JoAnne Carner Appears at U.S. Women’s Senior

Carner Reappears, but Not to be Ceremonial

As I sat feeling sorry for the players of the women’s senior tour, having heard that Laura Davies was about to invade their space, another big hitting personality recently caught my attention. When “Big Mama” JoAnne Carner was in her heyday, I was aware of her presence, but I had not yet experienced my epiphany and subsequent preoccupation with the LPGA. However, Carner has been gracious enough to make another rare appearance this year, and I am able to at least in part catch up with her impact on the women’s game.

At the age of 79, Carner appeared at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at French Lick in Indiana, but I doubt that she was of any mind to act as a strictly ceremonial figure. She came to play golf, and wasn’t willing to show up until she had spruced up her game once more. Her first day at the Open was by her account a disappointment, shooting a 79. Most of us would be jumping up and down at shooting our age, but the former great’s view was different, suggesting that she had hit too many atrocious shots, and that she can, as a rule, play that course under par. Considering the string of birdies she carded on the back nine, I for one believe her. With Carner, nothing is ordinary, small, out of reach, or overly serious, especially the latter. She often remarks that if she gets too serious, she just can’t play. So, she chats with the crowd and in general has a great time with herself, the company, the scenery, and the ball.

Carner’s career shows great similarity to that of Davies. They are long ball hitters with a lot of physical strength. They have both notched a massive number of victories, and take on younger competition with considerable relish, often coming out on top. In both cases, when the time came to do the senior thing, they could still contend on the tour they just left. However, Carner may take the edge on overt showmanship, having been described as a mixture of Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson, with a little Shelley Winters thrown in. As a rule, she and her husband drove from tournament to tournament in an Airstream trailer, and had a ball doing it. That mode of transportation is no longer possible with women’s tournaments all over the world a week apart, but the memory of that day is refreshing.

In a rather brief span of twelve years, Carner, a native of the Seattle area,  won 43  times on tour, two U.S. Women’s Opens included. Becoming a pro, however, wasn’t always the idea, and her amateur career was unparalleled. She is the only woman to win the U.S. Girl’s Junior, the U.S. Women’s Amateur, and the U.S. Women’s Open. As for the U.S. Amateur, Carner drove the point home by winning it in 1957, ’60, ’62, and ’68. She was runner-up twice. Stopping along the way to play for Arizona State University, she managed to win the national intercollegiate championship as well. Winning the Burdine’s Invitational, Carner was the last amateur to win a pro LPGA event until the 15-year old Lydia Ko did it at the Canadian Women’s Open. She was also the first female golfer to become a millionaire by playing the game for a living.

Crediting Gordon Jenkins, John Hoetmer, Gardner Dickinson and Sam Snead as her primary influences, Carner shed the delicate  societal view of women in competition by developing a game filled with overt confidence, beginning with distance off the tee. In the words of Sandra Palmer, “The ground shakes when she hits it.” Her personal flair was couched in good humor and good will, but she was the first one to celebrate at the top of her lungs after a great shot or a great win .

I appreciate the chance to review Carner’s career and persona, now that I’m in a place to pay better attention. I also hope that the World Hall of Famer will make other appearances such as this. If she does, we would all do well to avoid the word “ceremonial.” A competitor’s heyday may pass, but I am certain that with a player such as “Big Mama”  Carner, the urge to compete does not.

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