From the Golf Journal Archives - The U.S. Women’s Open Championship: No Place for Beginners

Jul 06, 2012

A former competitor in the Women’s Open analyzes what it will take to win at Indianapolis this year – and issues her semi-fearless prediction of the result.

By Rhonda Glenn

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1978 issue of Golf Journal.)

ALONG ABOUT THIS TIME every summer, when I start plotting ways to see the United States Women’s Open Championship, the same thought keeps coming to mind: How in the world does anybody even manage to survive the Women’s Open, let alone win it?

Somebody always does win it, of course. There have been 32 Opens played, and a champion has emerged every time. Still, the challenges facing the 152 players who will tee off at the Country Club of Indianapolis, in Indianapolis, Ind., on July 20 really do border on the awesome.

Just how awesome, I can vouch for personally. In 1966, as a gangling young hotshot barely out of my teens, I competed in the U.S. Women’s Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club, in Chaska, Minn. At the time, I considered myself a seasoned veteran – “tournament tough,” as they say – having played in three USGA championships (the 1963 Girls’ Junior and the 1963 and 1965 Women’s Amateurs) and having walked away with such major events as the Florida State High School Tournament and the county Jaycee Invitational. Armed with such stellar credentials, I had little difficulty in seeing myself as the next Open champion, and a few comfortable practice rounds at Hazeltine helped reinforce the delusion.

Late on the afternoon of the last practice day, though, reality struck. The USGA called a players’ meeting. It seemed of little significance at first – we would simply be briefed on the Local Rules. But when I trooped into the conference room along with a covey of other young world-beaters, it suddenly became all too clear to me that this was definitely not the Jaycee Invitational.

THERE AT THE FRONT of the room, gleaming with the sheen of old silver polished countless times, stood the championship trophy, etched with names like Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Betsy Rawls, and Mickey Wright. And just a few feet away from me, all these great champions except Zaharias sat, listening attentively to the conditions of play. Across the room were Carol Mann, Judy Rankin, Sandra Haynie, Susie Berning and Donna Caponi Young. I was in a living museum of women’s golf!

It would be nice to report that, inspired by the proximity of such distinguished company, I went on to miraculous heights that week. But of course the opposite was true. Somehow my breathing became raspy and irregular, my golf swing developed all manner of unexpected kinks and hitches, and 36 thrashing, spraying holes later I went home.

THE SAME COMBINATION of awe and fear that overwhelmed a brash young amateur can take its toll of seasoned players as well. Kathy Whitworth has won 79 tournaments, second only to Mickey Wright. She is in the LPGA Hall of Fame. Last year she won more than $100,000. But in 19 tries, she has never won the Women’s Open.

“I don’t know what it is, but I just get so nervous,” Kathy says in discussing her failure to win this one event. “Every year I tell myself, ‘Now, I’m not going to get upset.’ But I always do.”

There are factors other than “Open jitters,” of course, which weigh heavily in deciding the championship. Interestingly enough, it seems significant if one has won other USGA events. Eleven of the 19 players listed as Open champions have won more than one USGA title. JoAnne Garner, with eight such championships, leads all the rest: in addition to her two Open titles, she has won the U.S. Girls’ Junior once and the Women’s Amateur five times. Mickey Wright, a four-time Open champion, also won the Junior; and Babe Zaharias had a win in the Amateur to add to her three Open titles. Perhaps surprisingly, at the age of 24, this year’s defending champion, Hollis Stacy, also owns four USGA titles, having won the Girls’ Junior a record three times. As Hollis said prior to her win at Hazeltine National last year, “Remember, this is my eighth Open. It’s not like I’m some young thing!”

Experience in USGA championships does help take the edge off the intimidation of the Open. And it seems beyond doubt that experience with the kind of golf courses the USGA selects is also critical. The Women’s Open has been staged on some of the most legendary courses in America: Winged Foot, Baltusrol, The Dunes, Churchill Valley, and the Upper Cascades of Hot Springs, Va. On such courses – especially when they have been prepared for a USGA event – a player’s game is tested at every stroke.

Open courses are longer than most of those on the LPGA Tour; they call for a high degree of proficiency with fairway woods and long irons. Nor is sheer long hitting enough, as anyone who has driven into rough of USGA specifications can attest. The player who can best hit out of that rough (or, better still, who can rarely stray into it) will have the edge, as will the player who can hit the delicate little greenside lob out of high grass. And always, always, in any USGA championship, there is a high premium on putting skill and nerves.

In short, this is not a tournament to be won by somebody who happens to be hot that week. It is a championship, the premier event in women’s golf, and winning it takes preparation – usually, years of it. As Patty Berg, who won the very first Open in 1946, says, “You’ve got to have maturity and patience and positive thoughts.”

WHEN ONE CONSIDERS the degree and scope of the challenges an Open winner must overcome, it is not surprising that the roster of champions includes a good many repetitions – players of the required quality are by no means common. The 32 titles won thus far are shared by only 19 players, and well over half the championships have been won by only seven: Zaharias, Suggs, Rawls, Wright, Berning, Caponi, and Garner have a total of 20 victories among them.

It is tempting, in these days when college golf programs are spewing out bright young prospects in seemingly endless numbers (very much as is the case in men’s golf), to conclude that the day when an individual player will win more than her share of Opens is over. There are simply too many good players, the conventional wisdom goes, for any one of them to rise to Open Championship heights repeatedly. Still, the record of the past decade would seem to indicate otherwise. Seven of the last 10 Opens have been won by only three players: Susie Maxwell Berning in 1968, ‘72, and ‘73; Donna Caponi (now Donna Caponi Young) in 1969 and ‘70; and JoAnne Carner in 1971 and ‘76.

Most of the pre-Open headlines, no doubt, will be devoted to what a number (a fairly large number, I am sorry to say) of newspapers delight in calling the “kiddie korps” – or occasionally, in classier papers, the “young lionesses” – of women’s golf. Heading the list will be Hollis Stacy, the defending champion, and Nancy Lopez, the 21-year-old with the home-grown swing who was the only player to threaten Hollis in the stretch at Hazeltine last July. Based on her talent, her long experience with USGA events, and her remarkably disciplined play in the last Open, Hollis must be conceded a definite possibility to achieve consecutive wins. Nancy, who already has two second-place Open finishes in her brief career, seems destined to be an eventual champion. So too, in the minds of many, do Jan Stephenson, who challenged at Hazeltine until she tired on the final nine holes; Pat Bradley, one of the strongest hitters on the LPGA Tour; Amy Alcott, who seems always to be at her best for a USGA championship; Chako Higuchi, the 1977 LPGA champion who is capable of superb golf when she has her sway timed properly.

NO SPECULATION about the Women’s Open would be complete without at least token attention to the classic question: Does an amateur have a chance? Frankly, no. The top players turn professional much too quickly these days, I suspect, to allow for a duplication of Catherine Lacoste’s feat in 1967, when she became the only amateur ever to win.

Still, miracles do happen, as nearly occurred at Atlantic City in 1975, when 18-year-old Nancy Lopez finished in a tie for second, four strokes behind Sandra Palmer. For anyone in search of a miracle this year, the person to watch is probably Beth Daniel, the current U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and low amateur (at 308, 16 strokes behind Miss Stacy’s 292) at Hazeltine last year. Beth can obviously cope with a USGA event – her two Women’s Amateur Championships are proof of that. And she can certainly compete with the professionals, as was evidenced by her second-place finish in the Women’s International last May.

But for a 21-year-old amateur to win the Women’s Open would be miraculous indeed. After all, even “Catherine the Great” was all of 23!

As Hollis said prior to her win at Hazeltine National last year, “Remember, this is my eighth Open. It’s not like I’m some young thing!” (USGA Museum)

On the final green at Hazeltine National, Hollis Stacy showed some of the exuberance (and one of the weapons) that made her the 1977 U.S. Women’s Open champion. (USGA Museum)

Still, miracles do happen, as nearly occurred at Atlantic City in 1975, when 18-year-old Nancy Lopez finished in a tie for second, four strokes behind Sandra Palmer. (USGA Museum)