The U.S. Women’s Open was added to the USGA’s roster of championships in 1953, 58 years after the first U.S. Women’s Amateur. The reason for the USGA’s relatively late assumption of the Women’s Open is simple: women’s professional golf is fairly new. When Opal Hill turned professional in 1938, she and Helen Hicks were two of the very few women golf professionals in the world. Unlike the other 12 national championships conducted by the USGA, the Women’s Open was created by another organization. In 1946, the short-lived Women’s Professional Golfers Association introduced the Women’s Open at match play at the Spokane (Wash.) Country Club. The Spokane Athletic Round Table, a men’s fraternal organization, contributed the $19,700 purse from its slot machines proceeds.
The first Women’s Open was the only one conducted at match play. Patty Berg won the 36-hole qualifying medal in 1946, with rounds of 72-73-145, then won the championship by defeating Betty Jameson, 5 and 4, in the 36-hole final.
The small membership of the WPGA ran the championship for three years. By 1949, however, women’s professional golf was making significant strides and the Ladies Professional Golf Association was founded. A group of 11 women, including Berg, Jameson, Louise Suggs and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, established the new association to provide organized tournaments for women professionals. The LPGA ran the Women’s Open for four years, but in 1953 asked the USGA to conduct the championship. The first Women’s Open under the USGA flag was played at the Country Club of Rochester, in upstate New York, where Betsy Rawls won the second of her four Women’s Open titles (1951, 1953, 1957, 1960).
Conducted by the USGA ever since, the Women’s Open is the oldest championship open to women professionals and amateurs. Rawls and Mickey Wright, the only other four-time winner (1958, 1959, 1961, 1964) were the championship’s dominant players from 1957 through 1964, winning six Women’s Opens between them during those eight years. In 1967, Catherine Lacoste, daughter of French tennis player Rene Lacoste and 1927 British Ladies Amateur champion Simone Thion de la Chaume, became the only amateur to win the Women’s Open.
In its 67-year history, the U.S. Women’s Open has reigned as the world’s greatest women’s championship, attracting steadily increasing numbers of entries and spectators. Whereas only 37 contestants played in 1953, in 1976 the field jumped to 205 players and sectional qualifying was introduced. In 2001, a record 980 contestants entered. A four-day attendance record of 41,200 was set at Brooklawn Country Club, Fairfield, Conn., in 1979. At the 50th Women’s Open, in 1995, that record was more than doubled at The Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs, Colo.
In recent years, the U.S. Women’s Open has truly become the world arena of women’s golf. Nine of the last 20 champions have been foreign-born, whereas only three of the first 41 champions were foreign-born. The emergence of the Women’s Open as a great international contest came in 1987, when England’s Laura Davies prevailed in an 18-hole playoff against Japan’s Ayako Okamoto and JoAnne Gunderson Carner of the United States. Another foreign-born player, Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, established the 72-hole scoring record of 272, eight under par, at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in 1996. Juli Inkster, an American professional, matched that 72-hole score of 272, also setting a record in relation to par with 16 under, in 1999.
In 1965, the final round of the championship was televised nationally for the first time. The Women’s Open has been televised ever since, with all four rounds now broadcast.
In 2002, qualifying for the Women’s Open was held in two stages for the first time, with 18 holes for local qualifying and 36 holes for sectional qualifying. In 2010, there will be one 36-hole sectional-qualifying stage.
A three-hole aggregate score playoff to immediately follow the end of regulation play was adopted in 2007.