Socializing is over; now things get serious at first U.S. Senior Women’s Open

So far the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open has been a feel-good story — the long-overdue creation of a national championship for women golfers who have passed their 50th birthday.

They’re delighted the U.S. Golf Association added the event to its schedule, and it’s brought a lot of former professional and amateur competitors together again. In fact, the atmosphere at Chicago Golf Club over the last three days even resembled a high school reunion, especially at Tuesday night’s players’ dinner.

“It was a lot of people just having fun, meeting old acquaintances, catching up with people,’’ said Juli Inkster, one of the favorites to be at the top of the leaderboard after the regulation 72 holes wrap up on Sunday at the Wheaton layout that became America’s first 18-hole course in 1893.

Now the socializing is over, and it’s down to business with the challenge of becoming the first champion of the USGA’s newest national championship on the line for 120 players from the original entry of 462. The finalists will tee off starting at 7 a.m., with JoAnne Carner having the honor of smacking the first tee shot.

Carner had a brilliant amateur and professional career. She won an NCAA title, a U.S. Junior crown, five U.S. Amateurs, two U.S. Opens and 43 Ladies PGA tournaments. She deserves the honor of hitting the first ball, but Carner is 79 now and her chances of winning this week are slim and none.

She has fought recent hip problems and spent 2 ½ weeks of the last month on a boat trip to the Bahamas. That’s hardly conducive to good preparation for a big tournament. Still, Carner walked 18-hole practice rounds the last three days in 90-degree heat, and said with a grin “I’m always ready. I’ve been waiting 29 years for this. I was hoping I’d still be alive to play in it.’’

Carner will probably do just fine, but there figures to be just four main challenges for the coveted title. Inkster is one, mainly because she still plays frequently against the young stars on the LPGA circuit.

Hampered by putting problems, she hasn’t had a good year, though. Inkster shot 79-77 and missed the cut in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes, in Kildeer, two weeks ago. She is switching back to a cross-handed putting grip this week after using a claw most of the season.

“My path was bad,’’ she said. “I don’t know how you get into these funks, but I do.’’

She been working with her club professional husband Brian to correct the problem, but the results haven’t been encouraging so far.

“He’s been drinking a lot this week, poor guy,’’ quipped Inkster.

The member of the favorite foursome who would seem to be the best bet to win is Scotland’s Trish Johnson, mainly because she was the winner of the only previous major championship for senior women. She led wire to wire in the Senior LPGA Championship last fall at French Lick Resort in Indiana. Johnson also won a Legends event in Washington this year.

Two other foreign players – Sweden’s Liselotte Neumann and England’s Laura Davies – are the other members of the favored foursome. Neumann, winner of 13 LPGA titles and 11 European Tour events, has also won three times on the Legends Tour, for LPGA stars of the past who have reached their 45th birthday.

Davies, a World Golf Hall of Famers, has remained competitive on the LPGA Tour. She is Inkster’s favorite to win this week.

“I don’t know about being the favorite,’’ said Davies, “but the USGA is taking this seriously because it’s an inaugural event. It’s the real deal. The USGA has done the players proud, and hopefully now we’ll do them proud with our performances on the course.’’

Though that foursome appears to be the class of the field, there are some other interesting possibilities.

Jane Blalock is the founder of the Legends Tour, and Suzy Whaley will soon become the first female president of the PGA of America. Blalock got in the field as a sponsor’s exemption and Whaley survived sectional qualifying. So did Kay Cockerill, a former LPGA player who converted into a tournament analyst for The Golf Channel.

Cockerill will have her husband Danny as her caddie. He was on her bag during Cockerill’s years on the LPGA Tour but hasn’t carried since Kay’s failed attempt at a U.S. Open qualifying round in 2006.

There is also a sister duo in the field. Hollis Stacy was a three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion. Her sister, Martha Leach won a U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur. The last time they played together in a tournament was in 1990, at the U.S. Open.