photo courtesy of USGA
When Carol Semple Thompson teed off in the first round of stroke-play qualifying at the 59th U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur at the Lakewood Club in Point Clear, Alabama, she added another line to her already glittering resume.
It marked her 118th start in a USGA championship, the most by any man or woman in history.
A lifelong resident Sewickley, Pa. near Pittsburgh, Semple Thompson, who will turn 73 at the end of October, is arguably the most decorated woman in the history of American amateur golf. Her playing record features seven USGA titles (one U.S. Women’s Amateur, two U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateurs, four U.S. Senior Women’s Amateurs). She also played on 12 Curtis Cup teams and served as a non-playing captain twice.
Just five individuals have won three different USGA titles; Semple Thomson is part of a list that includes JoAnne Carner, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.
She was enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2008.
Semple Thomson attributes her longevity in part to the fact she has never sustained a golf-related injury but in large measure because she maintained her amateur status.
“If I had (turned professional) there would have been so much more pressure” she said. “An amateur I was just able to win trophies for honor and glory. I didn’t have to make my living doing it.”
Semple Thompson also points to the fact that she played other sports into adulthood. In high school, and later at Hollins College she was a three-sport athlete (field hockey, basketball, lacrosse). She also played some tennis. Golf was reserved for the summer months.
“I loved all the sports,” she recalls. “I wanted to play all those team sports as long as I could.”
Although she started playing golf casually when she was no older than eight and took lessons from legendary professional Bobby Cruickshank, it was only after she finished college that Semple Thompson turned her full attention to the sport. But her affinity for the game was apparent early on.
As a 16-year old she defeated her mother Phyllis, an accomplished player in her own right, to win the Western Pennsylvania Women’s Championship. She briefly considered turning professional.
Emphasis on ‘Briefly.’
Carol Semple Thompson has won seven USGA championships
Semple Thompson grew up with USGA blood in her veins. Her father, Harton S. Semple, served the organization for many years, including two years as its president (1974-75). Her mother served on an assortment of USGA committees.
Harton Semple offered his daughter a proposition; he would support her financially for a year if she retained her amateur status. So, Carol spent a year in Florida working on her game. But the following summer she struggled in competition.
“The next summer, I was just a basket case,” she said. Because I wasn’t used to playing golf full time.”
Spending time working a hypnotist reenergized Semple Thompson’s golf career. Her regimen included listening to tapes each night.
“That really turned it around for me,” she said. “That taught me to visualize the flight of the ball and to visualize the nerves draining out of my body. It was great.”
In August of 1973 Semple Thompson, then 24, defeated Anne Quast Sander 1 up to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Montclair (N.J.) Golf Club. It is perhaps the most memorable moment of Semple Thompson’s golfing life.’”
“Winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur was probably the pinnacle for me,” she said, “because it was my first big championship. My mother was really sick in the hospital. My father was Vice President of the USGA and when I did win, he was able to present the trophy to me. The President of the USGA (Lynford Lardner Jr.) was there but he stepped aside and my father was able to present the trophy to me which was surreal really.”
Semple Thompson didn’t win another USGA championship for 17 years but she certainly busy during that time. In 1974, she won the British Ladies Amateur before making her initial appearance in the Curtis Cup at the San Francisco Golf Club for Captain Sis Choate.
She would become a fixture in the American contingent for three-and-a-half decades establishing records for Cup appearances by a player (12), and most matches won (18 incl. all formats).
Semple Thompson says the Curtis Cup was the foundation for her career success. “Once I made my first Curtis Cup team, I wanted to make more and more,” she said, “and I think of that was my impetus, to make those national teams and also to be able to get into lots of USGA championships based on exemptions, which is no longer the case now; a lot of people have to qualify for a lot of these championships.
“When I was coming up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, if I made a Curtis Cup team, that gave me an exemption into the U.S. Women’s Amateur, the U.S. Women’s Open and the (Women’s Mid-Amateur). Some years, I’d play in four or five USGA championships.”
Semple Thompson won her second USGA championship in 1990 when she claimed the U.S, Women’s Mid-Amateur crown. She won a second Women’s Amateur seven years later. In 1999 she won the first of four consecutive U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur titles.
Semple Thompson’s family and personal history were part of the tapestry of her on-course success. Her first Women’s Mid-Amateur win, in the fall of 1990 came at her home club, Allegheny Country Club, six-and-a-half months after her father’s death.
Twelve years later the Curtis Cup, Semple Thompson’s last as a player, was contested at Fox Chapel Golf Club in Pittsburgh. Semple Thompson was the veteran on a team on a team of college-age players.
“I was 53,” she said. Everybody else was 20 or 21. They were great, they really took me into their fold and made me feel very much a part of the team.
“It all very sentimental because I was the hometown girl it was really a neat experience.”
Semple Thompson concluded her final Curtis Cup match by rolling in a 27-foot putt at the final green to halve her match and assure that the U.S. would retain the Cup.
“It’s amazing when I think about these experiences,” she said. “There’s always a lot more pressure when you’re playing at your home club I think.”
Semple Thompson went to serve as the Curtis Cup Captain in 2006 at Bandon Dunes and two years later at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Looking back on her career, Semple Thompson believes she was a good fit for her era.
“I think that my time was perfect for being an amateur,” she said. “I started to play competitively in the 60s, and amateurs were still revered then. In the 70s they were still revered. Then, things started to change in the 80s on forward.”
Semple Thompson's appearance in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club this summer (she has a five-year exemption by virtue of being a past Women’s Amateur champion) marked her return to competitive golf after a self-imposed three-year exile. She spent that time as a caregiver to her husband Dick, who passed away in April after battling Parkinson’s Disease. The couple was married almost 38 years and Dick Thompson was an unabashed supporter of his wife’s golf career and ambitions.
“It was a great marriage,” Carol says. “He was the best. I’ve always been very thankful for the wonderful man he was.”
While Semple Thompson missed the cut at the Senior Women’s Open, it was a memorable experience nonetheless.
“I did not play well,” she said, “but I sure had a good time. It was so much fun seeing people I hadn’t seen for 10 and 20 years.”
Semple Thompson remains an unabashed supporter of amateur golf. Her respect for those who came before her and those she competed against is undiminished with the passage of time.
“I think really my role models were the players I grew up with,” she said, “like Dot Porter, Helen Sigel Wilson, and those people. They were amateurs and I loved the way they lived their lives and played their golf.”
THE CAROL SEMPLE THOMPSON FILE
Born: October 27, 1948 in Sewickley, Pa.
Resides: Sewickley, Pa.
College: Hollins College
* U.S. Women’s Amateur Champion: 1973
* U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Champion: 1990, 97
* U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Champion:1999, 2000, ’01, ‘02
* USGA Championship Starts:118 (all-time record)
* Curtis Cup Appearances: (12) 1974, ’76, ’80, ’82, ’88, ’90, ‘92 ’94, ’96, ’98, 2000, ‘2002
* Women’s World Amateur Team Appearances: (5) 1974, ’80, ’88, ’92, ‘94
* Curtis Cup Captain: 2006, ‘08
* Bob Jones Award (2003)
* World Golf Hall of Fame Inductee (2008)