U.S. SENIOR WOMEN'S OPEN
Carner, 80, Sets Making the Cut as Her Goal at Pine Needles
May 8, 2019
By Lisa D. Mickey
One month before she was to put her peg in the ground for the second annual U.S. Senior Women’s Open Championship, JoAnne Carner was working hard with her club professional in south Florida, preparing for what may be her final USGA start.
Carner drew wide acclaim last July when she shot her age in the inaugural event at Chicago Golf Club with an opening round of 79. She turned 80 on April 4, and she is hoping for better results at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C., in next week’s second edition of the championship on May 16-19.
“I thought I could shoot well under my age last year and I was really working hard to do it,” said Carner, who shares rare air alongside Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Carol Semple Thompson and Tiger Woods as a winner of three different USGA championships.
“This year, the goal is to break my age, although it sounds a whole lot better to shoot in the 70s than in the 80s,” said the affable winner of 45 LPGA tournaments. “I also want to make the cut.”
If Carner is looking for an exclamation point at the end of her prolific career, she will, no doubt, do it on her own terms. She has been winning or contending in USGA championships since 1955 and has eight USGA titles to her credit – making her the winningest woman in USGA history, and second only to Bob Jones and Tiger Woods, who each have nine USGA titles.
In addition to her eight USGA victories in the U.S. Girls’ Junior (one win), U.S. Women’s Amateur (five wins) and U.S. Women’s Open (two wins), she also has eight runner-up finishes: a record-tying five in the Women’s Open, two in the Women’s Amateur and one in the Girls’ Junior.
“I was never happy losing, but as long as I put up a good battle, it didn’t bother me to get beat,” said Carner of her long competitive career – first as an amateur nicknamed “the Great Gundy” and later as a professional who was dubbed “Big Mama.” Carner was inducted into the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame in 1982.
Six-time USGA champion Hollis Stacy was paired with Carner in the first two rounds of last year’s Senior Women’s Open. Carner hit the ceremonial first tee shot of the championship, and Stacy kept Carner’s scorecard as the veteran battled foot cramps and aching legs.
Carner thought she needed to make birdie or eagle on the final hole to shoot her age, but Stacy encouraged Carner to “just get up and down and make par.”
“She was mad that she shot 79,” said Stacy. “She wanted to shoot 72.”
And while much was made of Carner’s age-matching score, Stacy was not surprised to witness the same intensity in the twilight of Carner’s career that she first saw decades ago.
“I was a young amateur when JoAnne was the Great Gundy who hit it so long,” said Stacy. “I think she has a real Nordic quality. She’s just fearless and very competitive.”
The years of competition between them leave Stacy, now 65, with nothing but admiration for her senior rival.
“It has been an honor playing with her and against her,” said Stacy. “She’s truly a great, great champion.”
As a child growing up with four siblings in Kirkland, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, young JoAnne Gunderson would ask her Norwegian father to teach her some Scandinavian words, only to be admonished.
“He said, ‘Why? You’re an American in the state of Washington. You’re not going anywhere,’” she said. “I laugh about it now, but he never even taught me to say hello.”
The young amateur improved quickly, and her golf prowess eventually took her across the Atlantic as a member of four USA Curtis Cup Teams.
Years later, she also served as captain of the winning 1994 USA Team in the Solheim Cup, a biennial team match-play event between the top women professionals of Europe and the United States.
While Carner’s competitive nature is legendary, the same can be said of her generosity. Countless times, she has taken aside fellow pros, as well as struggling amateurs and provided helpful advice in the practice area.
Stacy was struggling with her putting at last year’s Senior Women’s Open and asked Carner for help.
“I’ve always done that,” said Carner, who changed her name when she married Don Carner, who died in 1999. “It’s just fun for me.”
What has not been fun for the veteran professional has been losing distance off the tee and having to adjust to shorter yardages with her irons. She has even resorted to writing the yardages on her clubs to remember her current distances.
At last year’s inaugural championship, her beloved old Wilson R-90 wedge was ruled non-conforming, and she was forced to find another wedge that met current USGA standards.
“I wore out three R-90s, going back to amateur golf, so I’ve played with that club for a long time,” she said. “It takes a while to get used to new wedges.”
Carner spent the weeks leading up to this year’s championship fine-tuning her game with professional Justin Thompson at Pine Tree Golf Club in Boynton Beach, Fla., but admits she hasn’t walked as much as she would have liked in her preparation.
And while Stacy and others tried to convince Carner to only walk nine holes each day in her practice rounds at last year’s Senior Women’s Open, the determined champion played three 18-hole practice rounds. She expects to do the same this year.
“I have to wear myself out while I’m there,” she said. “I just need to do a better job this year.”
Carner still competes in Legends Tour events, especially when the LPGA’s senior tour holds tournaments in her native Pacific Northwest. She also plays regular winter matches against her longtime friend Marlene Stewart Streit, a four-time USGA champion.
But Carner admits this year is a new challenge that she could not turn down as an octogenarian. Only Harold McSpaden, at 81, surpasses her as the oldest USGA competitor when he competed in the 1981 U.S. Senior Open.
“This may be my last year,” she said. “I haven’t thought beyond this year, but I decided I had to go play after I had my 80th birthday.”
When asked if it made her sad that her robust record in the game could be coming to a close, Carner hesitated for a few seconds before answering.
“No, I’m not sad because I have had such a great career,” she said. “I did just about everything I wanted to do.”
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.