The best senior women golfers, the ones who did so much to make the Ladies PGA Tour into what it is today, haven’t gotten the respect they deserve.
Their own tour barely recognized them, leaving it to Jane Blalock and The Legends Tour to provide a circuit for players after they turned 45. Thanks to major support from Steve Ferguson and Dave Harner at Indiana’s French Lick Resort, The Legends eventually got their own major championship and five years later, in 2017, it was transitioned into the Senior LPGA Championship, a 54-hole event played on Monday-through-Wednesday dates in October to entice The Golf Channel to provide coverage.
The U.S. Golf Association dragged its feet even more. The USGA – after much outside pressure – announced it would conduct a U.S. Senior Women’s Open in 2015 but didn’t hold the first one until three years later.
Now it’s time for the second one. It’s coming May 16-19 at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C., and 17 nation-wide qualifying rounds are underway. While players who have reached their 45th birthday are allowed into the Senior LPGA Championship, the USGA makes them wait until they’re 50 to play in its Senior Open.
The second U.S. Senior Women’s Open won’t be much like the first and you’ve got to wonder about the tournament’s place down the road. The second U.S. Senior Open was scheduled just 10 months after the first, which was played in mid-July at Chicago Golf Club — the nation’s first 18-hole course.
That’s a short turn-around for both players and staff, and the third playing will be 14 months after the second – July 6-12, 2020 at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Ct.. No dates have been announced for beyond 2020. In short, the tournament has no firm place on the USGA calendar, and hat could be a problem down the road.
The first U.S. Senior Women’s Open was played at an exclusive private club. The second will be on a resort course that has already hosted three U.S. Women’s Opens and will host a fourth in 2022. The first had competition with a major on PGA Tour Champions. Its Senior Players Championship was played in the Chicago area on exactly the same dates. The second U.S. Senior Women’s Open will be a warmup for the U.S. Amateur, which comes to nearby Pinehurst Resort in August.
Still, there should be no such wavering over the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. The first playing was a rousing success. – better than even the USGA could imagine.
“It doubled our expectations from the crowd standpoint,’’ said Katherine Thigpen, the event manager. “There was way more interest in women’s golf and these players.’’
One reason for the first tournament’s success was simply that it was the first. You can only be at the first playing a big event one time. That thinking was a factor in the warm reception the first Augusta National Women’s Amateur had in April. Women competing for the first time on fabled Augusta National – even if it was for just one day – was special. Everyone knew it would be – and it was.
The first U.S. Senior Women’s Open was a real feel-good story, too. After all the waiting, there were even a few tears shed when Nancy Lopez announced Joanne Carner as the tourney’s first player to tee off.
Big Mama boomed her drive down the first fairway of a club that has rarely opened its course to tournament play and spectator traffic. Carner, then 79, shot her age that day. Now 80, she’ll try to do it again at Pine Needles.
Spectators were permitted to walk along with the player in Chicago and everyone of them – not just the big names – had at least a few followers from hole to hole. When it was over there was exultation over Laura Davies’ 10-stroke victory and 16-under-par score on a par-73 course set up at 6,082 yards.
Now we go to Pine Needles – a good site for the tournament if not quite as eye-catching as Chicago Golf Club. The players will know Pine Needles a lot better than they knew Chicago Golf Club. Some tidbits worth noting:
Pine Needles will have an autograph area set aside to encourage interaction between players and fans. It’ll also have four players in the field, among them Davies, who played in the U.S. Women’s Opens there in 1991, 2001 and 2007. Not only that, but two of the greats of women’s golf – Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon – will be in the field after taking a pass on the inaugural in Chicago.