Bitter-sweet emotions ran high for Nancy Lopez at Chicago Golf Club on Thursday as she performed her role as honorary starter at the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open.
As she occasionally wiped away tears from her eyes while standing on the first tee to announce the morning groupings for the opening round, there was heartfelt disappointment that she is unable to compete this week after having knee surgery last November coupled with the excitement and joy that this national championship for over-50 women golfers is at last a reality.
"Being here for the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open is just cool, it's just the best," Lopez told LPGA.com while taking a well-earned break in the player hospitality tent from her starter duties. "We've been talking about hoping this event would come to fruition way before now, and I guess I'm a little disappointed that it didn't happen sooner, when I could still walk.
"I don't know why it didn't happen sooner. It just didn't make sense. Even if it was 20 years ago ... you would still have players like (Kathy) Whitworth and Sandra Haynie and Carol Mann ... players like that who would still have been able to try and win a major championship.”
In early 2015, the United States Golf Association announced the establishment of the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open - to be played three years later - and iconic Chicago Golf Club was slated as the host venue for the inaugural edition.
For Lopez, a member of the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame, this was a fantastic development and she is thrilled to be a part of it at Chicago Golf Club this week - even as a non-player.
"Just being here and at least participating in some way is so cool," said Lopez, a 48-time winner on the LPGA Tour. "I'm so glad they asked me to be the honorary starter. It's sad for me that I couldn't tee it up, but it was fun to see all the players come up to the first tee. You still have that camaraderie with them and you know that they were very nervous because I felt nervous for them. When you haven't competed at this level of a championship in a long time, you want to play well and you don't want to fall on your face because it's going to happen when you haven't played competitively for a while."
On a gorgeous mid-summer morning west of Chicago with barely a hint of a breeze in the air, Lopez was dressed smartly in a blazer and in position on the first tee when the first group of the day - JoAnne Carner, Hollis Stacy and Sandra Palmer - arrived to start the opening round.
"Welcome to Round One of the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open Championship, directed by the United States Golf Association and hosted by Chicago Golf Club," Lopez said, speaking into a microphone while around three hundred fans looked on. "This is the seven o'clock starting time. Please welcome from Palm Beach, Florida, the 1956 U.S. Girls Junior, the 1957, 1960, 1962, 1966 and 1968 U.S. Women's Amateur and the 1971 and 1976 U.S. Women's Open champion, JoAnne Carner."
'Big Mama' Carner, who is one of only five players to have won three different USGA championships, playfully cocked her ear as Lopez listed her five U.S. Women's Amateur titles and then hit the first shot of the tournament down the right side of the fairway to loud applause from the gallery. She went on to shoot her age, carding a six-over 79 after covering the back nine in a very respectable one-under 36.
"It was very emotional for me this morning, knowing that all these players have been waiting a long time for this event, it was a very different kind of feeling," said Lopez. "It was a feeling of happiness, of disappointment, of excitement being here, of excitement that my fellow players who have given their life to the LPGA Tour now finally having a U.S. Senior Women's Open."