JoAnne Carner's name will be on very few lips, if indeed any, as a genuine contender for next month's Senior LPGA Championship presented by Old National Bank at French Lick Resort. After all, 'Big Mama' Carner is now a venerable 79 years old and she will be competing against players much younger than her, some of whom are fresh off the LPGA Tour and close to half her age.
Yet it is a very safe bet that Carner will command much of the spotlight during the build-up to the opening round at French Lick, especially after she delivered the 'feel-good' story at the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open conducted by the USGA at Chicago Golf Club in July when she stunningly shot her age on day one.
"That was a lot of fun in Chicago, because we had some top amateurs there too, some of whom I have played with down here in Florida," Carner told LPGA.com. "So it was great fun to get to see everybody there. I always thought I could have done better (at the U.S. Senior Women's Open) but you know how that goes! Golfers are always optimistic."
One of only five players to have won three different USGA (United States Golf Association) championships, Carner did not play in the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick last year and she took her time before committing to the 2018 edition because she wanted to make sure that she would be somewhat ready for competition.
"I hadn't been playing so that's why I delayed, to see whether I had time to get my game in shape," she said. "That was why there was a delay in me entering. I haven't really thought that much about any objectives for the week in French Lick. Main reason for entering is that I'm probably just running out of time to have many tournaments I can play!"
Carner, who won 43 times on the LPGA Tour including the U.S. Women's Open in 1971 and 1976, is bracing for a tough week at French Lick where the Pete Dye Course is renowned for its panoramic views of the southern Indiana countryside, 'volcano' bunkers and a variety of elevation changes.
"Pete Dye says this was his favorite course but the course beats you up," said Carner. "I know it well, and there are some areas on the course I know that I shouldn't know. It's got everything. It's kind of tricky driving, some of your par-five lay-up shots are tricky, the greens have all kinds of undulations in them and they are fairly big.
"And then you've got elevation there too, so having played in Florida for so long it's an adjustment as to what club to pick when you're going up 20 yards in elevation. It keeps you alert the whole way and if you get on the side of a hill ... man, you're standing on your head or swinging baseball-style waist-high out of the rough. I've always played there when it's warm, but they have said it may even snow there, and it certainly could in October! It will be totally different."
While the U.S. Senior Women's Open was for players aged 50 and above, the Senior LPGA Championship caters to those above 45 and Carner knows full well that is hardly in her favor.
"It's a world of difference, you know," she grinned. "You get some players coming right off the LPGA Tour stepping right in there. They are more experienced. The hard part about senior women's golf is you don't play enough tournaments to get tournament tough. You need to play four in a row, or five in a row, or six in a row even to get used to tournaments. It's hard to do that at home when you are just practising."
Bottom line though, Carner is thrilled to see the expanding opportunities for the game's best senior players, even if those opportunities are coming one or two decades too late for her.
"It's wonderful news, but a long time coming," she said. "I am just very happy to see the LPGA follow through and establish their own senior major championship, so that was a big step to help the Tour. But I really wish this had happened 10-20 years ago."
Asked if she was likely to inspire the fans at French Lick in the same she did at Chicago Golf Club in July, Carner replied with a throaty laugh: "I never know what I'm going to do."