A lot of women dread their 50th birthday. But Susan West has been counting down the years until she was eligible to compete in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship.
West earned tournament experience after switching from competitive tennis to golf at age 36, competing in six U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championships against competitors as young as 25 years of age. When she turned 50 in July and was finally eligible to compete in her first Senior Women’s Amateur, West was ready.
"I thought, at the bottom of the age range, at least I’d have a better chance to play well than I had at the Mid-Am against much younger players," said West, of Tuscaloosa, Ala. "I’ve been looking forward to this week for seven years."
West, who had been nationally ranked in tennis and owns one national clay-court doubles title, possessed the requisite athleticism to thrive in a new sport. Her transition to golf came in 1998 after she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in a skiing accident.
She took golf lessons, hit thousands of balls, and honed her game through competition. She never got past the first round of match play at the Women’s Mid-Amateur against mostly younger players, but athletically, the 5-foot-9 West was ready to go this week on the 6,109-yard, par-73 layout at Hollywood Golf Club.
"From a yardage standpoint, I haven’t hit a driver all week, so I have a better chance to hang with more experienced players here," she said. "But I play a lot with young players in Alabama and Florida and this week on the first day, on the first tee, there was a little bit of a reminder here that I was not with the young pups anymore."
Still, West says she has been inspired by players in their 70s who have shown her that golf truly is a lifetime sport.
"I love getting older," said West. "I just don’t want to get old."
In her Round-of-64 match against Jane Rees on Monday, West trailed until drawing even on the 13th hole. At that point, West’s tennis mentality kicked in. She stayed patient, waited for her opportunity and when she got the chance to pounce, she did.
West rolled in a 24-foot downhill putt on No. 17 to go 1 up, and then rolled in another 24-foot sidehill putt on No. 18 to close out the match with a 2-up win.
"I give a lot of tennis credit to those two birdies on Monday," she said. "I told myself I was about to come into some holes that I really like and to just hang around and be patient. I think my competitiveness paid off and I attribute that to my background in tennis."
Tennis cleared a path for West’s future in golf. She played many sports as a kid and a junior high coach encouraged her to try tennis. She excelled quickly and progressed through the ranks.
"It really paved the way for me to have a college education," West recalled. "I was a walk-on member of the women’s team at the University of Alabama and eventually earned a scholarship."
Before heading to college, West thought about pursuing professional tennis, but a short conversation prior to a match against one of the world’s future top-ranked Grand Slam winners reinforced that college tennis was where she should be. West was playing another teenager, Gigi Fernandez, in a tournament and made the comment walking onto the court that she liked Fernandez’s tennis skirt.
"She told me not to try to win her over with compliments," said West. "That made me realize, being a top-ranked tennis player was about winning at any cost and I’m not that way."
West admits she is still highly competitive, but added the incident served to point her in the right direction.
"It really was a turning point that gave me an opportunity in life, to go to college," she said. "Tennis opened some doors for me, for which I’ll always be grateful."
After college, West competed on the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) senior women’s tennis circuit. Tennis has five-year age divisions, so typically she only competed against players who were five years younger.
She was ranked as high as No. 2 in doubles and No. 7 in singles in the women’s 30s division.
West went back to school for her Masters of Business Administration at Alabama from 1996-1998, and met Tom West, her future husband, on a driving range through a professor friend in 2005. The two were married a year later and began playing golf on a regular basis.
Tom was a low-handicap player and encouraged Susan’s golf pursuits. Now, he caddies for her and is carrying her bag this week.
The couple also bought a 36-foot motor home about six months ago and traveled to Noblesville, Ind., last week for the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship with their mixed-breed dog, Waverly.
Susan directed the University of Alabama’s MBA program from 2001-2012, and became the CEO of the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission for two years until this February, when she stepped down. She and Tom decided to chase some things on their respective bucket lists.
"We decided, why wait?" she said. "I’m a go-go-go kind of person, and I wasn’t real sure about this, but I have enjoyed it thoroughly."
Of course, that bucket list also includes playing well this week at the Senior Women’s Amateur.
"I look at that trophy and I want to hold it," she said. "There are so many people here who could do that, but I’ve stepped on the first step. It’s a baby step, but you have to start with the belief that you can do it."
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.