LPGA Takeaway: Catching Up with the Founders

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In 1950, 13 women signed the charter for the Ladies Professional Golf Association, creating the organization we know today. Much has changed since then, but their message, teachings and influence continue. Marilynn Smith, 87, is the author of “Have Clubs, Will Travel,” a book about her experiences as a professional golfer. Shirley Spork, 89, is still teaching at Monterey Country Club. Marlene Bauer Hagge, 82, played through the LPGA’s first five decades and is recognized as one of the top 50 players and teachers of all time. The three living founders discuss everything from starting the tour, to how things have changed and who they’re impressed by today.

Give me a brief synopsis about what life was like for you as a founder of the LPGA?

Smith: At the beginning of the tour, I was blessed to be a part of this group of 13 women that started the LPGA. Everybody had their own charisma and gave their talents to making it go. In 1932, Babe Zaharias was Olympic champion. And we only had, what, 12 tournaments the first year in 1950? The total prize money was $50,000. And Babe Zaharias, people came out to watch her play because she was recognized as an Olympic champion. And when she passed away in 1956, we almost went down the drain. So several of us really became public relations-minded. We would go to major league ball parks like Saint Louis, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. and hit golf balls out to center field and then get on the microphone and tell the people about the LPGA tournaments. “Come out and watch us play!”

Spork: There was a tour before the LPGA called the WPGA, so when I finished high school I wanted to go join that. Then that went defunct, so there was no tour. So in college, I was thinking, “Now what do I do with my golf?” And then along came the opportunity when Babe convinced the sporting goods company to start a tour.

Having graduated with teaching credentials, we ruled ourselves. Our executive board were us. We had to do everything. We had to mark the course, make the pairings, make the rules decisions. And Marilyn and I on Sunday night would stop at a pay phone to call Golf World, AP and UP to give them the results. So we had to do it all ourselves. As we grew, because at each tournament only having 13 players, we would ask the aspiring low handicap ladies to join us and play. Then we’d try to talk them into becoming a member. So in the beginning, to be a member all you had to do was you say, “I want to be a member.” And we made ’em a member. So that way we came to get numbers.

Bauer Hagge: I was only 15 when the LPGA was formed, but because of my dad’s teaching and everything, I was kind of an adult by the time I was 10 or 12. The ladies were wonderful, because they treated me as an adult, which was great. It was a great honor, a really great honor, and I was old enough to realize what an honor it was, to be part of what we all knew what gonna be something someday. We made no money, but we loved what we were doing and we knew we were doing something important. I started in 1950 and I retired in 1996, so I was on the tour for 46 years. I won 26 times.

How did you get involved in the sport?

Smith: When I was 10, 11 and 12, I was the pitcher, the coach and the manager of a boys baseball team. I had freckles and wore my baseball suit. And I came home from pitching one game one day and my mother said, “Well, how did you do today, dear?” I threw my mitt against the wall and I said, “Oh, a four-letter word beginning with ‘S’,” that I had learned from the boys on the sand lot. And she marched me into the lavatory and washed my mouth out with soap. When my dad came home she told him what I had said, he said, “We better take her out to the Wichita Country Club and teach her a more lady-like sport.” So that’s how I got started at age 12. And I thought, “Gosh, what a sissy game.” You know, you hit a ball and then chase after it.

I wanted to be a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. That was my dream, but that didn’t work out. But I found out golf was a very humbling game and one that you can play a lifetime.

Spork: We moved next to a golf course when I was 11 years old. The boys in the neighborhood caddied, and on Monday the local course was free. They told me if I had a club I could play with them. I found some golf balls and sold them back to a golfer, and I had a dollar bill. So I went down into Detroit to the sporting goods shop and was trying to buy a golf club.

At the dime store, they had a big barrel. There were tall ones and short ones and metal ones and wood ones, and I picked out the one that had a number ten on it. It was straight and short and shiny.

I was fortunate to be able to have other people interested in seeing this little redheaded kid trying to hit the golf ball. We didn’t have junior golf in Detroit, so the public links women allowed me to play with them when I was in the seventh and eighth grade.

Bauer Hagge: My father fell in love with it, and he studied it. He was a very smart man. He studied and studied it and he wanted to have two strapping boys, because the men’s tour was just starting to get started. And, well, he got two runt girls. [Laughs] That didn’t stop him. So, he wanted us to become golfers, because he knew at some point, women’s golf would catch on.

We were in Eureka, South Dakota. It was a town of 800 people. And he said, “I want you to be able to be independent, self-sufficient. I want you to earn your own living, so that the only thing money does for a person, it gives you freedom, freedom of choice.” That was his motivation.

Was there a particular moment in time when you thought, ‘Hey, this LPGA thing is really going to work out?’

Spork: When we left our country and went global, then it really set fire. But for us to become where we are, it’s through the efforts of people like Colgate-Palmolive and David Foster who had the first vision of having us on television and having a tournament where just the top winners played. And that was the Dinah Shore. Colgate-Palmolive helped build that golf course.

Foster wanted it to always be the week before the Masters, and they wore the uniform like the Masters. And to be on television, Colgate-Palmolive had to buy a huge sports network to get it on there. So it’s people like them that believed in us that allowed us to go forward.

Smith: Well, we had a lot of help. These smaller towns that couldn’t support the men’s tournaments, like Asheville, North Carolina, Santa Barbara and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And these people took us into their hearts and did a lot for us.

Do you have a favorite memory of your time on the LPGA?

Bauer Hagge: Louise Suggs just passed, as we all know, and we became really, really great friends. And we had such different personalities, although our values were the same. But early on, I think it was 1952, we played a tournament in Indianapolis, and I was leading by two, going into the tenth tee on Sunday, and I was paired with Louise. We paired in twosomes, because there weren’t that many of us. And it was a hole that was par 5, and the tee was elevated, and the little caddies used to stand down, so they’d see the ball in the rough. So, I hooked my ball into the rough, and I was playing a Spalding two. I stood over the ball, didn’t look real close cause I could tell it was a Spalding. I got to the green in two more shots, and I went to mark my ball, and I said, “Louise, this isn’t my ball.” She said, “Oh my God.” She said, “Well, that’ll be a two-shot penalty.” And I said, “I know.” And so we finished out, and she ended up winning the tournament by a shot over me.

And she came over to me and she said, “I will never forget that. I don’t know anybody else that would do that.” And I got tears in my eyes, and I said, because I admired her so much, “Louise, that means more to me than winning a tournament,” and we became great friends over that, ever after.

Smith: My fondest memory of playing on the LPGA tour are the fantastic people that I have met. I’ve been to New Zealand four times, three times to Australia and Japan. I’ve been in all 37 countries and 50 states and met the most wonderful people.

And that’s probably the joy. And, of course, I’m not as really competitive as I should have been but I enjoyed the traveling and meeting the people and trying to make the LPGA grow with some great people with us all together. So we did a lot of public relations work in addition to tryin’ to play a reasonable game of golf.

Spork: My interest is really in the teaching part of it. Because graduating with teaching credentials and playing on the tour. And, gosh, there wasn’t much money. And so I decided I think we need a teaching division. After three years of having it voted down, the fourth year when Marilynn Smith was president, in 1959, it passed by one vote to start the LPGA teaching division.

We now have 1,700 teaching members of Japan, Korea, and Europe. They have established enough players to have their own tour. That’s why we have all these other tours. Because of all these tours is why we have exposure and young women wanting to play the game of golf. They have choices. They can stay in their own country, or they can come back over here. I’m proud that we started it and helped this happen.

Which present LPGA player stands out to you?

Smith: Well, I think Lydia Ko and Inbee Park. I like their games. And Stacy Lewis is always in there in every match, always makes the cut. Those three, and Lexi Thompson, are coming along now. She is outstanding…and Brittany Lincicome. Gosh, I can name a lot!

Bauer Hagge: Michelle Wie is probably in my top-five best golf swings I’ve ever seen, in my opinion. And who’s the other one? Brittany Lincicome has a great golf swing. But she’s so fun-loving, and and hangs loose, too. I don’t know a lot of the Asian girls’ games, but I can tell you one thing: they have the work ethic. They have the work ethic, and that outlasts talent sometimes, yeah. My dad used to say, “Bread tastes sweeter by the sweat of the brow.”

Spork: Oh gosh. We’ve got Lexi Thompson, she hits it a ton. She used to hit it a ton outside, but now she hits it a ton down the fairway. We have Brooke Henderson from Canada, who is a beautiful young lady. We have wonderful players from Korea and Japan that are members of our tour. We have global tour to watch.

What’s the biggest difference you notice between the tour in your day and today?

Bauer Hagge: The ball, the clubs, the equipment is a big factor. It started to get that way toward the end of my career, and allowed me to stay on the tour for, I would say, about five more years. The girls are doing a great job, I must say. We sat on the back of the 18th green [at the Founders Cup], and every one of the girls, even if they didn’t have a good score, came over and shook our hands. And I thought that was lovely, because we used to have some girls, that if they three-putted a hole and a kid came out and asked for an autograph, they’d say, “I don’t have time.” And I mean, the public pays your way. You have to do things like that. It’s not all just ice cream and banana splits. [Laughs]

Spork: The game today is just a science, whereas we would hunt and peck and learn to do it ourselves. Equipment has advanced, and the golf swing has advanced. I’ve taught in seven decades, from the ’50s through the 2010s, and the golf swing has changed every ten years. I think that to be successful in any venture you do, you must have someone that believes in you. You have to have a mentor that tells you you’re good. If you don’t have someone to tell you you could do it, you’re not gonna do it.

Where do you hope to see the game go from here?

Spork: Today, we’re sitting on 350 active LPGA tour players. From 13 to 350, and 144 get to play. And then we have a Symetra Tour, and they’re having 24 tournaments in this country this year. And again, they only can play 144 players. There’s also numerous tours, and sometimes luckily, we begin to see more on television. We’re seeing more golf. Commissioner Mike Whan has made a connection with the PGA and we’re going to be able to have a tournament or two in connection together. We’re not playing at the same time, but we’re at the same venues. There’s a chance for more growth in the game.

Bauer Hagge: It’s been difficult, because it’s gone up and down and back and forth and everything. But right at the moment, with Michael Whan as commissioner — and it depends a lot on the vision the commissioner has — Michael is a very smart man, and he’s done wonders with making it a global tour. It’ll never, you know, play for as much, or be able to shoot as low as the men’s tour, because it’s unfair to compare. But it will be great. I want to say that we have to make fewer mistakes and technically have better golf swings than the men, because of the lack of strength.

Smith: Well, we have an incredible staff. To make it go, we have the most wonderful commissioner, Mike Whan. He’s been with us seven years and an incredible staff that work very well together. We’re getting some new tournaments, new sponsors and the prize money is bigger now than ever. It’s really a global tour, and the players are playing such great golf and they meet the public well. They’re good role models, most of them. And they take time to sign autographs and talk to the folks. I just am thrilled with the way that the organization is growing. A lot of people come up and say, “Gosh, what a great job you all did.”

When all is said and done, what’s one thing you would each take away from your time founding and playing on the LPGA?

Smith: What I take away from my playing on the tour, the friendships you make. That’s the whole thing in life and giving back. If you can help to give back to the game, it’s given me so much, so many blessings. And if I can contribute something back, I have a golf tournament that raises money for my golf scholarship fund. One part of my life was playing golf. And now mine is to try to help girls go to college.

Spork: Having had the opportunity to travel, meet and gain friendship. And have been in every state in this country, have traveled to Europe and given exhibitions in Europe. It gave me the opportunity to learn all about America, have friends all over the world. And if I’d stayed home and taught school, I would be retired from teaching school, but I would have never gone anywhere or seen anything.

Bauer Hagge: Gee, that’s a tough one. But I feel very, very fortunate that I was there. I loved what I did. I’ve been very lucky. It’s been a wonderful experience for me. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I would ask to have sunk a couple of more putts. [Laughs] I have a whacky sense of humor! No, but I don’t think that I would change anything, quite frankly. Nowadays, you get some perks and things like that, and meals. We had to pay for everything, everything. But we didn’t mind. We didn’t mind.

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