FRENCH LICK, Ind. – Great movements begin with small steps. And it could very well be that when the Senior LPGA Championship presented by Old National Bank is viewed over the expanse of time it will be recognized as a pivotal point in the growth of women’s golf.
When the tournament was first played in 2017 it stood alone as a major on the Legend’s Tour, the circuit for women 45 and older. The next year, the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open, whose minimum age is 50, joined it as a major championship for senior women.
Now, as 78 players prepare to tee it up Oct. 14 on The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort for the third Senior LPGA Championship, it feels very much like these are not just legends in the game but also pioneers taking their sport to a new day.
This gathering at the French Lick Resort in Indiana is not just a competition for the $100,000 first-place prize from the purse of $650,000, it is also a celebration of the women’s game: Players from the past showcasing their skills in the present while paving a new path to the future.
"Having these senior majors is obviously something we have always dreamed of," said Jan Stephenson, the Australian World Golf Hall of Fame member who was an LPGA rookie in 1974. "We tried to get the seniors tour started 15- to 20 years ago but we just kind of fizzled out. So to finally see all this happening is wonderful.”
When the U.S. Senior Open was first played in 1980 it became the cornerstone for the men’s senior tour, which is now the PGA Tour Champions. It could well be that the first Senior LPGA Championship in 2017 will infuse that same growth into the Legends Tour.
Back to defend her title is Dame Laura Davies, who won at French Lick last year by four strokes with an 8-under-par 208 for 54 holes. Davies, who also won the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open in 2018, will be challenged by Helen Alfredsson, winner of this year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open, and Trish Johnson, who captured the 2017 Senior LPGA Championship.
Also among the contenders are Juli Inkster, holder of seven LPGA major championships, Jane Crafter, Brandie Burton, Pat Hurst, Liselotte Neumann and Danielle Ammaccapane. Among the newbies in the field are Golf Channel commentator and 2004 Women’s British Open champion Karen Stupples and Charlotta Sorenstam, both 46.
"Jack Graham, my boss at Golf Channel, asked me if I wanted to work the Senior LPGA Championship again and I said, 'Actually, I'd really like to play in it.'” Stupples said. “So, this is my opportunity to give it a go, to step out there and try and put my best foot forward and see where it puts me. As soon as it was announced that there was going to be a Senior LPGA Championship, I knew that I wanted to play in it. Now I finally get the chance."
The French Lick Resort has hosted a Legends Tour event since 2013. Part of its special nature is the charitable involvement with Riley Children’s Foundation. Before each round, one of Riley’s Kids, patients of Riley’s Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, serves as first-tee announcer. The tournament has raised about $1 million for the foundation since 2014, $200,000 each of the last two years at the Senior LPGA Championship.
The partnership between the LPGA, Riley’s, the French Lick Resort and its parent company, the Cook Group, a medical device company, evolved over time.
“When the tournament became a Legends Tour event in 2013, we partnered with a national charity but we didn’t feel like our community felt the direct impact,” said Dave Harner, director of golf at French Lick. “My son was a student at Indiana University and they did a dance marathon for Riley’s Kids that raised $3.5 million and the idea clicked that we should go that route.”
The Riley Hospital for Children offers medical care to all Indiana children regardless of ability to pay.
“We are a top-10 research hospital in the nation and Indianapolis is not a top-10 market,” said Jim Austin, chief marketing office and corporate partnership officer for Riley’s Children Foundation. “The care and compassion of folks like French Lick and the Cook Group make that possible.”
There is also the special nature of the players.
"The demeanor of golfers, the playing field, it is all so special,” Austin said. “This is a very caring, compassionate group of people. Honestly, I don’t think we would have had the same connection with senior men. We’ve been involved five years now and the players come back and look for the kids they have come to know and some of the players have become major donors to the hospital.”
The Senior LPGA Championship is an event where history is made, history is put on display and lives are changed. Golf Channel will broadcast the action 4-6 p.m. ET on Oct. 14-16. It’s a chance to view legends of the game.