WHEATON, Ill. – The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open was a celebration of everything that’s beautiful about this game. JoAnne Carner, with her rosy cheeks and pack of Winstons, shot her age at 79, reminding us of its timelessness. Chicago Golf Club, a historically elegant club, placed a spotlight on strategic play from some of the giants in the women’s game.
Fans walked down the middle of the fairways, creating an intimate, retro look that matched black-and-white photos from the club that date back more than 100 years. Friendships were forged and rekindled. Players and caddies reunited. And there was deep, heartfelt gratitude toward those who have blazed trails of inspiration.
And the champion Laura Davies, well, she’s the stuff of legend. A woman the Queen of England bestowed the title of “Dame.”
The major with the lowest purse of the season gifted us the richest of experiences.
“It’s such a privilege to be here,” Helen Alfredsson said. “We were talking about being the first. We were the first at Solheim. To see what that has become … we couldn’t even give away tickets. It’s nice when you take a step forward for women.”
Head pro John Guyton took note when Jan Stephenson came into the pro shop to buy a championship pin flag before Tuesday night’s player reception. Many followed suit. Guyton estimates that half the field bought a pin flag to put outside their locker. Amateurs and legends alike signed dozens of flags for each other all the way down the locker room.
Merchandise sales doubled what was forecasted. The U.S. Golf Association bumped the pairings guide order by 30 percent for the weekend after Thursday and Friday crowds drastically exceeded expectations.
USGA officials routinely acknowledged throughout the week that this major was long overdue.
“It was really hard to look somebody in the face,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said, “and say this is why we couldn’t do it.”
It was the right thing to do for golf, to give women nearing the end of their LPGA careers a reason to stay in the game. Davis pointed to the fact that when the U.S. Senior Open debuted in 1980, the modern senior circuit didn’t exist. The hope, of course, is that this championship does something similar for the fledgling Legends Tour.
“You all sure look young,” said Carner as she opened her speech at Tuesday night’s player reception. The eight-time USGA champion brought the house down with her six-minute speech.
“My goal is that DNF (did not finish) is not going to be on that scorecard,” said Carner, who hadn’t walked a golf course in 14 years. “Yesterday it might have been ROB – ran out of balls.”
Practically everywhere you turned at Chicago Golf Club, there stood someone’s idol.
Suzy Whaley, a 51-year-old dynamo in line to become the first female President of the PGA of America, had posters of Nancy Lopez and Carner on her wall as a kid. She recalled a time she ran under the ropes on the putting green during play at her first LPGA event to get Lopez’s autograph.
“She signed, she signed my hat, she signed my little pairing sheet, card, she signed anything I had,” said Whaley, “and she said, ‘Now, I’ll tell you what, you’ll probably get more autographs if you ask for them behind the ropes.”
Lopez didn’t scold her. Didn’t shoo her away. It was a moment that shaped Whaley, who still has that signed scorecard from the Corning Classic.
Knee surgery kept Lopez out of this championship. She’ll get her left knee done on Nov. 1 and gave it a 50 percent chance that she’ll be in the field at Pine Needles in 2019. Lopez’s presence on the first tee as an honorary starter, at a kid’s clinic on the range Saturday and by the 18th fairway on Sunday, added another layer of magic to a weekend that included Hall of Famers Amy Alcott, Hollis Stacy, Betsy King and Pat Bradley.
Sandra Palmer, 77, hit two balls into the water on the par-3 10th Friday, her opening hole, and told the crowd this might be a “Tin Cup” moment. No one around that tee box could breathe until her third shot hit land.
Palmer, a 19-time winner on the LPGA, stuck around for the weekend along with many of her peers to see this historic championship through to the finish. She was sheepish about her scorecard, but smiled and said, “I made a swing for every friend who texted me. I’m so appreciative.”
To everyone privileged enough to be on-site, it was a major for the ages. A throwback that reminded us all what’s been missing. Gwk