HALL OF FAME MEMBER JAN STEPHENSON EXCITED BY INCREASED MAJOR OPPORTUNITIES IN SENIOR WOMEN'S GOLF
It took much longer to come to fruition than she would have liked but World Golf Hall of Fame member Jan Stephenson could not be more thrilled that more major tournaments are now taking place in the United States to entice the best senior players in the women's game.
Englishwoman Trish Johnson was the wire-to-wire winner of the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick in 2017 and her compatriot, World Golf Hall of Fame member Laura Davies, followed suit last year with a commanding four-stroke victory over Swede Helen Alfredsson and Italy's Silvia Cavalleri. It was the second senior women's major title of the 2018 season for Davies, who had stormed to a 10-shot win over fellow Hall of Famer Juli Inkster in the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open at Chicago Golf Club in July.
In May this year, Alfredsson won the second U.S. Senior Women's Open by two strokes over American Inkster and England's Johnson at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club. In two months' time, the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort in Indiana will stage the Senior LPGA Championship for a third successive year - from October 14-16.
"Having these senior majors is obviously something we have always dreamed of," Australian Stephenson, a three-time major champion who was the LPGA Tour's Rookie of the Year in 1974, told LPGA.com. "We tried to get the seniors tour started 15-20 years ago but we just kind of fizzled out, so to finally see all this happening is wonderful.
"Even Juli Inkster was saying to me, 'I wish it had happened several years ago but still, it's better late than never.' Obviously Laura, Trish and Juli, they all love it because they are still playing a lot on the regular LPGA Tour and that gives them a huge advantage in these senior major championships. But even as old as I am, it gives us something to look forward to. The talk of Annika (Sorenstam) coming back or Lorena (Ochoa) wanting to come back and play and Karrie Webb saying, 'I am going to stay out there until the Legends Tour to play in those tournaments.' It gives all these players incentive to play so they can continue competing in this game much longer. It's really the only chance to see all these players on TV, and the galleries at these senior major championships get really big which is wonderful."
The Senior LPGA Championship presented by Old National Bank, played over 54 holes for a total purse of $650,000, is for players aged 45 and above while the U.S. Senior Women's Open, a 72-hole championship, caters to those above 50. For the LPGA Tour legends of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, these events have been a very long time in the making but the fact that they are now a reality is worthy of celebration and good reason for the older players to become competitive once again.
Yet Stephenson has mixed emotions over the introduction of senior major championships for women, feeling frustrated that it took so long in the making but thrilled that these events are now a reality. In stark contrast, the first Senior PGA Championship for men was held in 1937 while the inaugural U.S. Senior Open took place in 1980.
"It's very disappointing that all this took so long, and we as players talk about it a lot," said Stephenson, a 16-time winner on the LPGA Tour who this year was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, during the week of the men's U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach. "I won a U.S. Open in 1983, the same year that Billy Casper won the men's U.S. Senior Open, so their senior major has been going seemingly forever.
“The thing that upsets me the most about it is that the big names that everyone knows from the LPGA Tour, they are almost too old to play. The Nancy Lopezes, the Patty Sheahans, the Pat Bradleys, the names that really made our tour. That's why I tried to get this senior tour started 20 years ago because they were fantastic names and we really could have parlayed that into a proper tour so that the younger ones would have somewhere to go. It (the Legends Tour) is going to struggle for a little while and I'm hoping that we don't just have a few tournaments but that we actually have a full tour."
The seeds planted by Jane Blalock in 2000 when she created the Women's Senior Golf Tour (and that became the Legends Tour in 2006) have certainly taken root. The Senior LPGA Championship provided a massive boost when it became a major in 2017, and that was ramped up with the addition of the U.S. Senior Women's Open in 2018. Just as the men's senior tour was galvanized in 1980 by the creation of the U.S. Senior Open, Stephenson hopes the Legends Tour can benefit similarly from the two senior majors in the women's game.
"Those two majors have already had an impact, and I expect that to continue," said Stephenson, who carved out a dazzling record as an amateur in her native Australia before turning professional in 1973, winning the Wills Australian Ladies Open later that year and then switching her focus to the LPGA Tour in 1974. "Having a full Legends Tour will be so important, especially when the players on the LPGA Tour now are so young that you need something for the other players that are in the middle, the 40-year-olds that can't compete and are competing with 20-year-olds, they need somewhere to go."