U.S. Senior Women's Open: Hall of fame golfer JoAnne Carner, 80, a legend in the field
Eighty-year-old JoAnne Carner has two major goals at this week's U.S. Senior Women's Open: She wants to make the 36-hole cut to play the weekend -- and she wants to break her age in scoring.
"It sounds a whole lot better to shoot in the 70s than in the 80s," joked Carner, who has won a career 45 LPGA tournaments and eight U.S. Golf Association championships, including two U.S. Women's Open titles.
In 2018, at the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open (held for women age 50 and over), Carner shot a 79 in the opening round at Chicago Golf Club.
This week's tournament, at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, North Carolina, will likely be the Hall of Famer's last USGA championship. And if it is, she wants to go out playing the kind of fearless competitive golf she has been known for playing throughout her life, dating back to the days when she and her brother used to compete as kids back home in their Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Washington.
"I think it helps that I've always had a great ability to not analyze my last shot," she said. "I play positive golf and just think of where I want to hit it."
When it comes to her legendary competitive nature -- one that is widely respected by her LPGA Tour peers -- Carner just shrugs when asked where she developed her drive to win.
"I think you're born with it," she said. "Whether I was climbing trees, playing golf or whatever with my brother, I just loved doing it and always wanted to excel. It was to win, to a certain degree, but it was more about, 'Can I do this?'"
The youngest of five children, JoAnne Gunderson was the reason for her brother's last round of golf. The siblings were playing at a local nine-hole course one day when she drove hole-high into a bunker off the first tee, 80 yards longer than her typical drive.
Her brother completed the round and stomached his little sister's apparent growing prowess in the game. That was, however, it for him.
"He quit playing golf after that round and took up motorcycle riding," she said. "But I still had fun because I could play golf all by myself."
She didn't just play the game, she embraced it and often gobbled up her competition with her long drives -- atypical for a girl at that time. And even when her towering tee shots sometimes found spots beyond the fairway, her ability to execute trouble shots for timely saves moved her into a new level of elite junior and amateur players and eventually earned her the nickname as "The Great Gundy."
Carner's first USGA win came at the 1956 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship, an event at which she had finished as runner-up the year before. Then, from 1957 to 1968, she dominated the prestigious U.S. Women's Amateur with five wins and two runner-up finishes. She also earned membership on four USA Curtis Cup teams.
She is thought to be the first woman in America to earn a scholarship playing college golf and was the first blue-chip recruit for Arizona State University, which would go on to build a powerful NCAA Division I program with multiple NCAA championship wins.
In 1963, she married her swing coach, Don Carner, and began playing as JoAnne Carner. The two were married for 36 years until his death in 1999, at age 83. Her husband served as her business manager when she turned pro in 1970 at age 30, one year after she won the LPGA's 1969 Burdine's Invitational as an amateur.
Carner won her first major championship at the 1971 U.S. Women's Open, becoming the only woman to have won the U.S. Girls' Junior Amateur, the U.S. Women's Amateur and the U.S. Women's Open. She also joined elite company with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Carol Semple Thompson and Tiger Woods as a winner of three different USGA championships.
"She's truly a great, great champion," said Hollis Stacy, winner of six USGA championships, including three U.S. Women's Opens. "She's fearless."
With a second U.S. Women's Open victory in 1976, Carner amassed eight career USGA titles, becoming the winningest woman in USGA history. She currently trails only Bob Jones and Tiger Woods, each with nine USGA titles.
By that time, "The Great Gundy" had morphed into the LPGA's "Big Mama" -- a spirited, swashbuckling big hitter who took chances, scrambled for pars from impossible places and became known for kicking up her leg in animated celebration when faraway putts found their mark. Carner was fun to watch and LPGA fans knew the champion would give them something to cheer about whenever she played.
In 1982, she became the 10th player inducted into the LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fame, and in 1994, Carner served as captain of the winning 1994 U.S. Solheim Cup team.
But whether she's swinging a club or selflessly encouraging others -- as she is often known to do whenever her peers need swing guidance -- her fellow competitors hold Carner in the highest esteem.
"I'm honored to be competing with her again," wrote LPGA veteran Jane Crafter on Facebook, who will also play in this week's Women's Senior Open. "What an inspiration she is."
"She will play better this year," Stacy said. "You can count on that."
"She's the best," added LPGA veteran Helen Alfredsson, who played with Carner at last year's inaugural championship. "She never stopped competing. I've learned so much [from her] over the years."
Carner still plays some tournament golf on The Legends Tour and keeps her short game sharp with regular matches during the winter months against good friend Marlene Stewart Streit, a longtime top amateur from Canada with four USGA titles.
But while Carner admits her frustration in losing distance with her clubs and regrets that she has not walked more rounds in preparation, the South Florida resident said she would not miss playing this year's U.S. Women's Senior Open in her first year as an 80-year-old.
She also would never pass up playing at Pine Needles, formerly owned by her good friend, the late Peggy Kirk Bell, with whom she played amateur golf. The Carners would sometimes vacation at Pine Needles and enjoy spending time with Bell and her husband.
"I'll have fun one way or another and I'm looking forward to going there," she said. "But the old saying, 'Birdies are more fun,' is so true. I'll be looking for some."
Lisa D. Mickey has covered golf for Golf World, Golf For Women, The New York Times, the U.S. Golf Association, LPGA.com, Virginia Golfer Magazine and for various other publications and websites. She is based in Florida.