John McGrath

John McGrath: Remember Seattle area’s first women’s golf major? ‘The Great Gundy’ does

LPGA golfer JoAnne Carner tees off on the 10th hole during the final round of the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship May 2, 2004 in Stockbridge, Ga.. Carner, 65, was the oldest player to make a cut on the LPGA Tour.
LPGA golfer JoAnne Carner tees off on the 10th hole during the final round of the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship May 2, 2004 in Stockbridge, Ga.. Carner, 65, was the oldest player to make a cut on the LPGA Tour. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, which begins Thursday at Sahalee Country Club, will mark the second time the Seattle area has been home for a women’s major golf tournament.

If you ask JoAnne Carner what she remembers about the first one — the 1959 Women’s Western Open at the Rainier Golf and Country Club — she offers a rueful laugh.

“What do I remember? What I remember,” Carner said Sunday, “is that I choked.”

The former JoAnne Gunderson, a Kirkland native enrolled at Arizona State, had put herself on the leaderboard as an amateur. Except there were no leaderboards in those days.

“It was all word of mouth,” Carner said. “I got to the 18th tee and somebody in the gallery told me I was tied with Patty Berg.”

All the 41-year old Berg had done by then was accumulate 58 tournament victories — 15 of them majors — during a career that found her named The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1938, 1943 and 1955. The World Golf Hall of Famer had played a substantial role in the inception of the LPGA.

Informing a 20-year-old amateur of the fact she and Berg were even with one hole remaining was akin to reminding a pitcher working on a no-hitter that he needed only three more outs to accomplish the rare feat.

“It was the first time I had taken on the women’s pros,” Carner recalled. “I clunked the tee shot, and had no better luck with the second shot.”

Carner and Berg ended up in a second-place tie, six shots behind Betsy Rawls. That Carner’s prevailing memory of the 1959 Women’s Western Open is a couple of botched shots at the finishing hole underscores the exceedingly high standards she set for herself.

Carner was 14 when she won the 1956 Seattle City Public Links Championship. That was the same year the Lake Washington High student finished first in the PNGA Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Junior Girls tournaments, and placed second in the U.S. Women’s Amateur.

“The Great Gundy,” as she was known before marrying college sweetheart Don Carner, would thrive on the national amateur golf circuit until she turned 30. Her husband persuaded the former phenom to turn pro, not so much for the money but for the challenge.

Carner ended up with 43 LPGA tournament trophies along with a distinction — the only golfer to win the U.S. Junior Girls, the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open — as well as a new nickname, “Big Mama,” which referred not to her size but the distance of her 230-yard drives.

Carner needed only 12 years to earn eligibility for the World Golf Hall of Fame, which describes her as a combination of Babe Ruth, Babe Zaharias, Walter Hagen and Shelley Winters.

Connect the dots between three legendary athletes and the actress who portrayed a wily shipwreck survivor in “The Poseidon Adventure” and you’ve got, well, a personality in a sport not overpopulated with personalities.

Carner and her late husband traveled to events in an Airstream trailer. Not the most cost-efficient way of moving around the country, but the laughs and conviviality more than compensated for the gas bills.

In any case, something about the arrangement contributed to Carner’s remarkable durability. She qualified for an LPGA tournament cut at the absurd age of 65.

As with baseball, pro women’s golf has evolved from a predominately American occupation into an international circuit. Carner likes what she sees.

“It’s become a world-wide game,” she said. “The influx of Korean and Japanese players means the U.S. golfers can’t just coast in Sundays. They’ve got to work out and practice.

“Instruction has changed, too. When I was growing up, there were maybe two or three good teachers in the Northwest. Nowadays, it’s as if every club pro has some PGA experience.”

Carner, who long ago relocated to south Florida, visits the Seattle area on a semi-annual basis. She hopes to stay through the duration of the major tournament at Sahalee, but can’t commit because “there’s some business to take care of.”

Business, presumably, that won’t pack the electroshock-jolt a college student got upon learning she had the same score as the most accomplished champion in the history of women’s golf, with one hole to play.