The long and illustrious career of JoAnne (Gunderson) Carner, known widely as the "Great Gundy," extended for more than 40 years. It was during her salad days, as a Northwest native and an amateur from 1954 to 1962, that she laid a foundation which led her to become one of golf's all-time greatest players.
In 1957 the golf world was curious about a foursome of, what one pundit called, "the native fairway femmes from the Northwest." Never before had any area of the United States produced four contemporary golfers of the caliber of JoAnne Gunderson, Ruth Jessen, Pat Lesser and Anne Quast.
While still attending Kirkland's Lake Washington High School, JoAnne Gunderson won the Seattle City Public Links title at age 14. Adding luster to that year, 1956, she also captured the PNGA Women's Amateur crown, won the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship, and was runner-up to Marlene Stewart in the U.S. Women's Amateur.
At this time other young Northwest women were also making their marks. Ruth Jessen won the PNGA Women's crown in 1954 and again in 1955. Jessen teamed with Anne Quast to win the 1956 Hollywood Women's International Four-Ball. While a 19-year-old University of Washington student, Anne Quast climaxed a great 1956-1957 season by receiving the Dorothy J. Manice Trophy, honoring her as the nation's outstanding female amateur golfer of 1956. Quast's biggest plum in 1956 was winning the Women's Western Amateur. During the winter circuit, she also won the Helen Lee Doherty Invitational by defeating Marlene Stewart, the reigning U.S. Women's champion. Pat Lesser's amazing career is discussed earlier.
Each of these highly accomplished players is an intriguing story, but it's clear that Gunderson's career progressed more quickly and was more colorful. She also developed into a championship golfer in a more unusual manner than her counterparts from the Northwest.
The "Great Gundy's" Early Days on the Links
Gunderson's first exposure to golf was a simple matter of economics. While a nine-year-old, she and her brother Bill discovered they could earn cash by selling golf balls they found near Kirkland's Juanita Golf Course, located about a half-mile from their home. Their best customer was Mrs. Neva Farrar, the course's owner. As an occasional bonus for turning in the balls, Mrs. Farrar would give JoAnne and Billy beat-up old clubs which they'd use to hit any unredeemable culls into Lake Washington. (When she won her first U.S. Women's Amateur crown, Gunderson credited Mrs. Farrar for providing the early encouragement to conquer golf.)
Unlike JoAnne's contemporaries, there was no parental pressure to play golf. Neither Myrtle nor Gus Gunderson had anything to do with the sport; with five children to feed, Gus was busy enough as a carpenter.
Brother Billy, whom JoAnne joined in neighborhood games of baseball, basketball and football, was her companion on the golf course. Over their first three years of playing golf together, the Gunderson kids were unsupervised on the course. Billy soon became JoAnne's biggest fan and critic. At one point, Billy lost patience with his younger sister, asserting, "You'll never be a golfer 'cause you can't hold the club right!" This proved to be a challenge to JoAnne. Although she was proficient in other ball games, golf was not so easily mastered.
When Gunderson was 13, Gordon Jenkins, Juanita's professional, asked if she would like to take some lessons. She described Jenkins' early tutelage as a big boost. "Right away, I made a big improvement, and my scores dropped into the low 80s."
After a year of coaching, Jenkins encouraged his pupil to enter the Seattle City Women's Public Links tournament. Upon winning the event at the tender age of 14, Gunderson became the youngest city champion. "That grip problem which Billy had scolded me about was gone," she recalled. "And my long game started to shape up. I was averaging 226 to 230 yards off the tee. I was five feet four inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Before starting to study with Mr. Jenkins, I had been slugging the ball much too hard. He taught me to hit for accuracy rather than distance."
While Gunderson's long game was improving, her short game was a nightmare. Three-putt greens were commonplace. "I decided that I had to work on putting. So I'd place a drinking glass on the green or on the carpet at home and then putt the ball into it from various distances. Later on, I got one of those electric putting gadgets that made the ball pop out and roll back."
Even Gunderson's non-golfing mom got into the instruction mode. After watching Sam Snead putt during a telecast, Mrs. Gunderson noted that both of Snead's thumbnails were pressed down into the grip directly opposite his body. Following her mother's advice to do the same, she duplicated Snead's grip and followed up with a lot of practice. By 1957 Gundy determined that "putting is now the best part of my game."
Her Sand Point Mentor
In 1955 Gunderson began interacting with many of Seattle's best players, including Jean Perry, Anne Quast and Ruth Jessen. She closely watched how they played, searching for possible ways to improve her game.
Upon winning the Washington State Women's Public Links Championship in 1954, Gunderson was offered a junior membership at Seattle's Sand Point Country Club. The membership came about after Sand Point's head pro, John Hoetmer, had seen the youngster in competition and was impressed by her length off the tee. Hoetmer knew the importance of Gunderson's joining a private club, as she'd be eligible for USGA-sponsored events as well as PNGA championships (Juanita Golf Course was not a PNGA-member club). He went to Sand Point's Board of Directors and asked about Gunderson being allowed to play at the club if he could find a couple to "adopt" her. The board accepted the proposal, and Sand Point member Al Burnham and his wife agreed to do so.
During her Sand Point years, Gunderson lived with her parents in Kirkland while Sand Point's Women's Division helped prepare her for tournaments. The women members hand-sewed proper golf attire for Gunderson to wear, helping her to meet USGA requirements and be ready for competitive golf.
Of coaching his budding prodigy, Hoetmer said, "JoAnne's long game was fine. We did a lot of work on her short game. We made it more of an arm effort than a 'wristy' swing." Teaching at Sand Point in those days was tough. "We didn't have the practice area we have now. It used to be alongside the 17th hole in the trees. My wife Alice used to stripe JoAnne's practice balls with red paint so they wouldn't get lost with the members'. We never practiced between one and three o'clock in the afternoons because of member play."
Hoetmer recalled Gunderson's work ethic. "JoAnne was a most avid practicer, even while attending Kirkland High School. She would practice in rain, sleet or snow." Hoetmer was viewed as a "taskmaster" with Sand Point's younger players. "I wouldn't let juniors play by themselves until they could break 90. The rest of the time they had to play with their parents." Of tutoring his daughter Judy and the great JoAnne Gunderson Carner, Hoetmer said, "My role with Judy and JoAnne worked out so well. I was lucky."
Besides Gunderson and Judy Hoetmer, who won the Women's National Collegiate Championship while attending the University of Washington in 1961, John Hoetmer coached Ruth Jessen and Pat Lesser. Hoetmer was JoAnne's tutor for several years, before she changed postal codes and launched her Hall of Fame career on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour.
Taking Hoetmer's Instruction to Heart
Under Hoetmer's watchful eye, Gunderson, another star from the Northwest, shined on the national scene in 1955. At the Washington State Women's Golf Association Championship, Gunderson and Anne Quast squared off in their first-ever final. The match would be frequently repeated on many courses throughout the United States over the next 10 years. In this first encounter, Anne Quast emerged the victor. At the 1955 PNGA Women's Amateur Championship on her home course – Sand Point, JoAnne lost in the third round to eventual champion, Ruth Jessen. In failing to finish first in these two events, Gunderson continued a trend of other PNGA Men's and Women's Amateur Championships in which only a handful of players won the event in his or her inaugural attempt.
In the Western Junior Girls' at Lake Geneva Country Club in Wisconsin, Gunderson avenged her Washington defeat by upsetting Quast, the reigning Western Junior Girls' champion, in the final, 4 & 2. Gunderson's introduction to national competition that summer found her going against another rising star from the Pacific Northwest, Carole Jo Kabler. At the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship at Florence Country Club in South Carolina, Gunderson lost 4 & 3. All in all, her first year of top-flight competition showed the budding golfer wasn't far from reaching full bloom.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime First
In 1956 JoAnne brought several trophies back to her Kirkland home. Indeed, she accomplished a feat not since duplicated in PNGA Women's Amateur Championship history. She won both the PNGA Junior Girls' crown as well as the PNGA Women's Amateur Championship in the same year.
When JoAnne walked back to the clubhouse after defeating Kabler in the 1956 PNGA Women's Amateur Championship, she wore an ear-to-ear grin. Well she should. After all, she'd successfully avenged a defeat the previous year to Kabler in the U.S. Girls' Junior. Her win was also satisfying because she overcame some outside distractions. JoAnne arrived at the Point Grey Golf & Country Club on Monday without a place to stay. Another frustration was that her championship entry form never arrived. Luckily, a maid offered her accommodations at the club, and the Kirkland lass was able to enter the event.
With considerable resolve, JoAnne set out to demolish the field, with her long drives and incredible short game leading the way. During the week she was never down to any opponent. But another crisis arose when Gunderson found that her wallet was stolen during the final match. Fortunately, members of the event's second course, Marine Drive Golf Club, rallied to help her.
Taking on the Nation
Moving eastward after her PNGA successes, Gunderson lost to Clifford Anne Creed, 3 & 2, in the Western Junior Girls' Championship at Chicago Golf Club. In typical fashion, she turned the tables two weeks later at the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship at Heather Downs Country Club in Toledo, Ohio, defeating Creed, 4 & 3, for the title. Only one opponent in the tournament managed to take her past the 15th hole. Gunderson continued to rock opponents with intimidating power and finesse.
Gunderson nearly reached the finals of the 1956 U.S. Women's Amateur at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis, losing to Marlene Stewart, 2-up, in the semifinals. With this victory, Stewart became the first Canadian to win the U.S. Women's Amateur crown. At that time, Stewart was also the reigning Canadian and U.S. Women's Collegiate champion. Although only 17, Gunderson was a seasoned match-play competitor, but her casual attitude against Stewart showed immaturity. Seemingly bored by the match, on one hole Gunderson chose to lie down near the green with her head resting on her golf bag. Over the next few years, her casual approach was seen as she joked with galleries and used expressive body language in coaxing putts to drop. Yet Gunderson was always a fierce match-play competitor.
JoAnne won the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship in 1957, but had little success in other events. When asked about her sub-par performances that year, she responded, "Basically, I'd always lose to players I could beat very easily. However, I'd seldom lose to a good player. I'd be up for that."
In the 1957 U.S. Women's Amateur at Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento, Gunderson conquered all the formidable opponents in her path, becoming the second-youngest women's champion since Beatrix Hoyt won the title in 1896 at age 16. Her closest call came against the 1957 U.S. Girls' Junior champion, Judy Eller, who eventually lost to Gunderson on the 20th hole.
Defending champion Marlene Stewart lost to Oregon's Carole Jo Kabler, 5 & 4. Gunderson's foe in the final, Ann Casey Johnstone, had defeated Kabler in the semifinals. Johnstone seemed to enjoy her opponent's antics when she commented, "This Gunderson girl is a real amateur. She means it when she says she plays for fun. She'll applaud – literally – good shots by her opponent. She'll wish rivals' shots over bunkers and water hazards. She never stops smiling." For winning the U.S. Women's Amateur, Gunderson was selected as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer "Man of the Year" in 1957.
Gunderson would raise the U.S. Women's Amateur trophy five times during her illustrious career, a victory total second only to the great Glenna Collett Vare, who won on six occasions. Her most convincing victory in a final was during her third championship in 1962 at the Country Club of Rochester in New York. She defeated Ann Baker, 9 & 8, making eight threes – including four birdies and an eagle – while running away with the title.
In capturing her fifth title in 1968 at Birmingham Country Club in Michigan, JoAnne Carner (she had married Donald Carner by then) defeated her Northwest rival, Anne (Quast) Welts, 5 & 4. Incredibly, over a 13-year period, one or both of these two greats played in the final match of the U.S. Women's Amateur 11 times.
In her book, The Illustrated History of Women's Golf, Rhonda Glenn recalls a humorous incident that occurred during the 1963 U.S. Women's Amateur at Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown, Massachusetts. "The players' dinner in the old clubhouse was a warm, lovely affair. The committee in navy blazers at the head table. Candlelight. Harp music. Inspiring speeches about sportsmanship and the glories of amateur golf. The revered Joe Dey was master of ceremonies. This was our national championship, a time to be in awe.
"As defending champion, Gundy was asked to say a few words. She walked staidly to the head table. She was lovely and slim in the candlelight, and her blonde hair gleamed. Our champion. The committee smiled expectantly. The room hushed. Gundy turned up one corner of her mouth in a wry smile, then her voice rumbled up from Bankhead depths. 'A lot of people have noticed that I've lost a lot of weight,' she said quietly. 'Well it's because I'm in love.' We held our collective breaths. 'Yeah, I wanna tell you,' she bellowed, 'I'm in love with myself.'
"She then regaled us with just how she fell in love with herself after her third national championship, and the positive aspects of falling in love with oneself. We almost fell on the floor. Loosening his stripped tie, Joe Dey threw back his head and roared. It was, Gundy reminded us, only a game."
In 1958 JoAnne played in her last PNGA event. For the first time, the Women's Amateur Championship was held entirely on one course, Tacoma Country & Golf Club. The format was greeted with much enthusiasm by the competitors, who previously had been forced to play on the course used for the Men's Amateur Championship without benefit of a practice round. JoAnne defeated perennial PNGA champion, Edean (Anderson) Ihlanfeldt, in the final on the 37th hole.
Moving Out of the Northwest
Unlike Pat Lesser, Grace DeMoss and Edean Anderson, Gunderson lacked the financial means to participate on the Florida circuit, and scheduling conflicts made it impossible for her to compete locally. In 1958 JoAnne received a scholarship to attend Arizona State University. While there, she captured the 1960 Women's National Collegiate Championship.
Despite the relatively brief time she played in Northwest amateur events, JoAnne Gunderson's record will be hard to duplicate. Before she went on to a Hall of Fame career in the professional ranks, Gunderson may have set an unreachable standard in amateur play. The PNGA played a key role in her early development by providing first-class championships where she could hone her skills in a relative familiar environment.
Rhonda Glenn summarizes JoAnne Gunderson Carner's personality and career the best. "She shone as an immense talent and unique personality, with her chorus-like kicks, wisecracks and her deep, rumbling Beatrice Arthur voice. But in the heat of a tight match, when stoicism counted, she sailed down the fairway, head high and elbows out, serene as the Queen Mary."