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Len Ziehm On Golf

U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club is a real feel-good story

WHEATON, IL. –The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which teed off on Thursday in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, has been a celebration of women’s golf. It resembled a high school reunion, too, with the best pros and amateurs of the past re-connecting during three days of practice rounds and pre-tournament activities.

More than anything, though, this tournament for women who have reached their 50th birthday was overdue. In fact, it was long, long overdue.

JoAnne Carner – the only woman owning titles in the U.S. Girls Junior, the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open — said she had been waiting for the Senior event for 29 years; she’s now 79.

“I was just hoping I’d still be alive to play in it,’’ Carner said.

Jane Blalock first presented the concept of a senior tournament for women to the U.S. Golf Association after a captivating 1998 U.S. Women’s Open ended in a playoff victory by Korean Si Re Pak at Wisconsin’s Blackwolf Run. That tournament triggered a big change in the women’s game, giving it a more global appeal, but it didn’t change the USGA’s view on senior women playing with money on the line.

Blalock formed her own Legends Tour, which provided some competition for players after they turned 45 but had little support even from the LPGA. Last year – in an effort to beat the USGA to the punch – the LPGA conducted its first Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort.

That only accentuated a glaring absence in the USGA tournament schedule. The organization already had a U.S. Junior, a U.S. Amateur, a U.S. Mid-Amateur, a U.S. Senior Amateur and a U.S. Senior Open for men and similar national championship for women with that one exception.

Despite years of pressure from fading stars on the Ladies PGA Tour (and some of the top amateurs as well), the USGA was reluctant to find a place for a U.S. Senior Women’s Open and — once a commitment was made — it took three years in the planning stages to launch the tournament.

Finally, on Thursday at historic Chicago Golf Club, Carner smacked the first tee shot and the event became a reality. USGA executive director Mike Davis made some opening remarks at 6:45 a.m., then came a stirring rendition of the National Anthem by Grammy winner Heather Headley and player introductions by the legendary Nancy Lopez, who can’t play because of her knee problems and the walking-only requirement for the tournament.

After Carner’s 7 a.m. tee shot, made in front of a gallery standing four deep, there were even a few tears mixed in with the enthusiastic applause. Chunks of the gallery from the opening ceremonies followed each threesome, walking with the players down the fairway. It was a real feel-good thing all day long and will likely remain so until the first champion is crowned on Sunday.

The tourney’s reception in the Chicago area was a warm up, though it didn’t hurt one bit that it was held on America’s first 18-hole course. Chicago Golf Club is hosting its 12th USGA championship but the bulk of them were in the first two decades after the course opened in 1893. Prior to this week the last time the club opened its gates to the public was in 2005, for the Walker Cup matches.

Clearly there is a mystique about Chicago Golf Club, and Juli Inkster called it “a perfect place to hold this first one.’’

Lopez wasn’t the only former LPGA great missing from the field.

“We’re missing a few of the legends – the Beth Daniels, the Meg Mallons, the Kathy Whitworths and the Patty Sheehans,’’ said Inkster, “but we’ve got a lot of good ones.’’

The tournament drew 462 entries, and the starting field of 120 included 29 amateurs and 62 survivors of the nation-wide qualifying rounds. The finalists included players from 12 countries, with 95 from the U.S. They took on a course set up at 6,082 yards with a par of 73. Green speeds were around 12 on the Stimpmeter.

And there was decent crowd support despite some miserable planning by t being played on exactly the same dates as two other Illinois events — the Constellation Senior Players Championship, one of the five majors on PGA Tour Champions, and the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic.

The Senior Players event is at Exmoor Country Club, about an hour’s drive northeast of Chicago Golf Club, and the John Deere Classic is a two-hour drive to the west. Next year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open will have the stage to itself, at Pine Needles in North Carolina.