Senior Women’s Open Experience Resonates for 21 Competitors October 5, 2018 | Vero Beach, Fla. By Lisa D. Mickey

Martha Leach was the low amateur in the Inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open back in July. (USGA/Chris Keane)

U.S. Senior Women's Amateur Home

There was a palpable buzz among 50-and-over golfers as they prepared for the Inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at iconic Chicago Golf Club this summer. Three months later, competitors are still talking about the newest USGA championship.

In fact, 21 of the 29 amateurs who competed in the championship are in the field for this week’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur at Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club.

And while goals vary among competitors, a bonus for this year’s Senior Women’s Amateur champion will be an exemption into the 2019 Senior Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club – an incentive that keeps the championship fresh in the mind of the top senior women’s amateurs in the world.

“It’s a very unique championship because it parallels how it used to be when many of the women amateurs played alongside the professionals,” said Ellen Port, 57, of St. Louis, Mo., winner of seven USGA titles, including the 2012, 2013 and 2016 Senior Women’s Amateurs.

“I’ve become so much more aware of the accomplishments of the people who have made a career out of golf and their love of the game. It meant a lot to be a part of a championship with them.”

So what made the U.S. Senior Women’s Open so special? Most will say meeting or playing alongside hall of famers such as JoAnne Carner, Pat Bradley or Betsy King.

“Nancy Lopez announced us on the first tee and the first round was on my birthday, so that was pretty neat,” noted Susan West, 54, of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“My daughter and I got a photo made with Nancy Lopez,” said Patricia Ehrhart, 53, of Honolulu, Hawaii. “And JoAnne Carner is still competing and shot her age [79] in the first round.”

Southern Californian Kathy Kurata was also thrilled to share the field with players she has long admired, including Sandra Palmer, who plays out of her home course at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage.

“It was special because it was the inaugural Senior Women’s Open and it was such a privilege and an honor to be a part of it,” said Kurata, 58. “And what a treat it was to see all the legends of the game.”

Ehrhart, who competed as a professional from 1989-2006 before getting her amateur status back four years ago, said playing at Chicago Golf Club reunited her with players she’s known for three decades.

“I saw people I haven’t seen in years and it was like we picked right up where we left off in the parking lot as Futures Tour players,” said Ehrhart, laughing. “I also saw former University of South Florida teammates. What other college sport can athletes play together 30 years later? This event helped me realize how special the longevity in golf truly is.”

And while Martha Leach, 56, of Hebron, Ky., called the feel of the inaugural championship “better than a high school reunion,” she also saw its importance, especially for senior women professionals like her sister, three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Hollis Stacy.

“As an amateur, I’ve never felt like I was slighted with championships to play, but I think this new championship is more validation for the professional women seniors, who really deserve this,” said Leach, who earned low-amateur honors with her tie for 10th.

A career amateur, Leach, the 2009 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion, said she and her sister, a World Golf Hall of Fame member, have only played in four tournaments together – the last being the 1994 U.S. Women’s Open.

“That’s a reflection of our choices,” she added. “I don’t want to play in pro tournaments and she can’t play in amateur tournaments.”

As women age, however, there are far more competitive opportunities for amateurs than pros, Leach noted. The end result is that many  professionals stop playing golf as they reach their senior years.

“There is a movement now of bringing women into the game, but this championship may help keep women in golf longer,” said Leach. “Whether they leave because of work, lack of tournaments, raising families or whatever, I think this championship could encourage a lot of women who have put their clubs away to bring them out, dust them off and start playing again.”

West appreciates how the new championship offers a competitive opportunity to veteran female teaching professionals. And she believes the Senior Women’s Open will help fill a competitive void for players who spent their career competing on the LPGA Tour.

“This is not as much about amateurs as it is about senior professionals, because there’s a whole generation who will fill that pipeline,” said West. “It will be fascinating to watch how this championship evolves.”

Port already wonders if the opportunity to win another USGA championship will entice retired U.S. Women’s Open champions Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak, and hall-of-famer Lorena Ochoa to return to competition.

“Juli Inkster could have 10 USGA championships if she were to add a few wins at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open,” said Port of the Californian who currently has five USGA titles.

But hypotheticals aside, players agree the new championship was needed, if not overdue.

“I think it completes the full complement of women’s championships, starting from the U.S. Girls’ Junior to the U.S. Senior Women’s Open,” said Kurata. “This is the final piece of the puzzle.”

Lisa Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work appears frequently on USGA digital channels.

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