Brilliant skies hugged the Williamette River just south of Portland, Ore., on Thursday as historic Waverley Country Club served as both a stern test of championship skill and a startling reminder of how the U.S. Senior Women’s Open succeeds on so many levels. Most prominent in the opening round was the competitive intensity as Catriona Matthew and Michelle McGann both shot 3-under-par 69 to lead the field of 120 after 18 holes.
Matthew, who includes the 2009 AIG Women’s Open among her 11 professional victories, gave herself an early birthday present – she turns 54 on Friday – with six birdies and three bogeys over an extremely challenging layout, missing only four greens on the day and turning in a rock-solid 29 putts.
“The greens are in fantastic shape, the greens are pure,” Matthew said. “You know if you hit a putt and it's on line they're going to go in, but they're undulating. They're tricky. You've got to be in the right spots, and if you're in the wrong spot they can get really fast and away from you.”
Matthew, whose best finish in 22 U.S. Women’s Open starts was T4 in 2001, plans her competitive season around the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.
“This is the event I try and play well in each year,” she said. “This is, as my kids would say, ‘it's the only one you've got a chance in.’ Yeah, basically my main focus for the year is to try and play well in this one.”
McGann, who finished hours after Matthew posted her score, birdied the last hole to grab a share of the lead. In fact, she birdied two of her final three holes and played the final eight holes bogey-free and three under par to fight back from a couple of early bogeys as she needed only 27 putts on the day.
“It definitely is a challenging golf course,” McGann said. “You had to think a little bit around there this afternoon. It got a little firmer. But I hit some good shots and took advantage of them, and the couple of the bogeys that I made were kind of from not playing well, to be honest with you. Just lost a little bit of focus. But took advantage when I hit the good shots.”
Kathy Hartwiger, an amateur from Pinehurst, N.C., whose husband Chris is an agronomist for the USGA and her caddie this week, negotiated Waverly in 70 strokes to put herself in an unfamiliar position in a professional championship at one stroke off the lead. She remarkably made only one bogey on the day. Also at 70 is Tammie Green.
Two strokes back at 71 is amateur Sue Wooster while Leta Lindley, Dana Ebster, Lisa DePaulo, Christa Johnson and Nicole Jeray are at even-par 72.
Among the many cool things about the U.S. Senior Women’s Open is that it not only brings the demands of a USGA championship to top women golfers 50 and older but it also celebrates the stars of the women’s game who’ve earned an exemption into the field based on their past accomplishments. This championship proves that golf is a game for life. These are stars that never stop shining.
Paired together Thursday were two icons of the women’s game. Anne Sander, at 85, the oldest ever to compete in a USGA championship, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1958, 1961 and 1963 then took the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1993. She was a member of the USA Curtis Cup team in five different decades, beginning in 1958 and ending in 1990.
JoAnne Carner, 84, won the U.S. Girls’ Junior in 1956, the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1957, 1960, 1962, 1966 and 1968 and the U.S. Women’s Open in 1971 and 1976. Carner, who has shot her age – or better – five previous times in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, is quite simply to women’s golf what Arnold Palmer was to the men’s game – a champion in both her achievements and her interactions with the fans and the other players.
Big Mama was simply remarkable on Thursday, hitting to 2 feet on her final hole and tapping in the birdie putt for an 80, the sixth time she has matched or shot below her age in this championship.
“It felt good, it's always great to be back at any USGA event,” she said. “I've been practicing a lot and really kind of spinning my wheels, and then I started to get the move here and had it on the range this morning, and the first hole, then I fought it. Once in a while I'd hit one, but it was just work all day.”
For Matthew and McGann, Friday will be a test to protect the lead they established on Thursday. For Carner, it will be yet another chance to shoot her age. And for all fans of golf the U.S. Senior Women’s Open will once again serve up great play and wonderful entertainment.
• Lara Tennant, a member of Waverley Country Club who has won the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur three times, opened with an 8-over-par 80.
• Annika (74) and Charlotta (75) Sorenstam combined to shoot 149 to be the Low Sisters. Danielle (74) and Dina (79) Ammaccapane are at 153 while Hollis Stacy (77) and Martha (77) Leach are at 154.
• Seven amateurs are in the top 20 after the opening round. In addition to Hartwiger and Wooster are Judith Kyrinis, Terrill Samuel, Corey Weworski, Brenda Corie Kuehn and Ellen Port.
“Yes, yes [I can shoot lower than 80]. I missed a lot of greens. It sounds outrageous, but 69 sounds wonderful to me.” – JoAnne Carner.
“That’s why I love golf. There’s always tomorrow.” – Carner.
“It was so much fun, we don’t get to see each very much.” – Annika Sorenstam on playing with her sister Charlotta.
“She behaved,” Charlotta Sorenstam about playing with Annika.
“It was nice [getting introduced as the defending champ]. And I guess I’ll always have the parking space.” – Jill McGill about her introduction on the first hole and the parking space reserved for the defending champion.
“Well, I certainly know that I can play well in a USGA championship, so there's some confidence coming in from last year, and I've been working hard all summer to prepare for this, so overall feeling really good about the opportunity this week.” – Leta Lindley, who was second last year in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, after opening with a 72.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.