SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- The inaugural US Senior Women's Open is the happiest golf tournament I've ever seen. I've told people that often since last July, most recently to explain why I would be covering the second edition at Pine Needles this week instead of the PGA Championship on Long Island.
The golf festival at Chicago Golf Club was inspired by a mix of things, but it was mostly predicated on the fact that the USGA created it. That an original USGA founding club, the incredible Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor tag-team masterpiece, hosted was another big plus. That the crowds were sizable and walking in the fairways was beautiful.
And it certainly didn't hurt matters that Laura Davies, tantalizingly close to meeting the points-based standard for the LPGA Hall of Fame, won in a runaway over five-time USGA champion and fellow legend Juli Inkster.
The true test of anyone or anything isn't getting it right the first time; it's getting it right the second time, and the third time, and most of the times after that. That's why there was some consternation over what this year's event would look like at the home of recently-passed LPGA legend Peggy Kirk Bell.
The Pinehurst area isn't Chicago. It's the ancestral cradle of golf in America, but the permanent population in the region can't rival the Second City. Would turnout anywhere resemble last year? As it turns out, the locals and plenty of the tourists have showed up, though they'll look more spread out on this plot of land compared to the treeless golf field of last year.
Pine Needles doesn't have quite the same sway in hardcore golf circles as Chicago Golf Club. It's a remarkable Ross course with vexing greens, and Kyle Franz did an incredible job restoring the course and its sister course across the street, Mid Pines. The strong connection to the history of women's golf, though, including hosting three past (and at least one future) US Women's Opens carries that gap.
The course was probably too difficult on Thursday, with one player in the 120-woman field shooting 99 and no one breaking par. The greens were running quick, and with a penalty for missing anywhere other than short of the hole, scores were high. However, on Friday, the USGA watered greens before the first and second waves, trying to limit the bloodletting with more receptive surfaces. The scoring improved, particularly as the still-active professionals -- Davies, Inkster, Helen Alfredsson, Trish Johnson, Jane Crafter -- had first-day wisdom for their second crack at it.
With a more recognizable leaderboard heading into the weekend, as well a brewing runaway at Bethpage Black, the second US Senior Women's Open could serve up a great conclusion to fans at home.
However, two days into this championship, the one glaring thing this second US Senior Women's Open has made much more apparent is the need for a vibrant Legends Tour.
This tournament is a brute, and it should be as a USGA national championship. It's 72 holes walking the contours of the Carolina sandhills. The Senior LPGA Championship, the other senior women's major which Davies also won last year at French Lick Resort in Indiana, is 54 holes.
Of what Legends Tour schedule there is otherwise, there are a few one-day affairs, including an 18-hole event playing alongside the Symetra Tour at Janesville Country Club in Wisconsin in August. There are two team events -- two- and four-person teams, respectively -- in a four-day stretch in Massachusetts.
Competitive golf for pay is good, but it's not much preparation for the demands of this particular tournament.
"You go from more fun events on The Legends Tour, they're two-rounders in carts, and then you come to the U.S. Open," Davies said Friday. "Let's make no mistake, this is a U.S. Open. We haven't got the high rough, but that's not what this golf course is all about. It's not about high rough. It's about keeping it in the fairway and positioning it. Yeah, it's tough to come from Legends events to the U.S. Open, so it would be great if we had more Legends events, maybe 54-hole events and build the Tour that way. These ladies have got so much to offer."
Crafter, whose voice is often heard on PGA Tour Live with her wonderful insight into the pro game, was thrilled to get into the top five on Friday without a competitive round in the prior seven months.
"You can never underestimate the value of competitive experience, you know, and day-to-day playing," she said Friday. "The last tournament I played in was the Senior LPGA in October. That's seven months ago. I mean, I'm delighted. I prepared as best I could."
She added, "So to have the game hold up, as well, and it's not easy coming down the stretch in an Open when you haven't done it much."
Of course, it's easy to sit at a keyboard and spend other people's money. In a dream world, the checks are already cut and the golf courses are lining up to host these players, who are a delight to watch and cover. They let you in, and they're so damn good at this game.
Certainly, the Legends Tour isn't as robust as it could be, but it can't be for a lack of trying. However, the LPGA Tour could be a huge catalyst if it took a bigger role in shaping the future of the 45-plus circuit. The LPGA's Symetra Tour team has worked tirelessly the last handful of years to not only grow that developmental tour's schedule but gain bigger purses and allow more players to at least scratch out a breakeven year trying to reach the LPGA.
For LPGA players in their 40s and 50s, there's no alternative. There's not the draw to the Legends Tour like the siren song of PGA Tour Champions to guys on the PGA Tour in their late 40s. Former Masters champion Mike Weir is toiling on the Web.com Tour the next few seasons just to stay sharp so he can come out to the 50-plus circuit of 54-hole, guaranteed-payday events and see if his brand of golf can thrive. Meanwhile, Davies and Inkster, frankly the stars of this championship for the foreseeable future, have no choice but to let it fly on the LPGA against players sometimes one-third their age. They can keep up some weeks, but on others, it's too much.
Even beyond the name players here, a strongly backed Legends Tour would give the professionals in this field -- some 90 this year -- a place to potentially play to get ready for this championship. While even a healthy Legends Tour couldn't initially offer seven-figure purses, the USGA can. There's $1 million on offer this week, with $180,000 to the winner. That's life-changing money for anyone, and so many of the pros here start behind the 8-ball because they haven't experienced anything like this since the last time they did this 10 months ago.
The Symetra Tour could host some 36-hole Legends Tour events as a pre-cursor to the up-and-comers. They could be pro-ams to help defray the initial costs. The younger players could find career-long mentors and make great connections to help their journeys. Three or four more 54-hole events unto themselves in former loyal LPGA markets -- Rochester, Wilmington (Dela.) -- and at LPGA International in Florida could be strongly supported. TV would be great, but baseline streaming coverage would still be a good watch for the golf diehards who are clearly willing to show up in person if they can. It'll make this championship even better, too.
When asked for a magic number, Davies wasn't shy in sharing her vision for the future of the Legends Tour and women's senior pro golf.
"If you got to 10 [events], any time you get to 10, it's a Tour, isn't it?" she said. "It's a really good, solid platform. So yeah, it would be great, it really would. The USGA is doing everything they can do and maybe one day the R&A will stick in a Women's Senior British Open. That would be nice."