U.S. WOMEN'S MID-AMATEUR
Carner’s Caddie Recalls Magical Week at Kahkwa September 14, 2016 | Erie, Pa. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Tom Fessler was 16 when he caddied for JoAnne Gunderson Carner in the 1971 U.S. Women's Open at The Kahkwa Club. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

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When he drew the name of the player he was to caddie for in the 1971 U.S. Women’s Open, Tom Fessler was a bit disappointed.

Fessler, 16, was in his first full season of caddieing, his family having just joined The Kahkwa Club, and in the long-held tradition of the U.S. Open and Women’s Open, every player was assigned a caddie from the local ranks. Fessler drew the name of JoAnne Gunderson Carner from the bowl.

“I was hoping for a big name,” said Fessler, whose 13-year-old brother also caddied in the championship. “Of course, at 16, I was happy to have anybody.”

Unbeknownst to Fessler, Carner was a five-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who had turned professional two years earlier, but she had been struggling to transition her game to the pro ranks. In nine LPGA Tour events that year, Carner had won a measly $3,741.

“I had been playing so poorly that I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever play the way I used to,” Carner said, playfully referring to herself in a 1971 Golf Journal story as the “queen of the three-putts.”

But something happened that week at Kahkwa, a Donald Ross design that was set up to the USGA championship conditions Carner had thrived on in her amateur heyday.

“The minute I saw Kahkwa, I loved it,” said Carner, who likened it to some of the courses she played growing up in the Pacific Northwest.

“The first practice round, I knew I had somebody special,” said Fessler, now 61 and an orthopedist in Erie. “My mother (Mary Ann Fessler) was a very accomplished player who won probably 14 club championships here, so I knew what to expect out of a good woman golfer. But JoAnne was hitting the ball so much farther than my mother would hit it.”

Indeed, the entire field was chasing “Big Momma,” as Carner was known, both in driving distance and on the leader board, where it really counted. Carner routinely hit 260-yard drives – far outdistancing most of her contemporaries – and even if she drove it in the sticky rough, she had shorter clubs into the green and an easier time extricating the ball. Carner and two-time defending champion Donna Caponi shared the first-round lead with 2-under-par 70s, then Carner seized control with a 1-over 73 in Round 2, when most players’ scores soared due to blustery winds.

JoAnne Gunderson Carner kick-started her struggling professional career with her U.S. Women's Open victory at The Kahkwa Club. (USGA Archives)

“JoAnne wasn’t really a star; she was very warm and friendly,” said Fessler, who went on to play golf at Georgetown University. “She was just a down-to-earth person. It was a great experience.”

Local golf fans responded to the first USGA championship in the region, with an estimated 5,000 fans attending the weekend rounds. Carner extended her lead to five strokes over Mary Mills on Saturday, then cruised to victory on Sunday, but not before having a little fun with her caddie.

“We talked a lot, and somehow we got talking about where my mother would hit the ball on certain holes,” said Fessler. “I told her my mother had gotten on the [par-5] 14th green in two a couple of times, but throughout the tournament, JoAnne was never in a position to go for it in two.”

As they stood on the 14th fairway on Sunday, Carner reached for a fairway wood for her second shot, when she had laid up short of the green the first three rounds.

“I asked her what she was doing,” recalled Fessler. “She said, ‘You told me your mother could do it. If your mother can do it, I’m not going to be outdone.’”

Carner knocked it onto the green, and went on to finish at even-par 288, seven strokes ahead of Kathy Whitworth and 11 clear of four players who tied for third: Caponi, Hall of Famer Mickey Wright, Jane Blalock and amateur Jane Bastanchury. Carner became the first player to win three different USGA championships, and is still the only player to win the U.S. Girls’ Junior, the Women’s Amateur and the Women’s Open.

Carner won $5,000, and she paid Fessler $300 for his week’s work. He used part of it to purchase his first new set of woods, Wilson Staff models, the same brand that Carner played and promoted. As the oldest of 10 siblings who was accustomed to hand-me-downs, it was the first time Fessler owned new clubs.

Fast-forward 22 years after Carner’s Kahkwa conquest. She had added the 1976 U.S. Women’s Open to give her eight USGA championships, which is still more than any female player in history. Carner, by now a 43-time winner on the LPGA Tour, was scheduled to play in the 1993 Greater Erie Charity Golf Classic, a two-day event that Kahkwa hosted for nearly two decades.

The tournament director thought it would make for good publicity to have Fessler, who had returned to the area after medical school and a military commitment, caddie again for Carner.

“I picked her up at the airport and brought her to the club,” said Fessler. “She didn’t really remember me well – it was hundreds of tournaments later, after all. But she did an exhibition on the practice range and had me hit some shots so she could critique my swing. I was honored to do it because she’s in the Hall of Fame.”

Fessler rejoined Kahkwa on his return to Erie, and he is hosting Julia Potter and her family as Potter seeks her second U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur title. He still plays three times a week.

“There’s probably not anybody out here who’s played this golf course more than I have,” he said.

And few have played it better than the woman Fessler walked alongside 45 years ago.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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