SOUTHERN PINES — The scene on and around the practice green at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club on Monday resembled that of a class reunion rather than the preparation for a major championship.
There were almost as many smiles and hugs as putting strokes, as old friends and rivals reconnected and relived their past glory in advance of this week’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open.
The newly sanctioned event has given players over the age of 50 an opportunity to get back out on the course and be competitive again.
Just don’t be fooled by the early week camaraderie.
It will be just like old times once the tournament begins on Thursday and the competitive juices start flowing again. Or, as three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Hollis Stacy said, “That’s when the smiles come off.”
Stacy is one of eight former Open winners in the 120-player field. The others are Laura Davies, who won last year’s inaugural senior event in Chicago by a whopping 10 strokes, Amy Alcott, Jane Geddes, Juli Inkster, Liselotte Neumann, Jan Stephenson and Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner, still going strong at 80.
While some those legends and their contemporaries remain active on the LPGA’s Legends Tour, which features a limited five-tournament schedule, an even greater number has used the USGA’s establishment of a senior women’s championship to return to competitive golf for the first time in years.
It’s an addition that was overdue, considering that the men have been playing a Senior Open since 1980.
“We waited for a few years to get it,” said High Point native and North Carolina graduate Cathy Johnston-Forbes, whose only professional win was a major — the 1990 du Maurier Classic. “But it was well worth the wait.
“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to have a big event like this to play in again, where my family and friends could come watch. It’s so exciting.”
This year’s event is doubly special because of the venue at which it is being held. Pine Needles has become synonymous with women’s golf at the highest level, largely because of the influence of its late owner, Peggy Kirk Bell.
A championship-caliber player in her own right who bought the resort with her husband Warren in 1954, Bell’s efforts were instrumental in bringing three U.S. Women’s Opens to the Donald Ross-designed course with a fourth scheduled to return in 2022.
Although she died in 2016 at the age of 95, her presence still looms large throughout the lush resort.
“You can still picture her watching over everything,” said Neumann, the 1989 Women’s Open winner. “She is the reason we are all here.”
This week’s event was already going to be an unofficial tribute to Bell’s contributions to the game. But because of the timing, it has taken on even greater significance. Bell will be inducted this summer as a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019.
“Most of these players are the ones that played here in the Opens when Mrs. Bell was still alive, so for them it’s a chance to come back and honor her memory,” said Donna Andrews, who in addition to being a former touring pro with six LPGA wins to her credit, is also on staff at Pine Needles as its lead golf instructor. “You’ll hear a lot of players talking about her and all that she’s done for women’s golf.”
Among them is 1983 Women’s Open winner and fellow soon-to-be Hall of Famer Stephenson, who said she might not be playing this week if not for the connection with Bell.
“I hurt my hip about a month ago and I haven’t been playing,” she said. “I wanted to come here because of Peggy, and I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to. Both her and I are getting inducted into the Hall of Fame at the same time, so it’s really special. Peggy was such a gracious host every time we came here.”
Stephenson, who in her prime was known as much for her looks as her playing ability, is 67 now and more involved in other interests — including her own line of wines and rum — than golf.
But that’s a common theme among the over-50 players in the field at Pine Needles.
Whiteville native Maggie Will runs an online golf tournament search and schedule-building site for junior players, and Elaine Crosby is the president of a Catholic school in Michigan. Kelley Nittoli, meanwhile, is an assistant women’s golf coach at Conference USA champion Texas-San Antonio. Immediately after a practice session on the putting green Monday, Andrews packed up her bag and left to attend her son’s baseball game.
Those diverse pursuits have made for a much different atmosphere around the course than the one that existed when they were all in their prime.
“There’s so much going on when you’re playing every week that you don’t really get to enjoy things like you should. But since we don’t see each other that much anymore, I think we really do savor it now,” Stephenson said.
“This is a reunion for us,” Andrews added. “I was talking to (fellow player) Jane Crafter that we all needed to write a little bio so that we know what everybody is doing now. It’s a chance to see everybody again, get together, play and have fun.”
At least until the smiles come off on Thursday.