It’s hard to know where to begin this week but I’ll start at the top, with Trish Johnson, still competing fiercely in her 50s and winner of the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick in Indiana. It’s a tough Pete Dye course and Trish led from start to finish after an opening round of 67, five under par, in tough conditions. Only she and Michele Redman, who finished second after the 54 holes, were under par at the end, with TJ on 212, four under, three strokes clear.
First prize was $90,000, which is not to be sneezed at. “It feels fantastic, this is the reason you play golf,” Trish said as she clutched the trophy, proving that true competitors never die until they stop holing putts. Laura Davies, as excitingly erratic as ever, shared third place, recovering from a 1st round of 79 with a 3rd round of 68. Alongside her were Helen Alfredsson and Wendy Doolan. Liselotte Neumann was also up there, in sixth place..
Davies was the first Englishwoman and European professional (see Lacoste, Catherine, amateur, for an earlier, equally stunning champion) to win the US Women’s Open, in 1987, followed by Neumann, the darling of Sweden, in 1988. The incomparable Alfie really should have won the title at Crooked Stick in 1993 and what they all showed us was that Europeans could be not just good but world class. It was probably the beginning of the end of the American dominance of women’s golf because the rest of the world began to believe in herself. The Americans were still good but Annika Sorenstam arrived; and Se Ri Pak; and Karrie Webb; and so it goes on.
Lorena Ochoa, Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen, Yani Tseng, Shanshan Feng, Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn are just some of those girls who’ve grown up to show that golf, much maligned and mocked and, apparently, on its last legs, is a global game. The LET, reportedly in its death throes yet again, may be limping along but a few days ago the tour hit the headlines when a 14-year old Thai schoolgirl called Atthaya Thitikul won the intriguingly titled Ladies European Thailand Championship, to smash Ko’s youngest-ever-winner label. (The New Zealander was 15 plus when she won her first LET event.) I’m not a big fan of prodigies – feels a bit creepy at times, to be feting tots just because they’ve qualified for a golf tournament; I keep my fingers crossed, reserve judgement and hope that they’ll mature into vaguely functioning adults.One of the best examples of how to do it is Nancy Lopez, who is now 60, a grandmother (gasp) and recently married again, to Ed Russell, a long-time golfing buddy. Not long ago I mentioned her in glowing terms and was horrified when the person I was talking to looked at me blankly (not unusual) and asked, “Who’s Nancy Lopez?” (gobsmacking). Where to start? There have been better golfers – not many better people – but she’s on a par with the late, great Arnold Palmer when it comes to charisma and the effect she had on her sport. It’s also a bit alarming to realise that it’s 20 years since one of my all-time favourite moments in golf, when Nancy, darling of the home crowd at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, failed yet again to win the US Women’s Open title she craved.
Sounds cruel, doesn’t it? To be glad that Nancy, one of my all-time favourite people, lost her last chance to realise a lifelong dream. Like Sam Snead she was never to win her national Open. I’d have been delighted if Nancy had won because it would have been the stuff of fairy tales. She was cheered on by a huge, supportive, emotional crowd on the final Sunday but she came up against an implacable opponent who had her day of days and produced a performance that matched the major championship heroics of Jacklin, Faldo, Ballesteros, Woosnam, Langer, Olazabal, Rose, McIlroy, any US-major-winning European you care to mention.
Alison Nicholas, known as Big Al because she was, at most, 5-foot tall, was born in Gibraltar, brought up in Yorkshire and lived in Birmingham (West Midlands). She was a mainstay of Europe’s Solheim Cup team and by 1997 was a tough, experienced competitor who remained calm in the middle of the mayhem and held Lopez at bay. The American, three shots behind after three rounds, had three birdies in the first four holes and made up no ground. Nicholas had a birdie and pitched in for an eagle three at the 4th. Game on. As the round wore on, I ditched my neutrality and admitted that I really, really wanted Al to win. Nancy’s status as a legend was already assured but this was Al’s big moment and she proved up to it, taking home a trophy that was nearly as big as she was.This week the US Women’s Open Championship is at the Trump National course at Bedminster in New Jersey and the golf has already been overshadowed by talk of the potential presence of the POTUS. He’s expected to hotfoot it from France, where he’s been doing a bit of state visiting, so keep an eye on Twitter for the latest score on the presidential front. You may have to dig deeper for details of the golf but give it a go: try the USGA, LPGA and Golf Channel websites.
Finally, and on a different level altogether, I’d like to remember Louise Solheim, who has died at the age of 99. Wife of Karsten, inventor of the Ping putter, Louise was the Solheim family’s rock, a wonderful woman, kind, astute, quietly formidable and beloved by all who knew her.