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Len Ziehm On Golf

Crosby is a surprise leader after Round 1 of Senior Women’s Open

Scotland’s Trish Johnson is the only woman to have won a major senior tournament. She won the only one – the first Senior LPGA Championship last fall – and she got off to a good start on making it two-for-two in Thursday’s first round of the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton.

She’s not leading, though. Elaine Crosby, a late starter, posted a 3-under-par 70 to claim a one-stroke lead on Johnson, Sweden’s Liselotte Neumann and England’s Laura Davies. Crosby, 60, plays on The Legends Tour.

Johnson, who led wire to wire in the Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort, won’t be able to go wire to wire at Chicago Golf Club, and Crosby, a former member of the LPGA Tour who lives in Jackson, Mich., wasn’t her only problem in the first round. Johnson encountered a couple things that were unnerving.

For one, though she was in the second threesome to tee off, there was a wait at the first tee. Opening ceremonies involved remarks by Mike Davis, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, and a stirring rendition of The National Anthem by Grammy winner Heather Headley. Then came the opening tee shot by JoAnne Carner, a ready-made photo op for fans who stood four-deep at 7 a.m. to celebrate the long-awaited national championship for women 50 and over.

“A 20-minute wait or so on the first tee, it was quite nerve-racking, to be honest,’’ said Johnson after posting her 71.

Then there was the pin position at the par-3 10th hole. Johnson put her tee shot on the 136-yard hole on the back of the green, then rolled her downhill putt past the cup, off the green and into a bunker. Playing partner Helen Alfredsson of Sweden did the same thing and so did former U.S. Women’s Open champions Pat Bradley and Amy Alcott.

“If you’re behind the flag you cannot stop it. You’ve got to be either short or to the side,’’ said Johnson, who apparently is learning fast about America’s first 18-hole course that is hosting its 12th U.S. Golf Association championship but only the second for women. The first was the U.S. Women’s Amateur way back in 1903.

Chicago Golf Club offered a look this week’s players don’t see very much. Spectators can walk with them in the fairways. There are no gallery ropes, just directional markers around the greens.

That’s not the only difference from her first major win at French Lick, a Pete Dye design.

“French Lick is harder than this course,’’ said Johnson. “The fairways here are a lot wider. French Lick’s aren’t at all; You can hardly see any of them. And here it’s four rounds walking, which is not something you do on The Legends Tour.

Crosby qualified for this Senior Open at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, shooting a 72 to earn one of the five spots offered there. A big supporter of The Legends Tour, she has hosted its Wendy’s Charity Classic tournament for the last 16 years.

“Hopefully The Legends will gain momentum from this Senior Open,’’ said Crosby. “It’ll show that we can play. We may not have a lot of tournaments, but we do have a lot of pro-ams and we’re really good at those.’’

Davies – one of the expected contenders — finished her round in style, making eagle on the 18th hole. She hit a good drive on the 425-yard par-5 and put a 7-iron approach from 168 yards to 10 feet. She played with Juli Inkster and Neumann, and they’ll be paired again in today’s second round.

Neumann and Davies go way back. They played together in 1979 in the European Junior Championship. Inkster, the third member of the threesome, is still active on the LPGA Tour but she couldn’t keep up with the two Europeans. Poor putting has hampered her much of this season, but that wasn’t the problem on Thursday.

“I hit the ball like crap,’’ she said. “I drove really bad and played defensive all day. I hit maybe four fairways with my driver, and that’s been my best club all year. But it could have been a lot worse. I’m just excited that I actually putted pretty good.’’

So did Jamie Fischer, the director of instruction at Conway Farms. A qualifier for the tournament at her home club, Fischer started the finals with a 1-over-74 and is tied for 11th place after Round 1.

Carner, the star of the show at the first tee in early morning, made birdie on the last hole to shoot her age – a 79.