There are several professional golf tournaments being played around the world this week but, for my money, none will be as tantalizing or as intriguing as the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open which will unfold over the next four days at iconic Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill.
The venue is an absolute classic, a linksy turn-of-the-19th-century golf course that was designed by World Golf Hall of Famer Charles B. MacDonald and it is one of the five founding clubs of the United States Golf Association (USGA). It also prides itself on being the first 18-hole golf course established in the United States.
If golf fans desire a trip down Memory Lane to watch some of the greatest players who have ever graced the LPGA Tour, then Chicago Golf Club is certainly the place to be this week.
The field of 120 players assembled here will be competing for a total purse of $1 million and among them are 15 former U.S. Women’s Open champions: Amy Alcott (1980), Pat Bradley (1981), Jerilyn Britz (1979), Laura Davies (1987), Jane Geddes (1986), JoAnne Carner (1971, 1976), Juli Inkster (1999, 2002), Betsy King (1989, 1990), Murle Lindstrom Breer (1962), Lauri Merten (1993), Liselotte Neumann (1988), Alison Nicholas (1997), Sandra Palmer (1975), Hollis Stacy (1977, 1978, 1984), and Jan Stephenson (1983).
Davies and Inkster, who both still compete regularly on the LPGA Tour, are among the pre-tournament favorites heading into Thursday's opening round but Davies is wary of any advance billing.
"I don't even think about being a pre-tournament favorite," Davies told LPGA.com after spending a bit of time on the practice putting green. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm just one of 120 in the field and I'm not looking past making the cut, getting in position and on Saturday trying to move further in position to have a chance of winning on Sunday.
"If you ever get ahead of yourself and think, 'Oh, there's only like 10 of us that can win this,' then you're not focused properly. You should be worried about your own performance and not worry about the others until the classic Sunday afternoon and the back nine because that's only when you can win a championship. You can't win it Thursday, but you can lose it Thursday morning or Friday morning."
When it comes to the par-73 layout at Chicago Golf Club, which will be set up this week at 6,082 yards, Davies is hugely impressed.
"You hear about Chicago Golf Club but when you actually walk on the property, it's just the most incredible golf course with a great set-up," said Davies, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame who has piled up 84 tournament wins worldwide during her stellar career.
"The USGA have done an incredible job in getting Chicago Golf Club on board for the first U.S. Senior Women's Open. They've given themselves some options on tees and I think they will monitor the scoring the first day at least before they change bits around. Everyone's just excited to have a chance to win a USGA event at 50-plus years old, which is great."
A fair but testing course set-up was always going to be something of a challenge for the USGA, given that the field this week ranges from fifty-somethings who still compete on the LPGA Tour to 79-year-olds who perhaps compete only four or five times each year. The USGA seems to have got it right.
"This is an amazing venue," said Inkster. "They (the USGA) can play it as hard as they want or as easy as they want. Everybody is getting a little roll out there, which helps, and I think it's going to be a fun week. This course reminds me a little bit of Sunningdale (in England), a little more generous in the fairways, not as bunker-oriented. It is unlike a lot of tournaments we play. It's more linksy. I was very surprised when I got here how linksy it is. But you've got to drive the ball well because you can't be coming out of the rough on to these greens."
By her own admission, Inkster has been struggling with her putting on the LPGA Tour this year and she does not relish being bracketed with Davies as a pre-tournament favorite at the U.S. Senior Women's Open.
"I don't really like it," Inkster smiled. "I don't like the whole limelight thing. I just like to play golf. I think we've got a lot of good players out here that can win. Laura Davies is playing good. She's probably the favorite. There's also Liselotte (Neumann), and you could have an amateur sneak in there. The bottom line is you've got to play four good days of golf, and I feel like I have it in me. Can I do it? That's going to be the test."
Inkster, Davies and Neumann have been paired together in a mouth-watering grouping for the first two rounds at Chicago Golf Club. Other notable combinations include Trish Johnson, amateur Cindy McConnell and Helen Alfredsson; Pat Bradley, Amy Alcott and Betsy King; and Jan Stephenson, Jane Geddes and Kay Cockerill.
The players are certainly being made to feel extra special this week. They have each been provided with courtesy cars, were given a commemorative Tiffany plate on arrival at Chicago Golf Club and have engraved nameplates on their lockers. Even the fans have something special to look forward to. As is customary at golf tournaments, the tees and greens have all been roped off but the players expressed a desire to interact with the fans, and so the fairways will be open to all spectators who fancy walking down the middle to soak up the atmosphere.
The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open will be the 12th USGA event staged at Chicago Golf Club, and the first Open championship played here in more than a century - dating back to 1911 when John J. McDermott became the first American-born player to win the U.S. Open in a three-way playoff with Mike Brady and George Simpson in 1911.