WHEATON, Ill. — Walking through the gates at Chicago Golf Club on Friday, I wasn’t sure what to expect at the inaugural US Senior Women’s Open. But within 5 minutes I knew I had stumbled on the golf celebration of the year.
The very first person I recognized was Nancy Lopez, moving with purpose toward the first tee for the start of the afternoon wave. She’s got a bad knee which kept her from competing in this kickoff edition of a women’s 50-plus USGA national championship, so she got involved by taking up post as the first tee starter. She’s introducing her peers, her idols and some women who she doesn’t know but finally get their day in a national championship of their own. After a planned knee replacement, she’s hoping to be introduced next year.
Lopez would have been here, even if she didn’t have an assignment. She’s the unofficial 14th founder of the LPGA, moving women’s golf much more into the mainstream with her accomplishments, her presence and her tireless work as an ambassador for the game. The women competing could not be more thrilled to have one of their own getting them going.
While this is a celebration of the greats who get perhaps one final chance to be a pioneer in this game, this inaugural championship is also for the accomplished players who deserve an important, well-supported event befitting their skill.
After Lopez, the next thing I saw was a pair of players in the distance making the turn from 18 to 1. Chicago Golf Club has been winning against most of these players, but that didn’t matter in this moment. These two were walking with their arms over each others shoulders, smiling each from ear to ear. This is most certainly a competition, but what qualifies as success here this week is left up to each contestant.
For 79-year-old JoAnne Carner, a win would have been making the cut. Lots of tears were shed on Thursday when Carner not only teed off but then managed to shoot her age at this venerable club. What seemed distant to many before the tournament seemed a real possibility when she was announced on the 10th tee on Friday with the biggest gallery on the course.
Big Mama still had a good chance of seeing the weekend well into her second round, particularly as the cut line crept higher and higher. In the end, the golf swing just wasn’t enough. She tired walking round after round on this 6,200-yard, par-73 layout after taking a 14-year break — you read that right — from walking golf courses. But there couldn’t have been a soul who watched her the last two days who thought she did anything other than win. Hopefully she’s back again for more next year at 80.
Some of the players were doing double duty as moms in between shots. Three-time Michigan PGA Women’s Open champion Suzy Green-Roebuck was near the first page of the leaderboard well into Friday as she walked down the fairway of the par-5 12th after smashing a drive that put her in Position A. Her husband and their kids, as well some friends, were walking down the fairway behind her, as all the galleries are allowed to do here. Before she locked back in to getting close to the green in 2, she stopped to take a picture with her youngest son in the fairway. Then she smoked a fairway wood to perfect wedge range.
The free-range nature of the galleries was initially unnerving for some of the players, but Lori Atsedes was all for it.
“It’s nice to have people watching us again,” she said to playing partner Jane Crafter, an Aussie who hoisted her share of trophies and now holds the mic for a variety of pro golf broadcasts.
Lori made an eagle 3 on the fourth hole, getting home in 2 to the uphill green before draining 12-footer. She smiled and said she couldn’t remember the last time she made an eagle. She doesn’t get on board in 2 to many par 5s these days, so this memory was particularly sweet.
Meanwhile, Crafter was putting on a front-nine clinic, dissecting the McDonald-Raynor course with precision. Fairway, green, good look at birdie. Repeat. About 10 people, including her playing partners, caught the whole thing. It could not have been more fun to watch.
Long ago Chicago Golf Club became too short for the men’s game. It is a tad little short for the modern women’s game. But it was perfect for this championship just as it is. All of the strategic cross bunkers and hazards come into play for these women, offering a fitting, national championship-caliber test — what this event deserves this and every year.
With the Senior LPGA Championship born a year ago and the US Senior Women’s Open debuting this year, the makings of a more robust, recognized and celebrated 50-plus calendar is taking shape. The Legends Tour is a little more lenient on age than the USGA was for this (45 vs 50 years old minimum), but it kind of lacked clout without having true majors to anchor a schedule. That’s now happening organically, and hopefully it has come along right in time for the likes of Webb, Sorenstam, Davies, Inkster and others to boost the profile of this event after the initial years of novelty and gratitude evolve to focus more on this being a coveted, highly competitive championship. The Champions had a generation head start on the Legends. Give it time.
As for this week, this is a celebration. It’s a recognition of what has been won and those who worked so tirelessly to command respect. It’s a look back and the cementing of a new tradition. Long may it last.