About 10 years ago, in a Legends Tour pro-am, one of JoAnne Carner’s playing partners mentioned to her that she, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Carol Semple Thompson are the only players to win three different USGA events. “Yeah,” Carner said with that mischievous glint in her eye, “and if they had a U.S. Senior Women’s Open I’d be the only one with four.”
That’s JoAnne: Relentlessly honest, refreshingly funny and intensely competitive.
By the time the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open was played at Chicago Golf Club in 2018, Carner was 79 years old. But that didn’t stop her from making history. She had the honor of hitting the opening tee shot and then played the final five holes of the first round one under par to shoot her age on the number – 79.
Last year, at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn., she matched her age in the opening round – 82 – and shattered it in the second round with a 79. She’s back again this year at NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio, and she still has goals.
“I’d like to be able to hit it 50 yards farther,” said Carner at NCR with that same glint in her eye, and then added: “And I’d love to make the cut.”
She is already the oldest to make the cut in an LPGA Tour event – surviving to the weekend in the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship, an LPGA major now renamed the Chevron, at the age of 65. The fact that she’s either matched or broken her age in three of the six rounds she’s played in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open has only added to her mystique.
Once the most feared woman in amateur golf, then one of the most dominant professionals on the LPGA Tour, Carner is now one of the most inspirational people in the game. When a photo of her driving off No. 10 tee in a practice round at NCR was posted on social media, the response was overwhelming.
“The best,” commented Amy Alcott, the winner of the 1973 U.S. Girls’ Junior and the 1980 U.S. Women’s Open.
“God bless her,” wrote 1988 and ’89 U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange. “She loves this game.”
“Big mama truly amazing and not to forget her sister Helen, 93, who walked all 18 holes with her!” said Helen Alfredsson, who won the 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Open.
“Love this!” 2009 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion Martha Leach said about the photo.
Former LPGA player Anne Marie Palli, who’s competing this week at NCR, summed up the love and respect for Carner: “My idol!! An inspiration. Go Big Mama Go!”
JoAnne Gunderson was born on April 4, 1939, in Kirkland, Wash., and says she developed such great feel on the golf course by playing “moonlight golf” after her shift at the golf course where she worked. “We couldn’t see where the ball went,” she said. “We had to feel it.”
The first of her eight USGA championship titles was the U.S. Girls’ Junior in 1956. She added the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1957, ’60, ’62, ’66 and ’68 and the U.S. Women’s Open in 1971 and ’76. The eight USGA championships she has won ties her for second all-time with Jack Nicklaus, behind the nine by Bob Jones and Tiger Woods.
After graduating from Arizona State University, The Great Gundy married Don Carner in 1963 and did not turn pro until she was 30. In fact, she was 31 by the time she won the 1970 LPGA Rookie of the Year award. Despite that late start, Carner racked up 43 LPGA wins, was Player of the Year three times and won the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average five times. In 1981, Carner received the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor of the USGA, and the next year was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“When you talk about JoAnne you are talking about crossing generations,” said Annika Sorenstam, winner of the U.S. Women’s Open in 1995, ’96 and '06 and the U.S. Senior Women’s Open last year. “Three generations, maybe four. The words that come to mind are ‘legend’ and ‘longevity.’”
While Carner worked relentlessly on her game – she still is one of the last to leave the range at the end of the day – she was far from a physical fitness freak. She still indulges in the occasional cigarette and adult beverage.
“I remember once when I was first on tour, I was in the physical trailer getting my back worked on and JoAnne came in,” recalled Sorenstam. “The therapist asked how he could help and JoAnne said, ‘two Advil’ then walked out.”
In her prime, Carner played with a technical style that awed students of the golf swing, yet also possessed a flair that entertained fans and intimidated her opponents.
“I was always most afraid of JoAnne when she was in the trees,” two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion and three-time U.S. Women’s Amateur winner Juli Inkster said Wednesday. “I knew the ball would fly out of those trees and end up on the green. She was a tremendous troubleshooter. A challenge got her attention.”
On Thursday, at 9:13 a.m., Carner will tee it up on No. 1 at the South Course of NCR alongside former Curtis Cup captain Noreen Mohler and Cathy Patton-Lewis. While winning is not a reasonable goal for JoAnne, she does have objectives in mind – to shoot her age once again, and to make the cut.
Wouldn’t that be simply remarkable: To make it to the weekend in a USGA championship at the age of 83. For eight decades, beginning in the 1950s, Carner has set records. Who’s to say there isn’t one more entry into the history of golf that could bear the name JoAnne Gunderson Carner – truly a legend for golfers of all ages.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites and publications.