I doubt there’ll be a more emotional event anywhere in golf this week than at Chicago Golf Club where some of the greats of the game gathered for the inaugural US Senior Women’s Open and JoAnne Carner, aged 79, hit the opening drive.

JoAnne Carner prepares for lift-off at the inaugural US Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club [courtesy of Jane Crafter, I think]

Carner, who had a long and distinguished amateur career before turning professional at the age of 30, always played golf for the fun and the challenge and as usual she had everyone in stitches at the welcome dinner with her growling, deadpan, throwaway delivery.  “I’ve waited 29 years for this,” she said, “and I don’t want to have DNF (did not finish) beside my name – but I might have ROB (run out of balls).  It’s tough but I couldn’t pick a better golf course.”

Chicago GC dates from 1894, which makes it OTC (older than Carner).  It was one of the five founding clubs of the USGA (United States Golf Association), an organisation that tends to get more than its fair share of stick when it comes to US Opens, as at Shinnecock a few weeks ago but has been praised for getting everything right this week.

“We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else for this historic event,” said Mark Newell, president of the USGA, “and I want to congratulate and thank all of our competitors.  This week is for you.  This championship exists because of you.  You built the women’s game of golf and have inspired so many of us with your phenomenal talent and wonderful sportsmanship.  We are thrilled and hono(u)red to provide you with this new opportunity to play in golf’s ultimate test – a US Open championship.”

Carner, who had a birdie at the last hole to match her age in the first round, wasn’t overly impressed with her score but it must count as a sterling effort by someone who until this week hadn’t walked 18 holes since 2004!  That’s known as the curse of the golf cart.  And the woman known as Big Mama did have one criticism of the location:  “We go by the cemetery [to get here],” she said.  “They didn’t think of that…..”

Carner finishing in style with a birdie to match her age [USGA/Chris Keane]

Maureen and I spent a memorable evening with Carner when we were at Muirfield Village in 2009 and she was one of the two professional hono(u)rees at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament.  When she realised that Mo knew Marlene Streit, the diminutive Canadian who had been Carner’s friend since their tussles at the US Women’s Amateur, nothing would do JoAnne but to phone Marlene – it was after midnight – and say, “Hi Marlene, I’ve got someone here who’d like to talk to you….”

Jane Crafter (left), with Charlie Mechem, a legendary commissioner of the LPGA Tour among many other things and JoAnne Carner, legend [not sure who took the happy snap]

There are no flies on JoAnne, who’s as shrewd as they come but she’s open-hearted, generous to a fault and will talk to anyone, play with anyone, offering advice and sharing her knowledge whenever she thinks it’s needed.  She’s been an inspiration to many, not least Suzy Whaley, who may not be the most distinguished player competing at Chicago but found her niche as a teacher and has the distinction of being the incoming president of the PGA of America, the first woman to take on that role.

Whaley was a 20-year old amateur playing in her first US Women’s Open when Carner joined her for a practice round and gave her a playing lesson she’s never forgotten:  “She taught me shots.  She was amazing.  She was preparing for the US Women’s Open and she’s helping an amateur around the golf course.  My grandfather loved her and she sat with him on a bench while he waited for me.  Stories like that you don’t forget…..

“I cherish her.  I cherish what she’s done for golf.  I cherish the fact that she’s here.  She’s 79 years old and she is still fighting for women’s golf and that to me is something that is inspiring.  She’s paved the way for the rest of us and I hope to do the same.”

Suzy Whaley, president elect of the PGA of America with (left) honorary starter Nancy Lopez, legend. [USGA/Chris Keane]

Nearly 40 years ago, a 12-year old autograph-hunting Whaley was also inspired by the class and kindness of rookie sensation Nancy Lopez (nine wins, including five in a row, in 1979), who is the championship’s honorary starter.  Lopez was unable to play because of knee surgery but was revelling in the occasion and even threw the first pitch at a White Sox game earlier in the week.  Baseball’s not one of my strengths so I hope that’s the correct terminology – and team.  At least Nancy was on familiar ground, having once been married to a World Series winner.

There are 120 over 50s competing in Chicago, taking on a course that is famous for its huge, square greens – have a look at the USGA’s website to learn a bit more about those – and only a few of them will have a realistic shot at making history and becoming the first champion, the first name on the sparkling new trophy.  It’s come too late for the likes of Carner, Lopez, Pat Bradley, Sandra Palmer and Jane Blalock, a tireless, passionate advocate of a legends tour for women but at least they’ve lived to see it and play in it.

Elaine Crosby, of the United States, led the chase after a first round of 70, three under par, one shot ahead of a trio of very familiar names:  Trish Johnson, Liselotte Neumann and Laura Davies, with Helen Alfredsson a shot further back on 72.

Should they still be in with a chance on Sunday, at least none of them need be distracted by the World Cup final between France and Croatia.  No need for Laura to take a telly out on the course with her this time, as she did many years ago at Evian.  All our yesterdays indeed.

[With thanks to Jane Crafter, Aussie commentator, player and wine buff extraordinaire and the USGA’s website, in particular Ron Driscoll and Ron Sirak, for some of the tales.]