Senior LPGA at French Lick shows progress in women’s golf

FRENCH LICK, Indiana – This is progress, no doubt about it.

Barely a year ago there was one glaring void in the golf tournament schedule. Senior women professionals were being ignored, by both the LPGA and USGA. Now, thankfully, that’s no longer the case. That group of players, most of whom contributed so much to the growth on the LPGA, now have two full-fledged major championships to put the spotlight on their game.

The first was the Senior LPGA Championship, played here on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort last July. The second was the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, played from July 12-15 of this year at America’s first 18-hole course – Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, IL.

Now the Senior LPGA Championship is poised for its second staging, from Oct. 15-17, with England’s Trish Johnson defending her title. She won wire-to-wire last year, finishing at 4-under-par to claim a three-shot victory over Michele Redman and a $90,000 first prize.

Dame Laura Davies, also from England, won the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open by a whopping 10 strokes over runner-up Juli Inkster three months ago and pocketed $180,000 from a $1 million purse.

Both of these championships were a long time coming. After finally committing to hold a U.S. Senior Women’s Open the USGA needed three years before finally putting on the event.

“I was just hoping I’d still be alive to play in it,’’ said JoAnne Carner, who – at 79 – was given the honor of hitting the first tee shot.

Unlike the men’s PGA Tour, the LPGA didn’t provide a circuit for its older players. That was left to former star Jane Blalock, who created The Legends Tour in 2001. Other than designating it as its “official’’ senior tour, the LPGA wasn’t involved in its operation until last year.

The Senior LPGA Championship grew out of the four-year old Legends Championship, basically a creation by Blalock, French Lick chairman Steve Ferguson and director of golf Dave Harner. They did it up right the first year, putting the tournament together with a Symetra Tour event that celebrated the centennial of the nearby Donald Ross Course – site of LPGA Championships in 1959 and 1960.

This year the Symetra and Senior LPGA events were separated, the main reason being that TV coverage was deemed a must for the Senior LPGA. Weekday dates made it attractive for The Golf Channel and October has always been a good month to showcase the bright fall colors of southern Indiana. The Symetra event remained in July.

The Senior LPGA is for players who have reached their 45th birthday but the tournament will also include an Honors Division for its older stars on Sunday, the day before the main event starts. Those 50-and-over were eligible for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

The Senior LPGA Championship will have an 81-player field and a $600,000 purse for another 54-hole competition, and players can ride at French Lick – the tourney site for at least four more years.

By comparison, the U.S. Senior Women’s Open started with 10 nation-wide qualifying rounds to whittle the 462 entries to the 120 who started the 72-hole competition at Chicago Golf Club. The Open is a walking only event that will be played at Pine Needles in North Carolina in 2019.