FRENCH LICK, INDIANA | The Senior LPGA Championship presented by Old National Bank is more than a home run – it’s a grand slam. And on Monday it was Jill McGill who circled the bases in a sizzling six-under-par 66 to take the first-round lead by four strokes over Rosie Jones and Moira Dunn-Bohls.
McGill was simply sensational, making eight birdies on the extremely challenging Pete Dye Course at French Lick. She went out in 32 and back in 34. Tied for fourth place at 71 are Maria McBride and Audra Burks.
Speaking of grand slams, a quartet of talented players are lurking at even par: U.S. Senior Women’s Open champion Helen Alfredsson; Trish Johnson, who won the Senior LPGA in 2017, the first year it was a major; seven-time LPGA major winner Juli Inkster and Jane Crafter, a stalwart of the Legends Tour.
Defending Senior LPGA champion Laura Davies is eight strokes off the lead after an opening 74.
“I drop the kids off at school and then go out and play,” McGill said about her preparation for the Senior LPGA. “So I have from 9 until 2 free. I play a little course near home and just try to make as many birdies as I can, which is a good attitude coming into here.”
Jones went out in 37 but fought her way back into contention with a 33 on the incoming nine, making three birdies in four holes beginning on No. 12.
“This is one of those course that never lets you let up,” said Jones, a 13-time winner on the LPGA.
“You have to manage your golf game really well," she said. "What’s so great about this course with its side-hill lies is that you never know what you are going to get until you get down to your ball.”
Dunn-Bohls went out in 37 and came back in 33. She made birdies on Nos. 11, 14 and 16 in a bogey-free back nine.
Asked how she got her mind back into the demands of competitive golf, Dunn-Bohls said: “I don’t think you ever lose that.”
Then she expressed a sentiment verbalized by many in the field of the Senior LPGA. “It’s wonderful to have a place to play,” she said.
Talk about touching all the bases, this pioneering major for women 45 and over fills a compelling quartet of purposes. It celebrates the legends of the game; supports the Riley’s Children Foundation; showcases the Pete Dye Course at French Lick; and provides a stern test for the 78 women competing for the $100,000 first prize from the purse of $650,000.
And make no mistake, when the competitors get to the first tee, they are exactly that – competitors. The grins triggered by reunions with long-time friends during several days of pre-tournament events turn to game faces as all the instincts of decades of tournament golf take over.
“You get out here and it’s like you’ve never been away,” McGill said about meeting the mental demands presented by tournament golf.
Part of the special nature of the Senior LPGA is its affiliation with the Riley’s Children Foundation. Before each round, one of Riley’s Kids, patients of Riley’s Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, serves as the first tee announcer.
These kids know all about competing, having battled a variety of illnesses. The tournament has raised about $1 million for the foundation since 2014, $200,000 each of the last two years as the Senior LPGA Championship.
On Monday, the ceremonial first ball for the Senior LPGA was struck by Ashtyn Brown, who at one time was a Riley’s Kid. Now 26 and studying to be a radiology technician, Brown was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 6 years old.
After enduring weekly treatments for two and a half years, the cancer returned a year later. There was an infection that set her back. There were three months straight spent in the hospital. Finally there was a new drug never used on a child before that saved her life.
“That was 15 years ago and I’m cancer free,” said Brown, who worked as an intern at Golf Channel before deciding to change career paths. Now, she’s back in her hometown of Richmond, Ind., studying for her new career, one that she hopes will help children facing challenges similar to hers.
“Ideally, I can come back and work for Riley’s,” she said about pursuing that radiology degree. “There are no words for it,” she says about her involvement with the Senior LPGA and Riley’s Kids. “It became so much like a family. To be around these legends – I’m star struck. To help Riley’s, I’m honored.”
That is an eloquent of explanation of the special nature of the Senior LPGA. It is like family as old foes and friends reunite. Everyone is star struck to be around these legends. And the stars are awed to be around the kids.
Many of those legends are on the leader board as the championship swings into Tuesday’s second round. More Riley’s Kids will be back on the first tee and certainly more great golf lay ahead in the third edition of golf’s first senior women’s professional major.