Late in the afternoon of Round 1 of the 5th U.S. Senior Women’s Open, a lone figure stood beneath a relentless sun, beating balls on the range at Waverley Country Club. More than four hours after completing play and a few hours after her lunch, 84-year-old JoAnne Carner was hitting balls in 90-degree heat. But she was doing more than that. She was practicing.
This was no robotic repetition of the golf swing resulting in the mindless flight of golf balls simply for the sake of hitting balls, a meaningless act so someone could say, “I hit balls for an hour.” Every shot Carner struck was with a purpose and an intention.
Big Mama, as she was affectionately known in her prime, would roll a ball into position, glance at the target, check her grip, set her stance, look at the target again then use her familiar waggle to begin a wonderfully rhythmic swing. She would watch the ball land, consider the implications of the result and begin the process again.
In her eighth decade of competing in USGA championships Carner is still in love with the game of golf. And that passion won’t allow her to hit any shot haphazardly, even on the practice range. If you are looking for a reason why she could shoot 80 – 39 on the back nine with pars on the final six holes – on a course set up to USGA championship specification at the age of 84, it resides in that passion, that love, that commitment.
As she walked from the range at the end of her session I said: “Have fun tomorrow.” She looked up and her eyes had a dreamy, almost otherworldly twinkle as she replied: “That’s what I love about golf; there is always tomorrow.”
Carner has piled tomorrow upon tomorrow and victory upon victory: Eight USGA championships in three different events. About 15 years ago, before the U.S. Senior Women’s Open was created, I played with Carner in a Legend’s Tour pro-am. At one point I said to her: “You know, you, Arnold, Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Carol Semple Thompson are the only players to win three different USGA championships.” Jill McGill has since become the sixth.
She stopped her walk to look me in the eye to make certain that the words that followed carried full force: “Yeah,” she said, “and if they had a U.S. Senior Women’s Open, I’d be the only person with four different championships.”
She’s right, of course. If there had been a U.S. Senior Women’s Open when she turned 50, who knows how many she would have won. After all, in 2004, the year she turned 64, Carner played in 10 LPGA Tour events, recorded her third tour hole-in-one and set the record as the oldest player to make an LPGA cut at 64 years and 26 days.
In the second round of this year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open, Carner’s ball came to rest on the back-right fringe of the third green at Waverley, a treacherous surface with the hole location set front left, just above a dramatic false front. She grabbed her putter for the 70-foot downhill, side hill shot, paused, reflected for a few seconds, then sent her caddie back to the bag to get a lofted club.
She understood that she needed to put some check spin on the ball to have any chance of getting it close to the hole. Using her putter was more likely to result in a tentative shot 10 feet short of the hole location or, if the ball went past the hole, it would speed down the false front and off the green. The deft chip rolled down to about a foot and she saved par.
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 snack shop 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 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. He died in 1999. JoAnne 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 2021 U.S. Senior Women’s Open. “Three generations, maybe four. The words that come to mind are ‘legend’ and ‘longevity.’”
While Carner worked relentlessly on her game, she has never been a 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.”
And in all probability, when Carner walked out of that fitness trailer she headed for the range – not to hit balls, but to practice. Her lifelong love affair with golf won’t allow her to express that love with anything short of complete dedication.
To watch JoAnne Carner play golf is to observe genius at work. But more than that, it’s a chance to see someone doing exactly what she wants to do. Big Mama was born to be a golfer and she has squeezed every ounce she could out of that opportunity. Every shot she hits – whether on the range or in competition – expresses that love for the game.