(Editor’s Note: This is a Cascade Golfer magazine article published a year ago when the professional women’s golfing legends (45-over) showed up at White Horse Golf Course for the Suquamish Clearwater Legends Cup. The tournament returns Friday and Saturday as Brit Trish Johnson defends her title. This details how hard these veteran golfers worked to earn their own identity.)
By Bob Sherwin
One hundred and 24 years ago, in 1894, America was not yet fully defined. The American flag had just 44 stars. Horse power was restricted to horses. Women were a generation away from voting. Susan B. Anthony, Geronimo and Old Tom Morris were still alive. Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart and Bobby Jones had not even been born.
It was against that backdrop that the United States Golf Association, hailed as the country’s governing golf body, was organized. The USGA worked in cooperation with Scotland’s Royal & Ancient Society to establish the rules of golf, shape the handicap system and sponsor amateur and professional competitions.
From the beginning, the USGA was an equal supporter of both men’s and women’s amateur golf, with each gender’s championship dating back to 1895. Professional golf, and higher-level USGA championships, though, took a little longer to come around.
But, when it did, the state of Washington would play a significant role.
Fifty-one years after the founding of the USGA, the first U.S. Women’s Open was held in 1946 — at Spokane Golf Club (now Kalispel Golf & Country Club), in fact.
The first USGA Girls Junior championship started three years later, in 1949 — in its second year, a 17-year-old Seattle high schooler named Pat Lesser would take home the title, beating future LPGA star Mickey Wright 4&2. (For more on Lesser, along with husband John Harbottle, see the August 2017 issue of CG.) Lesser would go on to win the U.S. Amateur in 1955, kicking off a run of seven U.S. Amateur wins in nine years by Western Washington golfers, including three each by Kirkland’s Joanne Gunderson and Everett’s Anne Quast.
The first U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur championship began in 1962, and it wasn’t long before a Washington golfer brought home that title, too — Edean Ihlanfeldt was first, in 1982, followed shortly by Anne Quast (by that time, Anne Quast Sander), who captured four of seven Women’s Senior Amateur titles from 1987-1993.
Something, however, was clearly missing. The USGA recognized and honored each gender and every age distinction over its long existence, except one — professional senior women. They have been on their own, unappeased and disregarded, for 124 years.
In 2018, golf’s ruling body will finally recognize that 50-year-old professional women golfers exist, granting that long-neglected group the chance to compete for their own trophy July 12-15 in the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at the Chicago Golf Club. And, in preparation for that event, most of the world’s top senior women’s professionals currently competing on The Legends Tour will make a visit to White Horse Golf Club in June for the first-ever Suquamish Clearwater Legends Cup, the final regular-season Legends Tour event prior to the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. Players like Pat Bradley, Michelle McGann, Betsy King and, yes, even Gunderson herself, will tee it up at White Horse, marking the first official women’s professional golf event of any kind in the area since the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee in 2016, and the first regular-season professional women’s event since the Safeco Classic ended its 18-year run at Meridian Valley Country Club in 1999.
“I’ve been pushing for it for a long time,” says the 78-year-old Gunderson (now Joanne Gunderson Carner) of the Women’s Senior Open. “I just got frustrated because [the USGA] ran all kinds of events except a women’s senior open. They’ve had the men’s senior open for years.”
Indeed, the initial U.S. Senior (men) Open began in 1980.
“No matter what we said, they wouldn’t do it,” adds Carner, who won 43 times on the LPGA Tour and is a Hall of Fame member. “They gave all kinds of alibis — not enough senior players, and so on. I said, ‘We got a whole bunch!’”
Carner, now at an age and condition (recent left hip surgery) that precludes a run at another USGA title, has had a personal stake in it. She won eight USGA titles in her career, including the aforementioned 1956 girls junior title, the Women’s Amateur (1957, 1960, ’62, ’66, ’68) and the Women’s Open (1971, ’76). Only Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods have more — nine, to be exact, with each being afforded many more annual opportunities.
“I wish it came at least 10 years sooner, but at least they’re finally doing it,” she says.
Jane Blalock, a 27-time LPGA champion who once had a record string of 299 Tour cuts made, says, “We had all the male and female counterpart (tournaments), except ours. We tried everything; butted heads with them. We documented everything, but could not get them to budge.”
By 2013, the USGA started bending under pressure — perhaps not coincidentally, shortly after signing a $1.1 billion television contract with Fox Sports. It took three more years to announce the new competition, and another two since to include it on this summer’s slate.
Some of the most strident veteran LPGA golfers were on hand in 2016 when the USGA held its press conference committing to the tournament. Pat Bradley, another LPGA Hall of Famer with 31 career victories, was asked by the gathering media if the event was now on her calendar.
“It has been on my calendar for 17 years now,” Bradley said.
Why 17 years? That’s how long Bradley and her fellow LPGA veterans have been competing on The Legends Tour, created by Bradley, Carner, Blalock, Nancy Lopez, Julie Inkster, Beth Daniels and 18 other LPGA greats who put their money and efforts towards creating a senior women’s professional tour, patterned after the PGA TOUR Champions Tour.
The Legends Tour is a vehicle designed to keep women professional golfers aged 45 and over competing for championships — and a check. It was their collective response to those who believed that veteran women’s players were not viable or valuable to the game.
From those initial 24 members, the Tour has grown to include more than 120 players, including 14 LPGA and World Golf Hall of Famers. Those members have combined for more than 750 LPGA Tour victories, including 84 major championships.
That first year, in 2000, the organization staged one event in Green Bay, Wis. — and it drew a stunning 18,000 fans each day. The Tour will host eight tournaments in 2018, highlighted by the Senior Open in July, and the Senior LPGA Championship in October — and, of course, the inaugural Suquamish Clearwater Legends Cup in June. The two-day tournament will feature a field of 30 professional players competing for a $175,000 purse.
Many of the greatest names in the history of the women’s game are expected to be there, such as Hall of Famers Carner, Bradley, Blalock, Daniel, Inkster, Jan Stephenson, Amy Alcott and Patty Sheehan. There will be a one-day pro-am on Friday, June 8, followed by a 36-hole competition, with no cut.
What started the ball rolling for the Seattle stop was the inclusion of one of the most powerful women in the state, former Governor Christine Gregoire, who lent her support to the effort. The Suquamish Tribe, which purchased the course in 2010 and committed to significant improvements, agreed to host the tournament, using its nearby 186-room Clearwater Resort Casino as the host hotel.
The fact that a woman, Cynthia Dye McGarey, was White Horse’s original architect, didn’t hurt the effort.
“With us having a Seattle stop,” Bradley said, “we’ve added credibility to the tour.”