This story was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of Golf Journal magazine, the official publication of the USGA. To receive Golf Journal magazine on a quarterly basis as well as the monthly digital version, become a USGA Member by clicking here.
U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Women's Golf Enjoys Major Growth in 75 Years of Women's Open
September 25, 2020
By Ron Sirak
As a bruised America emerged from World War II, new realities loomed. The chaos of war had stirred the ingredients of the melting pot that is the United States, as race, ethnicity, religion, regional accents and gender were blended more thoroughly into the national stew. A war had been won, and just as surely the country had been placed on a permanent path toward a new equality.
Women, who contributed to the war effort in the military and on the factory floor as Rosie the Riveter, were changed by the experience. The postwar period unleashed vigorous economic growth and social change, and Rosie traded her air hammer for a 5-iron and her iconic headscarf for a head cover. Suddenly, there was a place for professionals in women’s golf, and equipment companies hired women to give clinics to an expanding market of female players. These paid instructors became the core group that formed the LPGA in 1950.
More than a half-century after the U.S. Women’s Amateur – the third-oldest USGA championship – was first played in 1895, an Open championship for women was staged in 1946. The U.S. Women’s Open, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary at Champions Golf Club, in Houston, Texas, on Dec. 10-13, charts the growth of women’s golf from WWII into the new century.
In the first U.S. Women’s Open at Spokane (Wash.) Country Club, only six of the 32 players who qualified for match play were professionals, and all were Americans. At the Country Club of Charleston (S.C.) in 2019, the 156-woman field had competitors from 29 countries and 131 professionals.
Patty Berg won that first U.S. Women’s Open – the only one staged at match play – 5 and 4 over Betty Jameson, who won the first championship played at stroke play the next year. Both Berg and Jameson are in the World Golf Hall of Fame, establishing a defining characteristic of the championship: Throughout its history, the U.S. Women’s Open has identified the best players.
Here are some indelible moments from the first 74 editions:
1954: The Babe’s Last Open
Without Babe Zaharias, women’s golf may not have taken off when it did. The Babe was the hook on which it hung its marketing hat. As a two-time gold medal winner in the 1932 Summer Olympics who also played baseball and basketball, Zaharias is arguably the greatest female athlete the United States has produced. She arrived at Salem Country Club near Boston a year after cancer surgery, yet won by a whopping 12 strokes. It was the third U.S. Women’s Open win for Zaharias and the last of her 10 majors.
Babe had missed the 1953 U.S. Women’s Open because of cancer and did not defend her title in 1955 because of back surgery, during which it was discovered her cancer had returned. Zaharias died on Sept. 27, 1956, at age 45 and in 1957 was bestowed the Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor.
From 1948 through 1961, four players won 12 of the 14 championships – Zaharias (3), Louise Suggs (2), Betsy Rawls (4) and Mickey Wright (3), with Wright also victorious in 1964.
1961: Mickey Tames Baltusrol
If Zaharias was the first great marketer of women’s professional golf, Wright was its first transcendent player. She won 82 events, including 13 majors, despite retiring at 34. Mickey formed one of golf’s greatest rivalries with Kathy Whitworth, who won a record 88 times, although none were in the U.S. Women’s Open.
One of the things on which Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson agreed was that Wright had one of the greatest swings they had seen. Her third U.S. Women’s Open victory in four years came at Baltusrol Golf Club in 1961. She opened with a 72 on a demanding layout but stumbled to an 80 the next day to fall four back. With two rounds on the final day, Wright blistered Baltusrol with a 69 Saturday morning – the only sub-70 round of the week – that moved her two strokes ahead.
Mickey closed with a 72 to win by six over Rawls, a final-day effort that led World Golf Hall of Fame writer Herbert Warren Wind to pen: “Eloquent as they are, these figures do not begin to suggest the near perfection of Mickey Wright’s play on that double round. It is hard to think of a comparable exhibition of beautifully sustained golf over thirty-six holes in a national championship, unless it be Ben Hogan’s last two rounds at Oakland Hills in the 1951 Open.”
Wright herself knew the importance of this championship.
“Winning the Women's Open four times and tying Betsy at four is the most important statistic in my resume,” said Wright. “The fourth one in San Diego in 1964 was the highlight of my entire career. It was the only time that both my mother and father watched me play at the same time. And winning on my home course (San Diego Country Club) was beyond special. Those U.S. Open victories mean so much because of the difficulty of the courses chosen by the USGA.”
1976: ‘Big Mama’ Gets Her 8th USGA Title
In the four decades after World War II, the women’s pro game was dominated by Americans. Of the first 37 U.S. Women’s Opens, 35 were won by players from the United States, the exceptions being Fay Crocker of Uruguay in 1956 and Catherine Lacoste of France who, in 1967, became the only amateur to win.
From Lacoste until Jan Stephenson of Australia in 1983, all of the winners were Americans. One of those who waved the flag most proudly was JoAnne Carner. She won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1971 and 1976, adding it to her five U.S. Women’s Amateur titles and one U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, the only player in USGA history to win all three titles. The eight USGA victories by Carner are second only to the nine by Bob Jones and Tiger Woods.
Carner’s last USGA championship came at Rolling Green Golf Club near Philadelphia, and she had to work overtime to get it, defeating Sandra Palmer in an 18-hole playoff. The win backed up the U.S. Women’s Open title she won at Kahkwa Club in 1971. “The first might have been luck,” Carner said after dispatching Palmer by two strokes. “But when you win a second, you feel like a pro.”
Those two U.S. Women’s Open titles were the most significant of her 43 professional wins, a remarkable achievement considering that she didn’t turn pro until she was 30.
1995-96: The Annika Era Begins
A hint of change hovered on the horizon in 1983 when Jan Stephenson outlasted the oppressive heat at Cedar Ridge Country Club near Tulsa, Okla., to finish one stroke ahead of Carner and Patty Sheehan, who would go on to win the U.S. Women’s Open in 1992 and ’94. All three ended up in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Virtually no one anticipated the global growth of the women’s game that would follow Stephenson’s victory. In 1987, Laura Davies of England captured the championship, followed the next year by Liselotte Neumann of Sweden. Annika Sorenstam, also a Swede, won in 1995 and ’96 and Alison Nicholas of England in 1997.The first of Sorenstam’s 72 LPGA wins, 10 major championships and three U.S. Women’s Open titles came on The Broadmoor’s East Course in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1995 when she closed with a 68 to overcome a five-stroke deficit and edge 1991 winner Meg Mallon by one stroke. The Annika Era kicked into high gear in 1996 with her six-stroke victory over Kris Tschetter at the Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.
Sorenstam is justifiably proud of her “three-peat.”
“The U.S. Women’s Open is the biggest tournament in women’s professional golf,” says Sorenstam. “To have won it three times means a lot to me. The first one really put me on the map and got my career off to a fast start. The second one validated the first. However, the third one [at Newport Country Club in 2006] was really special because it was 10 years later and after several close calls. It was also the week after I became a U.S. citizen, which made it even more special.”
1998: Pak Inspires a Generation
In 1998, one of the most consequential championships in the history of the game was held at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, foreshadowing two trends that would define the women’s game going forward – youth and an Asian influence. Se Ri Pak of the Republic of Korea defeated amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn, born in Baltimore to parents from Thailand, in a 20-hole Monday playoff after Chuasiriporn holed a 40-foot putt on No. 18 Sunday to pull even. Both were only 20 years old, inspiring young girls all around the world.
The week before, the LPGA Tour was at the ShopRite Classic near Atlantic City, N.J. Because Pak, 20, had picked up her first tour win in May at the LPGA Championship, dozens of Korean media members showed up to do preview stories on Pak.
The scene at ShopRite was complete chaos. Many media members had never covered a golf tournament before – no Korean man or woman had won a major before Pak’s LPGA victory – and some reporters walked the fairways chatting on cellphones. Tournament officials finally ordered “Quiet Please” signs printed in Korean.
The stage was set at Blackwolf Run and Pak did not disappoint. In Korea, a generation of girls watched her victory on TV, among them 9-year-old Inbee Park, who made USGA history a decade later when she won the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open at 19, breaking Pak’s age record. Beginning with Pak, nine Koreans have won the U.S. Women’s Open 10 times, including 2019 champion Jeongeun Lee6.
2014: History at the Twin Opens
The age barrier shattered at Blackwolf Run was obliterated in the new century. In 2001, Morgan Pressel became the youngest qualifier at 12 – matched by Lexi Thompson in 2007 and broken by Lucy Li in 2014 at 11. In 2008, Park set the age record for a winner at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn., at 19.
Americans captured three titles in a row beginning in 2002 – Juli Inkster, Hilary Lunke and Meg Mallon – and that’s the last time the Yanks won in consecutive years. Still, history was guaranteed at the 2014 championship even before a shot was struck. For the first time, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open were contested on the same venue – the famed Course No. 2 at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort & Country Club – in consecutive weeks. It was fitting that the championship was won by 24-year-old Michelle Wie, who made her name competing against male pros when she was a teenager.
The way this U.S. Women’s Open ended was a microcosm of Wie’s career as she rode a roller coaster over the last three holes, making a double bogey on No. 16 before draining a daunting 25-foot, downhill birdie on No. 17, punctuating the ball’s disappearance into the hole with a pumped fist and double-pump punch.
“That kind of emotion, that kind of pressure, I’ll think of that as one of the best putts I’ve ever hit in my life,” Wie said after her two-stroke victory over Stacy Lewis.
The history of the U.S. Women’s Open breaks neatly in half. While only two of the first 37 winners were from outside the United States, 20 of the last 37 titles have been won by players from Thailand (1), England (2), Australia (3), Sweden (4) and Korea (10).
“The U.S. Women’s Open has so much history,” said Sorenstam, the first two-time winner from outside the U.S. “It tests every phase of your game both physically and mentally.”
That test is the constant of the championship. While the women’s game has grown globally, the U.S. Women’s Open remains what it was when first played 75 years ago – the sternest test in women’s golf. The game has changed but the challenge remains the same.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based writer whose work appears regularly on USGA digital channels.