SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Joanne Carner is 80 years old. Her par is no longer the number on the scorecard — 71 at this week’s second US Senior Women’s Open at Pine Needles. Par is the two numbered candles on her birthday cake.
And with three holes to go in her Thursday first round on a demanding, vexing golf course, Carner had a shot at beating her age.
Carner, whose World Golf Hall of Fame and LPGA Hall of Fame status is embroidered on the side of her golf bag, was just short of the green in three at the par-5 15th. No octagenarian drops into a squat to read putts, so she surveyed from on high, first going to the hole to see on the cup where the Bermudagrass grain is. Then she walked just past the hole to spy the read from the opposite side. She gingerly walked back behind her ball and performs a practice stroke or two. Then she stroked the putt with the popping motion so popular when she was first building her legend 50 years ago.
The ball rolled through the fringe, up the hill to the tucked left-hand-side pin, rolling left and off the flagstick into the hole for birdie. Everyone was surprised, even Carner, who dropped the putter to the ground and extends her arms out as if to say, Why can’t I do this more often?
She high-fived her caddie, waved to the 30 people who have been following her from the start, and she retrieved the ball from the hole. At 6 over for the round on the par-71 course, she had to finish up in 2 over to shoot an astounding 79.
As she stood sentinel on the side of the green, waiting for playing partners Laura Baugh and Jan Stephenson to finish out, she inhaled and exhaled out of her mouth. She’s tired, but the little burst of adrenaline brought a smile to her face.
The two-time US Women’s Open champion walked across the street to the par-3 16th, and friend came up next to her and said, “Great birdie!”
Carner, looking over to see if she can recognize the voice, exclaimed back in a broken voice, “Unbelievable!”
That birdie, her only one of the day, stopped a streak of three straight bogeys that’s as much a function of exhaustion as deteriorating skill. The legend is good for walking about 10 or 11 holes before she becomes visibly spent, admitting before the championship she hasn’t walked playing golf since the inaugural Senior Women’s Open last July. She tried to conserve energy throughout the round, frequently trailing the march of the players from shot to shot. She held onto energy to not only get around Pine Needles, whose footprint is much larger than last year’s inaugural host Chicago Golf Club, but also to put some punch in her shots. Carner didn’t waste time with a lengthy pre-shot routine: Big Mama eyeballed the line, rehearses the takeaway, drops the club behind the ball and smacks it. Her drives are never the shortest, even against players well younger than her — Baugh is 63, while Stephenson is 67.
However, it’s Carner’s short game that kept her from breaking her age. After her tee shot to the 170-yard 16th landed just short of the green, she skulled a chip shot past the hole and off the other side of the green. She quietly admonished herself for a second before she made the Charlie Brown heads-down walk to her next shot. Three more from there, and Carner was on the wrong side of her age par. The small gallery, hoping for a little more magic, was still encouraging even if they knew the opportunity had slipped away.
Going last on the next tee, Carner defiantly hit her drive over the large bunker complex guarding the inside of the dogleg at the 17th. The free-swinging shots are a wonder, but it’s when the targets get smaller that she can struggle.
“I’ve been very stiff, and I can’t really attack the ball like I want,” Carner said after the round. “I hit terrible shots, really, every so often.”
She dropkicked her second shot into the greenside bunker, took two to get out of the sand, and then three-putted for a deflating 7 to move her from 6 over two holes prior to 11 over for the round.
Walking to No. 18, she spoke with a fan for a minute before climbing into the elevated tee box for a drive hit square into the mild wind. The 18th is a brutal finish at its 385-yard length, but Carner took an aggressive line over the bunker on the left side of the fairway. There was no capitulation.
More fans waited along the 18th hole, aware Carner was wrapping up her day. As brilliant as the scene at last year’s event, some of the gallery filled in the fairway behind the players. Carner had some 200 yards into the green, and she rehearsed her takeaway again and again before her turn to play. Even after all this time, she’s still searching for the right swing. Her final approach of the day was undoubtedly her best. She walloped a fairway wood and it ran up onto the wicked quick greens to 12 feet. The crowd around the green and the small hospitality pavilion behind it erupted in a cheer.
Carner put a little extra time into the birdie read, which she hoped will be her 81st and final stroke of the day. It was getting hot, and she has to do this again tomorrow. Saving time in the baking sun is a good thing.
She stood over the putt and hit it right on line. The gallery’s collective rooting murmur crescendoed, and the ball just missed on the low side. The disappointed groan was quickly followed with a strong round of applause as Carner cleaned up her par for 82.
Friday could mark Big Mama’s competitive swan song, gifted to her by the USGA in creating this championship. She may well have to beat her age on Friday to get to the weekend, with the cut down to the top 50 and ties in this 120-player field. Under these conditions, there almost certainly won’t be a player under par at the end of the week. She has a chance.
That’s tomorrow. After the round, she reveled in that birdie on No. 15 with a big grin on her face: “When I made that birdie, I got a nice big roar.”