new club before she got to the first green of her first practice round.

Carner walked 18 holes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, swapping shoes a couple times to find the right fit. It was a risk, playing so much golf before the start of the championship, but Carner wouldn’t hear of doing it any other way.

“Part of that is to take some of the weight off that I’ve piled on,” she said in her typically humorous and direct fashion.

Carner opened with four consecutive bogeys on the front side at the oldest 18-hole course in America. She went out in 43 with a triple bogey on the ninth. That was right around the time the USGA gave Carner’s group a slow-play warning. (Insert eye-roll here.)

“I normally play fast,” said Carner. “I walk slow right now.”

And here’s where it turned storybook.

Carner fought back with a hot putter, carding four birdies on the back side, including one on the par-5 18th, to shoot 6-over 79. She relied on the advice of club caddie Peter Wilson, a student at Carnegie Mellon with a penchant for reading greens, to shoot her age in Round 1.

“She is one of the toughest women I have ever met,” said an admiring Helen Alfredsson.

When asked if she was pleased with the score, Carner shook her head emphatically.

“No, I just hit some atrocious shots,” she said. “Like golf 101.”

Carner went on to describe what went wrong on the squirrely 5-wood she hit up the last: “I can tell you all the alibis.”

The Hall of Famer’s gritty 79 is nothing short of remarkable to mortals, but the 43-time winner headed out to the range after lunch to rediscover the magic of her short irons.

“Really, I can shoot this course under par,” she said.

We’ll be clamoring to see it.

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