Bermuda Bay resident Laura Carson will be the lone local golfer in the 132-player field when she tees off in the 57th U.S Senior Women’s Amateur Championship, which starts Saturday at the Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club.
“It’s always harder to be the one – out there with everyone’s expectations and people rooting for you,” Carson said. “I experienced some of that a couple of weeks ago, during the qualifier at the Vero Beach Country Club.
“You hear it, you feel it, and there’s pressure because you want to do well,” she added. “But I’m excited about it. This tournament is a big deal, and getting to play it in front of people you know can only add to the experience.”
The same goes for her familiarity with Orchid Island’s Arnold Palmer-designed course, a picturesque layout that challenges golfers with water on 17 of 18 holes.
Though she is a member at Bent Pine, Carson said she has played at Orchid Island four times in the past four months. Also, her husband, Bruce, was the club’s first head golf pro when the course opened in 1991.
So she’ll have the home-course advantage.
“I feel I know the course,” Carson said. “Not like I know Bent Pine, but I’m comfortable at Orchid Island. It’s a great match-play course and it’ll be a wonderful championship.”
The Senior Women’s Amateur, scheduled to run through Oct. 11, will be the second United States Golf Association national championship played in the Vero Beach area. The 2015 U.S. Mid-Amateur was played at John’s Island.
Carson already has contributed to the cause: She has written a short article for the tournament program.
“The marketing people asked me to write something – about me and Orchid Island, being part of USGA events, how golf is a game for a lifetime,” Carson said. “I was very nervous about it, because a lot of the people I know are going to read it. But I sent it in and they didn’t change a word.”
Carson, 62, has an interesting story to tell.
She grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania, 90 miles south of Buffalo, N.Y., with three brothers who got her involved in athletics. During her teen years, her father advised her to focus on one sport, preferably one at which she could excel.
Carson chose golf, which she went on to play at Florida’s Rollins College, where she qualified for the NCAA Division National Championships as a senior. After graduating, she still played competitively as an amateur and had thoughts about turning professional.
To keep her hopes alive, she would find winter jobs that would allow her to play golf during the summer months. That’s how she ended up in Vero Beach, where she would meet her future husband – on the practice putting green at John’s Island in 1979.
“We both worked there,” Carson said. “Bruce was a pro in charge of tournaments and I was working in the pro shop.”
Shortly afterwards, they married and started a family, and Carson’s golf game went on hiatus. “I didn’t play much from ages 23 to 50,” she said.
She did manage to play her way into a couple of national championships in 1987 – the U.S. Women’s Amateur in Rhode Island and U.S. Women’s Open in New Jersey, where she birdied the first hole.
“My name was up on the leaderboard,” Carson said. “Not for long, but it was fun seeing it up there.”
She was 29, and for the next 20 years, she played golf only on rare occasions, such as when her father would visit. She did not play competitively.
Then, when she was 49, she attended a family reunion, during which she joined several of her relatives on the golf course.
“It was terrible,” Carson said. “I don’t have a classic golf swing. I have a very unique swing that needs repetition; it takes more practice and timing. And I hadn’t played.
“So I decided right then and there that I’d either take the game seriously again or I wouldn’t play at all,” she added. “And I decided to try again.”
She spent hours on the practice range and greens, refining her quirky swing and rediscovering her touch on and around the greens. Eventually, when she felt her game was ready, she began competing again.
“I played a lot of golf and it was a lot of fun,” Carson said. “It was all brand new again. I played as much as I could.”
Nowadays, she plays four days each week and practices on two others.
“I just love playing golf,” she said. “To me, it’s the greatest game there is.”
It was during her return to the game that she realized the abandonment of her dreams of playing professional golf was a blessing, because remaining an amateur provides her with more opportunities to compete.
In fact, she has played in 11 tournaments over the past 24 months, finishing sixth in the Florida Women’s Senior Open in August at the Quail Creek Country Club in Naples.
“I can play in a lot more tournaments, especially in my age group,” Carson said, “so I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Over the years, Carson and her husband moved from Vero Beach to Narragansett, R.I., to Lake Forest, Ill., before both retired and returned here in 2014. And when she tees off Saturday at the Senior Women’s Amateur, she’ll be the home team.
“I prefer stroke play, where it’s just me against the course, but match play is so much a part of the game that I’ve gotten better at it,” Carson said. “My golf game is good and I’m happy with it – but that could change next week.”