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On a tour where the average age of winners is 25, and one-time prodigies like Lydia Ko talk about retiring at 30, playing golf at 50 must seem as far as away as the moon.
And yet, one of the coolest moments of 2021 came when a 50-year-old Annika Sorenstam bolted out of retirement to hoist a major trophy once more at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, with her doting family by her side.
“This could be our breakthrough,” said Hollis Stacy as she watched Sorenstam make her victory speech in front of a packed 18th green at Brooklawn Country Club.
The struggle for senior women’s golf to find its footing is long and ongoing. Many hoped Sorenstam’s decision to compete at Brooklawn would inspire those coming behind her to view the Senior Women’s Open as a must-win event.
But why must they wait until 50?
The Legends of the LPGA is a 45-and-over senior tour that consisted of only four tournaments in 2021 (including the USSWO). The Senior LPGA Championship, won by Trish Johnson, is open to players 45 and older.
Players must be 50 to compete in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, just like the men’s U.S. Senior Open. While it often makes sense to have symmetry between men’s and women’s championships, this isn’t one of those times.
Shouldn’t the age requirement of the senior tour be the same as its biggest championship?
It might seem strange to call a 45-year-old woman senior — and it is strange — but that shouldn’t outweigh the benefits of lowering the age limit.
“The arc of a woman’s career is very different from 30 to 45,” said 29-year-old Amy Olson. “If you have kids, your life looks very different to a man’s. That’s when they’re peaking, and that’s when you’re stepping away.”
Annika Sorenstam with her family, husband/caddie Mike McGee, son Will, and daughter Ava after she won the 2021 U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn. on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021. (Darren Carroll/USGA)
Girls play up in big events far more often than boys. The U.S. Women’s Amateur frequently looks more like an AJGA event than an NCAA Championship. It’s not unusual for teenagers to win on the LPGA, and most fade away from the tour before they reach the age of 40.
Consider that the average age of the U.S. Open field the last 10 years has been 31.3, compared to a Women’s Open average of 25.6 in the same timeframe.
This year, U.S. Women’s Open winner Yuka Saso was the youngest player to win on the LPGA at 19 years, 11 months, 21 days, while Ryann O’Toole was the oldest at 34 years, 6 months, 4 days.
Only five players 40-and-over competed in 10 or more events on the LPGA in 2021. Yet in 2001, the 40-and-over set actually won four times. What’s considered a “peak” age for the women’s game increasingly skews younger and younger.
Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship at age 50 as well as four of six starts on the PGA Tour Champions in 2021. And there’s plenty to play for in senior men’s golf. Twice as many players on the Champions Tour (31) crossed the $1 million mark in earnings this season than on the LPGA (15).
The ageless Bernhard Langer, 64, started his career on the PGA Tour Champions in 2007 and has amassed $31,908,626 in earnings on that tour alone. Staggering considering that Sorenstam leads the all-time money list on the women’s side at $22,577,025.
Lowering the U.S. Women’s Open age limit to 45 would entice more players to stay sharp longer or perhaps come back to the game more quickly after having kids. The Legends of the LPGA could certainly use the carrot of the USSWO to get more players on their tour and, hopefully, entice more sponsors.
Sorenstam earned a spot in the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open field at Pine Needles with her victory at Brooklawn but said she isn’t yet sure if she’ll compete. While her son Will certainly wants her to be there, Sorenstam noted that the Scandinavian Mixed event in Sweden, which she co-hosts, will be held the following week.
She is, however, a lock to defend her Senior Women’s Open title Aug. 25-28 at NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio. When asked if she thought the age limit for the championship should be lowered, Sorenstam said in an email that, “if you allow younger players to play, it will naturally phase out some of the older players who paved the way for us. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
It’s difficult, however, to see it making a difference to players like Hollis Stacy, Amy Alcott or JoAnne Carner — whether or not 45-year-olds are in the field. Such pioneering legends are exempt and would play regardless, ultimately teeing it up for the same reason as Sorenstam — to support the event.
Laura Davies, the event’s inaugural winner in 2018, skipped the Amundi Evian Championship this year to make sure no travel snafus or COVID-19 tests could keep her from playing at Brooklawn.
“I withdrew from a major,” said Davies, “which if you’d have told me that 10 years ago, I’d say don’t be ridiculous, but that’s how important this one is to me and all the other players.”
Which is why it’s so important to draw the best field possible and recognize where men and women differ.
It’s time to change the rules.