The opening round of the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open, a championship long anticipated by the game's best female players aged 50 and above, could hardly have been scripted any better on Thursday with an abundance of compelling storylines.
Near-perfect weather at iconic Chicago Golf Club and a moving flag-raising ceremony set the tone before LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame member Nancy Lopez, unable to compete this week after having knee replacement surgery in November, acted as honorary starter for players teeing off from the par-four first. By the time the final groups had completed their 18 holes, most of the pre-tournament favorites were lurking near the top of the leaderboard.
Long-hitting Laura Davies, the 1987 U.S. Women's Open champion, eagled the par-five 18th to card a two-under 71 and finish level with fellow Englishwoman Trish Johnson and Swede Liselotte Neumann in a three-way tie for second. Juli Inkster, who like Davies still competes regularly on the LPGA Tour, opened with a 73.
Surprise package Elaine Crosby, a Legends Tour player who earned one of five qualifying spots for this week, set the pace with a 70 despite contending with stronger breezes in the afternoon while another Swede, Helen Alfredsson, returned a 72 to make it just five players in red numbers after round one.
If most fans were taken aback to see Crosby's name at the top of the leaderboard, the ominous sight of Davies in early contention was always likely, even though her putting had not been up to the same standard as her iron play.
"I didn't putt very well," said Davies, who ended her round in style with a superb 7-iron approach to 10 feet setting up her closing eagle. "I holed a couple nice putts coming in on 16 for par and then on 18 for eagle, but I three-putted from four feet for birdie on one hole and from about 10 feet on another. I was just struggling on the greens.
"The irons today were good and also my approach shots into the greens, which I think is the key to this golf course, but then I didn't capitalize when I did hit a good one. I was never under par at any stage until I eagled the last, so it's a really nice feeling when that happens. I'm very pleased."
Twice U.S. Women's Open Inkster, who played with Davies and Neumann in the marquee grouping of the day, was thrilled with her improved putting while she bemoaned her form off the tee.
"It's just Thursday and you kind of don't want to shoot yourself in the foot," said Inkster. "It's a long four days, and I'm just ecstatic that I shot even par today. Could have been a lot worse. I've been hitting the ball so good, and I drove the bad really bad today. I'm just excited that I actually putted pretty good today."
Michigan resident Crosby, who won twice while playing full-time on the LPGA Tour between 1985 and 2000, was a little worried after seeing a few high scores in the morning but she ended up playing solid golf in the afternoon as she mixed four birdies with a sole bogey via painstaking course management.
"You just don't know until you get out there how it's going to go," said Crosby, who now spends most of her work time as president of Lumen Christi Catholic School in Jackson, Michigan. "My caddie and I were very careful on the yardages and where we put the ball on the green ... I've just been hitting it well, and I rolled it really well today.
"It's awesome being here. I was not exempt to play, so I qualified up at Conway Farms just north of here about an hour. I was kind of disappointed that I wasn't exempt, but then I think that made me work even harder to make sure I played well enough to get here. This is history for women's golf."
JOHNSON EYES A SECOND ‘INAUGURAL’ MAJOR WIN
Trish Johnson loves the idea of becoming a major winner at an inaugural event for a second time, and she is the only player in this week's field of 120 capable of claiming that honor.
Exactly a year ago at French Lick Resort in Indiana, Johnson completed a wire-to-wire victory at the very first Senior LPGA Championship and on Thursday she put herself in early contention at Chicago Golf Club with her opening 71.
"This is the first ever Senior Women's Open, and everybody wants to win it," Johnson said after recording birdies on two of her last three holes. "It's a U.S. Open. My sort of pressure, I suppose, is that I won the first Senior LPGA Championship, so I'm the only one that can win them both at the same time, the first one. That would be quite something.
"But I'm not thinking that far ahead. It's four rounds walking here, which is not something you do on The Legends Tour. It's hot, and it's going to get hotter, so this week it might be about stamina to be honest. That might be how it works out, it's going to be tough."
Johnson, a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour who now competes on the Legends Tour, felt that she had played no better than "okay" in the opening round on a links-like course already running firm and fast with temperatures expected to climb for Friday's second round.
"I hit good shots, hit bad shots, putted okay," she said. "Short game was good, and I got up-and-down a couple of times from really tough positions. But it's getting tricky because it's so bouncy and the greens were getting very, very dry to say the least, very quick. It's playing very short, but even though it was playing short, it's still not easy to get near the flag because it's so bouncy, so you've got to be careful. It's going to be a long week, and you need to get a lot of rest and just accept that there will be bad shots. Probably anyone that keeps a double off their card has a great chance of winning."
'BIG MAMA' CARNER SHOOTS HER AGE
'Big Mama' JoAnne Carner delivered the 'feel-good' story of the day at Chicago Golf Club, shooting her age after covering the back nine in a highly respectable one-under 36.
Carner, who is one of only five players to have won three different USGA championships, rattled up three birdies after the turn to card a six-over 79 on a day when she drove the ball well but struggled a little with her iron game.
"I hit some good shots, but I hit some awful shots, really," said Carner, who struck the first ball of the championship on the opening hole after being introduced by honorary starter Lopez, and then began her round with four consecutive bogeys. "You know, I had some 6- and 7-irons into the greens and just really hit awful shots. One went in the water and I made double, and that's a birdie hole. I was fighting it all the way. Short irons were always my forte. It’s all a posture thing. I’ll fix it."
The 79-year-old legend, who won 43 times on the LPGA Tour including the U.S. Women's Open in 1971 and 1976, had said at the start of the week that her goal was to make the cut and play the weekend. That target has not changed.
"Really, I can shoot this course under par," she said with a glint in her eye. Based on how she fared over her final nine holes on Thursday, including one at the par-five last which sparked loud roars from the watching fans, you wouldn't bet against her. The low 50 and ties will advance into Saturday's third round, and Carner was tied for 50th when the opening round was completed.