For the second time in three years, Martha Nause — the men’s and women’s golf coach at Macalaster College and a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour — will be the oldest player in the field at this week’s U.S. Women’s Open in Oakmont, Pa.
Nause, 55, had to win her sectional qualifier to get in, and did, shooting 75-74 at White Bear Yacht Club in May to bag the berth by three shots.
But with little fanfare, Nause tweaked the U.S. Golf Association last week by playing in a different kind of qualifier — for the men’s U.S. Senior Open, whose entry requirements do not specify gender. Again only the sectional winner made the Open field, and Nause’s 79 at Mendakota Country Club left her tied for 14th, seven shots behind winner Jay Norman of White Bear Lake. According to the USGA, Nause was the only woman in the country who attempted to qualify.
Subtly, Nause was trying to make a point. The USGA runs various championships for men and women, including a Senior Men’s Open and men’s and women’s senior amateurs. But women seniors do not have their own championship, which Nause and many of her peers on the Legends Tour for women 45-and-over would like to see changed.
“It is very strange to see that they have championships for just about everybody else,” Nause said before leaving for Oakmont. “It’s very weird.”
The Senior Open is the only men’s USGA championship event that does not have an equivalent for women.
Nause said women players began lobbying the USGA about 10 years ago for their own senior event, with no luck. At first, Nause said they were told there weren’t enough high-quality 50-year-old women playing to justify it. But with LPGA Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Pat Bradley, Betsy King and Patty Sheehan all past 50, the women seemingly can make a better case. “Now we’re all in our 50s, and they still haven’t done anything,” Nause said.
In an email to MinnPost, USGA spokesman Dan Hubbard explained it this way: “At this point in time, a Senior Women’s Open is not a viable event because there would not be enough depth in the field to support a proper and compelling championship. Moreover, the finances of such an event would have to be sustainable. We do not believe that there is enough financial support, for example, to guarantee a reasonable purse.”
I’m not buying the “depth of field” reasoning. According to the USGA’s website, the 2009 women’s Senior Amateur — which, presumably, a Senior Open field would partly draw from — attracted 502 entries. On the pro side, the Legends Tour website claims more than 100 players; 44 participated in its biggest event, the Tour Open Championship last November. Not all are 50 yet. You might not fill a high-quality 156-player field from that pool — that’s how many play in the men’s Senior Open — but 78 seems reasonable.
It’s worth noting that the inaugural men’s Senior, in 1980 at Winged Foot, culled 148 starters from 631 entries, and more than half of them shot at least one round in the 80s, according the USGA championship database. Nice “depth of field” there. (The next year the USGA lowered the age requirement from 55 to 50, allowing a 51-year-old Arnold Palmer to enter, win and give life to senior pro golf.)
But the financial argument is a tough one for the women to win. Will it draw? The Legends Tour is still trying to get a foothold, though this year’s six-event schedule — the closest stop to Minnesota is in Michigan — matches the largest since its founding in 2000.
Nevertheless, Nause and other women think the USGA needs a push. At last year’s Tour Open Championship, Nause said several players discussed trying to qualify for the men’s Senior. Nause was the only one who followed through.
Because of her coaching duties, Nause plays little competitive golf anymore. She won her only Legends Tour event in 2006; last year she entered two and won just under $11,000, with her best finish a tie for 14th. But the thought of going back to Oakmont motivated her. In 1992, she qualified for the U.S. Open there but withdrew with the first symptoms of Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a viral infection that left her unable to walk normally for months.
“When I saw it was at Oakmont, I said, ‘I’ve got unfinished business there,’ ” Nause said.
Being the oldest player in the field, just as she was at Interlachen in 2008, doesn’t bother Nause. “I think it’s funny,” she said. At least the USGA is pairing her with adults this time. She is teeing off today and Friday with former U.S. Amateur champion Jill McGill, 38, and Italian pro Giulia Sergas, 30.
Two years ago, Nause played in the same group with a 13-year-old, Alexis Thompson, who the year before became the youngest Women’s Open qualifier in history. Thompson was 4 when Nause retired from the LPGA Tour in 1999.
“I don’t feel old by any stretch of the imagination,” said Nause, who missed the cut in ’08. “I know I’m older, compared to Thompson and the 20-year-olds. I just have to chuckle and shake my head a little bit.
“The biggest weakness in my game is that I don’t compete much anymore, and so it takes awhile to get over the nerves and get back in a competitive frame of mind. My game is the best it’s ever been.
“I hope I can put it in the perspective of ‘I have another job, I don’t do this all the time.’ I hope to enjoy the week and play well.”