How the LPGA founders plotted, hustled and fought to build a tour up from golf’s back roads
Words by Carrie SchraderPhotos by Courtesy of LPGA unless otherwise credited
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The LPGA’s origin story can read like a pitch for daytime television: Facing seemingly insurmountable odds, a talented and tenacious group of women overcome cultural stereotypes and social prejudice to build what is now the largest women’s sports organization in the world.
The refined professionalism of the modern LPGA Tour can paint too thick a veneer over the gritty formative years, smoothing over incredible stories and even obscuring the sheer magnitude of the accomplishment.
The 13 founding members of the LPGA were exceptional golfers. But the real story, the part many don’t often get to see, is everything else they had to become. These women were hustlers. They were roadies, promoters, organizers and salespeople. They were cop dodgers, art directors, rules officials and exhibitionists. They were fighters, many times among themselves. Above all, they were as dogged as they were talented, and they needed equal parts of both in their quest to make women’s professional golf take root and blossom.
So you can forgive Louise Suggs for being fiercely protective of the organization she helped create. Suggs personified the 12-gauge grit of the founders, and Atlanta-based filmmaker Charlie Fisk experienced that abrasiveness up close the first time they interacted.
“I had been warned about her before I made that first call,” recalls Fisk, who intended to pitch Suggs the idea of shooting a documentary of the story of the founders. “Louise answered the phone with a curt ‘Hello, who’s this?’ Before I could get through explaining who I was and what I wanted to do, she just hung up. I was shocked.”
But Fisk and her team knew a few things about perseverance as well, and they would eventually discover the proud, emotional side of the remarkable woman known as “Miss Sluggs.” They would also help uncover one of golf’s wildest underdog stories.
Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden
As recently as the 1940s, women’s professional golf simply didn’t exist. Several private amateur invitational events popped up across the country during the golf boom of the 1920s, but women could compete only for trophies, not cash. That was the extent of the playing opportunities.
The amateur world was considered an acceptable place for women to compete as a hobby, but to make a living as an athlete—this transgressed the confines women were expected to occupy. The ideology of the era was that girls didn’t get paid to play and nice girls didn’t expect to.
Despite that, young women all over the country were falling in love with the game. With increasing interest and growing talent, they began chafing at the cultural expectations of the female athlete.
These expectations were so ingrained in pre–World War II America that the caddies at Bonnie Brook Golf Course outside of Detroit wouldn’t even help Shirley Spork take up the game. They told her they’d let her play with them if she got her own club. A determined and independent 11-year-old, Spork hopped a streetcar into downtown Detroit, went into Griswold Sporting Goods and bought the first club she saw, for $1. She arrived back at the course and showed the boys her new club.
“They all laughed at me because it was a putter and the putter is the last club you use to win or lose the tournament,” Spork remembers. “So I started at the end and tried to get to the beginning.”
The situation was the same down in Kansas. At 10 years old, Marilynn Smith’s father wanted her to replace baseball with a more “ladylike sport” like golf. But that ladylike sport was considered too much of a gentleman’s game for her to pursue in college. When she enrolled at the University of Kansas, there wasn’t even a women’s golf team to join.
Her father approached the athletic director about getting some expense money for her to play in the National Intercollegiate Golf Tournament at Ohio State University. Smith recalls the AD’s reply: “Mr. Smith, it’s too bad your daughter is not a boy.”
Of this tide of young ladies making their names in amateur golf, Suggs might have been the most promising. She was born on Sept. 7, 1923, in a small town outside Atlanta. Her father, a retired baseball player who ran the local golf course, put a club in her hand at an early age. He believed in competition, doing the right thing and following the rules no matter the consequences. His outlook influenced his daughter greatly, turning her into a tough—some would later say self-righteous—competitor.
“On the course, I had no friends,” Suggs recalls. “Anybody that I played was an enemy. Made no difference who it was. And it is my nature, competitive nature, to win.”
By the age of 20, Suggs had already won most of the amateur golf championships at home and abroad, emerging as one of the great female players of the era.
“She sort of ruled the roost of amateur golf on both the U.S. side as well as over in the United Kingdom,” says Wayne Aaron, who oversees the Louise Suggs Library at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. Upon returning home after winning the 1948 British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship, Suggs realized she was at the top of her game with nowhere left to go. “When I won the British, it was the peak of my amateur career,” Suggs says. “There was nothing else left that I was eligible to play.”
Let’s hit the road, Babe
Motivated as she was, Suggs couldn’t create new opportunities on her own. Fortunately, there was someone out there who could. As Spork recalls, “When I was in grade school, I looked in the encyclopedia under ‘sports’ and there was a name there: Babe Didrikson.”
Didrikson was born to a large family in Beaumont, Texas, where she grew up hungry and tough, adopting both a swagger and playful attitude that helped her navigate her childhood. She was a natural athlete, picking up most sports with ease. She competed—and won—in just about everything she tried, including basketball, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling. She became a household name across the country after taking home gold medals in the javelin and 80-meter hurdles and a silver in the high jump at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Like many other young women of her era, Spork idolized her.
Didrikson quickly discovered the same landscape Suggs did: There was nowhere else to compete. “It was very frustrating to her,” author and golf historian Liz Kahn notes, “because here she was, probably the greatest woman athlete of all time, and she couldn’t make a living doing it. There were no professional sports leagues for women.”
Didrikson found an ally in her agent, Fred Corcoran, who represented some of the biggest names in sports, including Sam Snead and Ted Williams. He saw financial potential in finding a showcase for the incredible talent “The Babe” possessed, not to mention her charismatic personality.
During the 1932 Olympics, at the age of 21, Didrikson was introduced to golf. As with so many of her other pursuits, she quickly became one of the best. (Didrikson also met her future husband, professional wrestler George Zaharias, on the golf course.) Kahn sees Zaharias as the real catalyst for the success of the LPGA: “She was the personality who came along and made it possible. Whatever Babe was doing, then people were interested, whether she won or not.”
Corcoran and Zaharias appealed to L.B. Icely of Wilson Sporting Goods, who wanted to promote sporting equipment. It was the perfect match. Sporting-goods companies across the country would have a way to publicize their brand, and Wilson’s golf equipment, to women. And the women involved in this barnstorming tour would have true financial sponsorship. Zaharias took it a step further and convinced Icely to hire Corcoran as the tour manager.
“We became the LPGA in 1950 at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wichita, Kansas,” recounts Smith. Along with Suggs, Smith, Spork and Zaharias, the rest of the LPGA’s original founders were Alice Bauer, Marlene Bauer Hagge, Patty Berg, Bettye Danoff, Opal Hill, Betty Jameson, Sally Sessions, Helen Dettweiler and Helen Hicks. The group’s “unofficial” founders included pivotal players Betty Hicks and Peggy Kirk Bell.
Promotion, parties and ping pong paddles
“I was 15. It was more than money. We wanted the world to recognize that women can be great golfers,” says Bauer Hagge.
Female athletes were still something of an oddity in those days. “They didn’t know quite how to take us,” she says, “‘because it was normal for a man to be an athlete. It wasn’t normal for a woman to be an athlete.”
Bauer Hagge and her sister, Alice, had a familiar story among this group. Bauer Hagge started playing golf before her fourth birthday. The young sisters became a dynamic duo that swept onto the scene in the early 1940s. At the age of 7, Bauer Hagge played in the South Dakota State Championship, followed by the Women’s Western Open in Chicago. She faced resistance because of her age and her sex. “There was a boys, junior championship; they wouldn’t let me play in it at first,” she says. “Then the paper, the media, got on them so bad that they were forced to let me play. There was this boy—I thought he was really cool. He was 15 and I beat him in the finals and he just never spoke to me again.”
The Bauer sisters and the LPGA founders used experiences like that as motivation. The women did everything themselves, from securing courses to play to organizing the tournaments. They staked out-of-bounds markers and tabulated scorecards. It meant working day and night not only playing golf, but also promoting their events in one small town after another, trying to convince people to come out and see them play. They often travelled thousands of miles between tournaments; one trip was 1,600 miles from Spokane, Washington, to Waterloo, Iowa.
“We were a group like a carnival and we went from town to town to town,” says Spork. “We didn’t have cell phones. We had ping pong paddles: One was yellow, one was red, one was green, and we’d wave them out the window. Green meant a food stop, yellow was pee and red was gas. And if we saw a cop’s car behind a sign, we’d blink our lights so that the people behind us would know that there’s a cop.”
They had to stay together figuratively and literally. In those early days, a simple traffic ticket could knock them off schedule or bring negative publicity. Either one had the potential to put the Tour’s existence in jeopardy.
“They’re playing for their next meal. For the next place they’re gonna stay. They’re playing for the love of it, but they’re also playing to make it a job,” says Renee Powell, who in 1967 would become one of the first African-American women on Tour.
In addition to playing subpar courses and sometimes making barely more than gas money, the ladies were all too aware that they had to also present an aura of femininity in order to keep public interest, hold on to their sponsors and get invited back to clubs. On top of the promotional gigs, clinics and tournaments, they were required to attend cocktail parties and put on fashion shows at the clubs—something male players never had to do.
Suggs was not one to hold her tongue on the subject. “Generally speaking, men have a hard time accepting a female athlete. If a woman could hit to the pin with the same club that a man uses, she’d beat him every time,” she says. “Of course I was jumped on like you can imagine by the press for saying that, but that’s what I believed.”
Suggs backed up her bravado with incredible performances and was one of the first women to play against men on a professional level. In 1954, she won a 54-hole competition against Snead, a 13-time major winner. It was a victory Suggs took great pride in, and she wasn’t going to let Snead live it down. Seeing him fume over his loss in the parking lot, she said, “Sam, I don’t know what the hell you’re bitching about, because you weren’t even second.”
“So he scratched outta there and left about a half a ton of rubber on the cement,” she recalls with a wry smile.
Fighting odds and each other
Despite endless hours on the road and unforeseen hardships, the LPGA began to gain traction. The impressive play and budding rivalries made for good press. Suggs, Zaharias and Berg, the redheaded spitfire from Minneapolis, began to rack up victories and new fans. “Somebody asked me one time, ‘Do you all get together before the tournament starts and decide who’s gonna win the tournament?’” Suggs remembers incredulously. “I said, ‘No.’ If you’ve ever seen three cats fighting over a plate of fish, you’ll know why. You’ll never find any three more competitive women than we were.”
Bauer Hagge saw the three as very distinct personalities: “Louise was the one that dug in and worked. She didn’t care if she got any credit for it. Patty liked the credit and Babe was the most charismatic.”
Bauer Hagge took Zaharias’ antics in stride, but her tricks didn’t settle well with Suggs’ strict adherence to the rules. “Babe irritated some people that were serious because she was a cut-up and she did some things sometimes she called ‘gamesmanship’ to bother you,” Bauer Hagge said, “and then she’d make fun of it later. So it was hard to stay mad at her, but you knew that she was gonna try to do some stuff.”
Suggs distrusted the Zaharias hustle. “She always swore that she never got appearance money because the LPGA didn’t allow it,” Suggs says. “Still doesn’t. I don’t know how much appearance money she got, but she told a story that she always gave it to the LPGA. She did not. That’s one of those things that she and I came to blows about.”
However hard it might have been for some of the women to live with Zaharias, there was no doubt that she was an essential ingredient to the LPGA’s survival. “They knew that she was their bread and butter,” says Kahn.
The competition continued over the next few years, providing dramatic fodder for the press and steadily building a loyal fanbase. But there was something wrong under the seemingly invincible Zaharias’ smiles. “She had a pain in her side, and instead of finding out what was the problem medically, she ignored it,” Kahn says. “That went on for four years, which seems unbelievable that somebody could have that much pain and then go on for another four years before she did anything about it.”
Zaharias collapsed in 1952 at a tournament in Texas. A year later, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent major surgery. Most assumed her career was over, but she got back on the course in 1953 and capped her remarkable return with a victory at the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open. For those close to the LPGA, it was a comeback on par with Ben Hogan’s famed return from a near-fatal car accident. “I consider that the greatest Women’s Open victory of all time,” says Glenn. Zaharias died of cancer two years later, in 1956, at the age of 42.
With the loss of its star player, there were major concerns about the LPGA’s future. Corcoran resigned and some sponsorships were dropped. Since they couldn’t afford a commissioner, the players took turns running the organization, “and that’s when some of our arguments started,” says Bauer Hagge.
The organization took another massive hit just six years after Zaharias’ death. Suggs’ determination to stick to her principles was one of the reasons the LPGA got off the ground. In 1962, it cost the LPGA one of its biggest names. She was fined $25 for failing to play in an event in Milwaukee that she signed up for. She disputed the fine and never played a full schedule again in protest over what she believed to be right. “She was at the height of her career and in her prime when she quit,” says Rawls, who was president of the LPGA at the time. “It was hard for me to understand that kind of thinking. I would have paid for her myself, although the money was nothing to Louise. I forever regretted it for her, and I thought it was one of the saddest things in the LPGA history.”
Still, the founders pushed ahead. All of the hard work had created some undeniable momentum and began to inspire more young ladies across the country. So they redoubled their efforts, amping up their promotion, sticking together despite their disagreements and attracting new, younger players.
In the late 1950s, Kathy Whitworth and Mickey Wright joined the LPGA. They would become the new faces of the Tour, tearing up the record books and drawing even more media coverage and spectators. The Tour soon picked up more financial backing, which led to more tournaments and exposure. Against incredible odds, 13 determined women put an unbreakable foundation in place. “We all came together in the end,” says Bauer Hagge. The LPGA was not going away.
You can trace the line of superstars from the founders through today. Whitworth and Wright preceeded Judy Rankin and Nancy Lopez, who led to Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb and Annika Sörenstam. They built the worldwide stage for Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson.
What started with 13 players is now the oldest continuing women’s professional sports organization in the United States. In 2016, the LPGA featured 33 official money events in 14 countries. Of the more than 510 LPGA Tour members, approximately 200 are active competitors, representing 28 different countries.
Stacy Lewis, a two-time LPGA major winner, is passionate about the women who paved the way for her. “The founders are the reason that I’m able to do what I’m doing today,” she says. “I want the girls 20 years from now to be playing for more money and playing better golf courses. Playing the courses the guys play every year. Because I think we can.”
Challenges remain. LPGA purses are still much smaller than those on the PGA Tour, by about 10 to 1. The players often are still judged as much on their appearance as on their abilities. But, however slowly, progress continues to be made. Young women today grow up knowing college scholarships and a professional career are available in the game.
“I think that’s probably the biggest message I’d like to give to our daughter—that you have a dream and it can happen,” says Sörenstam, who won more than $22 million over the course of her career. “It really can. You just have to go about it and do it. Even with our son, I want him to know that obviously he can do it too, but the girls can do it equally as well. So get used to it.”
About that interview
Charlie Fisk finally did convince Louise Suggs to let her interview her on camera for The Founders documentary. After the interview near Suggs’ home in St. Augustine, Florida, Suggs’ assistant arranged to continue the conversation in one more place.
Moments later, with the crew set up and waiting, Suggs was wheeled into the newly redesigned grand entryway of the World Golf Hall of Fame. She looked up and saw a 20-foot-tall picture of “Miss Sluggs” in her golfing prime, hanging between fellow legends Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. Then the great, stoic Suggs did something few had seen: She wept.
After a long while, she finally said, “This is the first time that I’ve ever been up there with the big boys.”
Suggs passed away in August 2015. Of the 13 LPGA founders, today only Bauer Hagge, Smith and Spork remain with us, enjoying the twilight of one of the greatest golf road trips ever.