U.S. SENIOR WOMEN'S AMATEUR
Althea and Her: Wilson Brings Rare Experience to Senior Women’s Am
September 25, 2015 | Nashville, Tenn.
By Greg Midland, USGA
It’s not unusual for competitors in one sport to have dabbled, or in some cases, excelled, in other sports. Golf is no exception; we often see players draw upon a host of other varied athletic experiences as they pursue a USGA championship trophy.
Still, Caryn Wilson stands out among multi-sport athletes for the distinction she owns: The 54-year-old from Rancho Mirage, Calif., is one of only two people to have competed in both the U.S. Women’s Open and the US Open Tennis Championships. The other? The late Althea Gibson, one of the 20th century’s true pioneers and a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
For her part, Wilson tries to downplay the comparison.
“Althea was a lot more famous than me,” she said with a laugh. “My best world ranking in tennis was something like No. 124.”
Even so, tennis was Wilson’s key to a world-class education and indelible life experiences. Then known as Caryn Copeland, the native of San Gabriel, Calif., played at Stanford University and was a three-time All-American who captained the Lady Cardinal’s 1982 NCAA championship team. After graduating in 1983, she competed professionally on the WTA Tour and “saw the world,” playing in tournaments that included Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
After five years, she came to the realization that “playing tennis professionally was never going to buy me a house or anything like that.” She started playing golf regularly in 1989 with her then-fiancé, Stan Wilson, who now serves as her caddie, and when the two moved from Los Angeles to the Palm Springs, Calif., area three years later, she was hooked.
“Golf interested me because you could play with other people but you could also play by yourself; you could practice on the range as much as you wanted to,” she said.
Despite not taking up the game until she was nearly 30 years old, Wilson wasn’t content to simply play recreationally.
“I love competition; I grew up in a competitive family,” she said. “I was coaching tennis at the time, but I started playing more golf. And that’s when tennis took a back seat.”
Wilson had a breakout year in 1999, qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open and advancing through Q-School to become an LPGA Tour rookie at age 38. She played on the LPGA and Futures tours and qualified for her second U.S. Women’s Open in 2009, at age 48. Later that year, however, she nearly walked away from the game.
“I tried Q-School one more time,” she recalled. “I missed by one shot, and at that point I put my clubs away and completely quit golf in 2010.”
With her window for professional success all but closed, Wilson’s husband suggested she try to get her amateur status back. It took a couple of years for her to be reinstated as an amateur, and in the time since she has made the most of it. She competed in her first U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship in 2013, at CordeValle, where she reached the semifinal round and realized she enjoyed the game even more when money was not on the line.
“It was fun. The camaraderie is great, especially at the senior level,” she said. “You have people with life stories and families and interesting jobs. You can talk to people about a lot of different things.”
Wilson finds herself drawing on her competitive tennis experiences when playing USGA championships, especially once the action shifts to match play and the one-on-one structure is similar to tennis.
“It’s almost more mental for me,” she said. “It’s as much me getting out of my own way. I tend to like tougher holes and tougher course setups; maybe because I focus better or something. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but that’s what it is.”
A high number of players in this week’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur field have been competing in golf since childhood, yet Wilson doesn’t feel she is at a disadvantage. Not many people can say they have played one sport professionally, let alone two. While Wilson is proud of her past, she is even more buoyed by this stage of her sporting life.
“Tennis and golf have both been great to me, but I’m really intrigued by the mental challenge of golf,” she said. “It’s a game that tells you a lot about yourself, good and bad.”
This weekend at Hillwood Country Club, Caryn Wilson hopes to advance through stroke play and get to the portion of the championship where it’s win or go home. She will no doubt draw on similar one-on-one experiences from long ago, when she was swinging a racket instead of a driver.
Greg Midland is the director of editorial and multimedia content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.