Golf was a different game when Pat Bradley won the ultimate title available to her, the U.S. Women’s Open. She did it at LaGrange Country Club in 1981, coming from three strokes behind in the last round to post a 66 and beat out Beth Daniel and Kathy Whitworth. It was the crowning achievement in Bradley’s Hall of Fame career.
“I went back 25 years later and played the course from the same yardage,’’ said Bradley. “But I found the ball and equipment had changed. I didn’t have metal woods back then. I had persimmon. In today’s world the equipment and balls are much stronger. We weren’t fitted for our clubs. If it felt good, we’d take it.’’
Bradley played her last U.S. Open at Merit Club, in Libertyville, in 2000 but she never stopped competing. Her last event on the LPGA tour was the 2004 Dinah Shore Championship, when she was 53 years old and a World Golf Hall of Famer for 13 years.
“Even that was stretching it,’’ said Bradley. “A lot of us hung on longer than we should have beause we knew that when it was over it was really over.’’
Eventually The Legends Tour was created for players who had reached their 45th birthday. That meant Bradley could compete in a few tournaments each year but it wasn’t the same as the men’s immediately popular Senior PGA Tour (now called PGA Tour Champions).
This week, though, the past merges with the present for Bradley. She’s part of the 120-player field for the inaugural U.S. Women’s Senior Open, which tees off on Thursday at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton. The U.S. Golf Association’s newest national championship will be played on America’s first 18-hole course. There’s something special about that.
“I’ve been waiting for this Open for 17 years. I wish it was 17 years ago, but it’s here now and I’m grateful,’’ said Bradley, now 67.
There are other special things playing into Bradley’s golf career now. The rest of the golf world was slow to show respect for the players of her era, but last fall the LPGA scheduled its first event for its former stars — the Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort. That meant the end of The Legends Championship, but a bigger and better event was put in its place.
And, what was once the LPGA Championship is now called the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship – an event played at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer two weeks ago. The PGA of America took over management of that tournament from the women’s group three years ago and made it bigger and better.
Bradley’s nephew, Keegan Bradley – every bit the fierce competitor his aunt is – won the men’s PGA Championship in 2011. That’s a source of family pride, too, but it took far too much time for the women’s game to catch up to the men’s.
The PGA has held its men’s Senior Championship since 1937 and the PGA Tour has had its senior circuit, now called PGA Tour Champions, since 1980. That same year the USGA conducted its first U.S. Senior Open for men.
PGA Tour Champions will also be playing in Chicago on the same days as the U.S. Women’s Senior Open this week. It’ll hold its Constellation Senior Players Championship at Exmoor, in Highland Park.
Schedule conflicts aside, at least the women will finally get their chance. Unlike the Senior LPGA Championship, the U.S. Women’s Senior Open is a walking-only event for those who have reached their 50th birthday. Also, unlike the LPGA, this national championship had nation-wide qualifying rounds. Entries hit 462, with this week’s field comprised of players (like Bradley) invited off past performance with those who survived the qualifiers.
The walking-only requirement has ruled out several LPGA stars of the past, most notably Nancy Lopez who has undergone knee replacement surgery. Lopez will be on hand as a starter.
Bradley, though, won’t be there for ceremonial purposes. She is serious about competing and has contacted her former swing instructor, Gail Davis, to sharpen her short game. Davis, now 81 years old, is living in Garland, Tex. She was an LPGA player in the 1960s. Bradley has also re-connected with Bob Rotella, her psychologist.
“We’re trying hard, and we’ve had a great run-up to the tournament,’’ said Bradley. “We’re very excited, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. We’re going to make history here.’’
The favorites would seem to be Scotland’s Trish Johnson, who won the first Senior LPGA Championship; Juli Inkster, who still competes on the LPGA Tour; and England’s long-hitting Laura Davies, who needs a win to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame.
“This is a huge event for Laura,’’ said Bradley.
It’s also a big event for Chicago Golf Club, which has hosted 11 USGA championships. The club last opened its doors to the public for a tournament in 2005, when the Walker Cup matches were played there.
“The USGA really found a beauty for this tournament,’’ said Bradley. “This course will be fair, whether you’re a short hitter or a Laura Davies hitter.’’
The field will play 18-hole rounds on Thursday and Friday, and the low 50 including ties will play 36 more holes on the weekend to determine the first U.S. Women’s Senior Open champion.