KETTERING, OHIO | Goodbyes are hard, especially when you know it’s the end of an era; when the page is forever turned; when the one bidding farewell is the epitome of a living legend. Eighty-three-year-old JoAnne Carner’s legacy has withstood the test of time, as a 43-time LPGA Tour winner and 8-time USGA champion’s resume rightly should. And while the Hall of Famer may not be as well-known as today’s modern LPGA Tour players, she still draws a small crowd at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open – her lone venture into competitive golf these days – with fans watching intently, in awe of Big Mama’s longevity and grateful to see a glimpse of the past, up close and personal.
But after four years of playing the Senior Women’s Open and after four years of chasing an ever-elusive made cut, Carner says it’s time to hang up the competitive sticks, this time for good.
“I keep thinking I'm going to make the cut, and that's been the objective all along,” said the two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion on Wednesday. “So I keep working on my game. I think this is finally it. It's just hard work trying to get the whole game going. I let it go too bad.”
However, bad is a relative term, particularly in golf. Carner kicked off the week at NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio by shooting her age, a 10-over round that was highlighted by a birdie on the par-3 15th. She then did the same in round two, firing another 83, her fifth time shooting her age in the Senior Women’s Open. That’s far from terrible by anyone’s standard. But the “Great Gundy” still expects more from her game, no matter how impressive it is to golf fans and the rest of her counterparts.
“I get a lot of people talking to me as I play, even the players all congratulate me,” said Carner. “I'm not very enthusiastic about it because I shot 83. But it's nice to hear from them.”
To be honest, no one in the field really cared what she would shoot this week. They were just happy she was even playing, with many players and caddies giddily going up to introduce themselves and pay their respects. Some shared stories of how Carner made them laugh or provided a swing tip that forever changed their game, or helped them to feel welcome on the LPGA Tour while others stood by in wonder and admiration, soaking up every moment spent in Carner’s aura.
But what was more apparent than anything else was the genuine love this group of women have for this matriarch and the appreciation they have for everything she’s given to the game throughout the years.
“We were at Oakmont for the Open, the first one of the two that we played, and she's up there in this horrible lie, and I said, ‘You didn't hit it there, did you?’ And she goes, ‘No, but you know what, if you find the worse lies, everything else doesn't look as bad,’” recalled 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Open champion Helen Alfredsson. “She is a unique character, and I told her I feel so fortunate to have played in the time where she was because she really was fantastic.”
Ten-time major champion Annika Sorenstam remains impressed that Carner has continued to compete and wonders if she too will defy Father Time and be teeing it up at 83 years old.
“When I hear of JoAnne, it makes me giggle. She is just a fun person, a character of her own. She's done so much for the game,” said Sorenstam. “I think it's amazing that she's here. I think it's terrific for the game, and it just shows the longevity of the game that she has but also the passion. I'm not sure what I'll be doing at 83, but to be out there playing in a U.S. Open, I think that is just remarkable.”
Dame Laura Davies defeated Carner and Ayako Okamoto at the 1987 U.S. Women’s Open to win her first LPGA Tour title, but remembers getting some short game advice from Big Mama not long after that victory during her first event as a rookie on Tour.
“I remember in Florida at my very first tournament when I got on Tour the next year, I was just in the bunker and JoAnne sidles over, and she gave me a few tips. To me that was the best thing ever, someone that less than two years before I'd beaten her in a playoff and she had time for me and Trish Johnson who was there,” Davies said. “So for me, JoAnne has always been one of my favorites. A lot of the girls out here will give tips, but JoAnne is a genius in the short game area of her game, and she likes to spread that knowledge on. For me as a rookie that year, that was a lovely thing.”
Carner herself isn’t one to be sentimental and such was the case on Friday as she sat in the flash area for one final post-round interview. She has no interest in coming back as a starter and wasn’t feeling melancholy about playing her last competitive 18 holes. There weren’t any words of wisdom to leave behind or laments about missed opportunities, although she would’ve liked to see a Senior Women’s Open played sooner.
In true JoAnne fashion, it was just the plain blunt truth, a scathing review of the current state of her game mixed with a small bit of pride for what she’s been able to accomplish on the golf course, even the lackluster 83s.
“(I’m proud of) everything,” said Carner when asked to reflect on her career. “But right now my age, I guess. Shooting my age, which is terrible. I do better than that at home. It was too hard work this year trying to get my game in shape. But I won't let it go that bad to begin with.
“I've enjoyed everything about it, even my bad golf. I mean, I was trying just like in the old days, only it really just wasn't there. But the friendships and everything, it's great.”
As for what’s next, Carner is looking forward to playing some golf with her eldest sister, Helen, who at 91 years old walked every hole JoAnne played this week in Dayton. For now though, a stiff drink and some reflection on one heck of a career are on tap.
Carner claims she never says goodbye and who knows? Maybe she’ll finally find the “slot” and be back next year in Portland. But don’t bet on it. It truly is the end of an era, the chapter is finished, the last putt is holed.
Nothing more to say than cheers to you, Big Mama. Thanks for everything.