U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club is a real feel-good story

WHEATON, IL. –The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which teed off on Thursday in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, has been a celebration of women’s golf. It resembled a high school reunion, too, with the best pros and amateurs of the past re-connecting during three days of practice rounds and pre-tournament activities.

More than anything, though, this tournament for women who have reached their 50th birthday was overdue. In fact, it was long, long overdue.

JoAnne Carner – the only woman owning titles in the U.S. Girls Junior, the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open — said she had been waiting for the Senior event for 29 years; she’s now 79.

“I was just hoping I’d still be alive to play in it,’’ Carner said.

Jane Blalock first presented the concept of a senior tournament for women to the U.S. Golf Association after a captivating 1998 U.S. Women’s Open ended in a playoff victory by Korean Si Re Pak at Wisconsin’s Blackwolf Run. That tournament triggered a big change in the women’s game, giving it a more global appeal, but it didn’t change the USGA’s view on senior women playing with money on the line.

Blalock formed her own Legends Tour, which provided some competition for players after they turned 45 but had little support even from the LPGA. Last year – in an effort to beat the USGA to the punch – the LPGA conducted its first Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort.

That only accentuated a glaring absence in the USGA tournament schedule. The organization already had a U.S. Junior, a U.S. Amateur, a U.S. Mid-Amateur, a U.S. Senior Amateur and a U.S. Senior Open for men and similar national championship for women with that one exception.

Despite years of pressure from fading stars on the Ladies PGA Tour (and some of the top amateurs as well), the USGA was reluctant to find a place for a U.S. Senior Women’s Open and — once a commitment was made — it took three years in the planning stages to launch the tournament.

Finally, on Thursday at historic Chicago Golf Club, Carner smacked the first tee shot and the event became a reality. USGA executive director Mike Davis made some opening remarks at 6:45 a.m., then came a stirring rendition of the National Anthem by Grammy winner Heather Headley and player introductions by the legendary Nancy Lopez, who can’t play because of her knee problems and the walking-only requirement for the tournament.

After Carner’s 7 a.m. tee shot, made in front of a gallery standing four deep, there were even a few tears mixed in with the enthusiastic applause. Chunks of the gallery from the opening ceremonies followed each threesome, walking with the players down the fairway. It was a real feel-good thing all day long and will likely remain so until the first champion is crowned on Sunday.

The tourney’s reception in the Chicago area was a warm up, though it didn’t hurt one bit that it was held on America’s first 18-hole course. Chicago Golf Club is hosting its 12th USGA championship but the bulk of them were in the first two decades after the course opened in 1893. Prior to this week the last time the club opened its gates to the public was in 2005, for the Walker Cup matches.

Clearly there is a mystique about Chicago Golf Club, and Juli Inkster called it “a perfect place to hold this first one.’’

Lopez wasn’t the only former LPGA great missing from the field.

“We’re missing a few of the legends – the Beth Daniels, the Meg Mallons, the Kathy Whitworths and the Patty Sheehans,’’ said Inkster, “but we’ve got a lot of good ones.’’

The tournament drew 462 entries, and the starting field of 120 included 29 amateurs and 62 survivors of the nation-wide qualifying rounds. The finalists included players from 12 countries, with 95 from the U.S. They took on a course set up at 6,082 yards with a par of 73. Green speeds were around 12 on the Stimpmeter.

And there was decent crowd support despite some miserable planning by t being played on exactly the same dates as two other Illinois events — the Constellation Senior Players Championship, one of the five majors on PGA Tour Champions, and the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic.

The Senior Players event is at Exmoor Country Club, about an hour’s drive northeast of Chicago Golf Club, and the John Deere Classic is a two-hour drive to the west. Next year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open will have the stage to itself, at Pine Needles in North Carolina.

John Deere Classic is a throw-back to the PGA Tour from decades ago

Golf-wise, this little community on the outskirts of the Mississippi River towns of Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa is a phenomenon. A PGA Tour event has been played here every year since 2000, and the entire area known as the Quad Cities has commanded a tournament for 47 consecutive years.

The PGA Tour doesn’t seek out markets the size of the Quad Cities. It’s just too small, but the circuit is lucky to have it on its annual schedule. No community has been more supportive of the pro golf tour than the Quad Cities. As proof , note that the John Deere Classic – which tees off next week at TPC Deere Run – was the circuit’s Tournament of the Year in 2016, is a six-time winner of the Most Engaged Community award and has won the Best Social Media Activation award the last three years.

Yes, the John Deere Classic does a lot of things right. That’s what two-time winner Jordan Spieth has said. Three-time champion Steve Stricker considers the JDC a throwback to the days early in his career when community involvement was a bigger thing than it is now. That’s in part why Stricker is skipping a major on PGA Tour Champions – the Constellation Senior Players Championship, being played just two hours away in the Chicago area – to compete at TPC Deere Run.

In its early years the tournament was known as the Quad Cities Open, and eventual PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman won the first two tournaments in 1971 and 1972 at Crow Valley, which is on the Iowa side of the Mississippi.

Crow Valley remained the site for two more years and Quad Cities was in the title until 1986, when fast-food chain Hardee’s started a nine-year run as tournament sponsor. Then it was back to the Quad City Classic for four years until Moline-based John Deere & Company, the agriculture equipment manufacturer, took over.

The tournament is expected to top $100 million in its charity giving this year, and more than 99 percent of it has come since John Deere became the sponsor. The company put its name on the tournament in 1999 — the last of the 24 years the tournament had been played at Oakwood Country Club in Coal Valley, Ill.

Oakwood was a short par-70 layout. It never played longer than 6,762 yards, the purse was but $2 million for the last playing there and the best feature was those delicious pork chop sandwiches that are still a tournament tradition.

In 2000 – the event’s 30th anniversary –the tournament was moved to 7,183-yard par-71 TPC Deere Run, a course designed by Illinois native and three-time tournament winner D.A. Weibring.

The tournament has endured some tough times, but the arrival of John Deere eventually solved most of them. The event was upgraded in a variety of ways – signage, seating, fan experiences and hospitality options — while somehow maintaining its “down home’’ feeling.

Date problems – the tournament has been played a week before the British Open — made it difficult to land some of the top players, but Clair Peterson – the tournament director since 2003 – appealed to their sense of loyalty. He made a point of using his sponsor exemptions on up-and-coming young players in hopes that they would enjoy the tournament enough to want to return when they became top stars.

In addition to Spieth among those getting those invites included Tiger Woods, Bill Haas, Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm. Some didn’t been back, but many did.

In 2004 the R&A gave the JDC the last British Open exemption. That helped the tourney’s credibility and Peterson took it a step further with what now seems a stroke of genius. In 2008 he began providing a charter jet to the British Open site. It’d fly directly from the Quad Cities Airport, and players and their caddies could depart a few hours after the last putt dropped at TPC Deere Run. Reduced travel expenses to the British proved a much better enticement for players to come to the JDC than any increase in prize money could.

This year the JDC may have its best field ever. Bryson DeChambeau is the defending champion. Long-time favorites Stricker and Zach Johnson (an Iowa native who is on the JDC board of directors and a tournament ambassador) are fixtures. Brandt Snedeker is returning for the first time since 2009, when he was the tourney runner-up. There’s also a nice foreign touch with Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who won the Quicken Loans National last week, and Joaquin Niemann, the 19-year old Chilean sensation.

Those sponsor exemptions will also bear watching again. All were collegiate stars with Illinois ties. Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy played at the University of Illinois. Ben Hogan Award winner Doug Ghim grew up in the Chicago suburbs and Norman Xiong won a Western Amateur in the Chicago area.