Teed Off

Sharing highs, lows and bourbon with Louise Suggs

The smoldering amber glow of the lights along with the chocolate-colored wood floor and the deep-red faux-leather booths gave the bar a mafia-movie feel. I saw the light catch the gold plaque screwed into the table before I saw her face: “Reserved for Miss Louise Suggs.” It was my first meal with a Hall of Famer, and I was petrified. “How ya doin’?” she said in a gravelly voice still tinged with a Deep South accent. We stood there and mumbled hellos. “Well, have a seat already. What are ya drinkin’?”

Louise Suggs was already one of the most accomplished female players in the world by the time she turned professional in 1948. She had won every important amateur event, including the U.S. Women’s and Women’s British, along with playing for the U.S. in the 1948 Curtis Cup. A pro tour did not yet exist for female golfers, so she got together with 12 other determined ladies, built one out of nothing and is credited with 58 LPGA wins, including 11 majors. When she passed in 2015, Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press wrote that she “was perhaps the most influential player in LPGA history.” 

Archivist Louise Suggs No. 24
Triumphs on the course earned Louise Suggs plenty of media attention, like this 1956 portrait in Havana, Cuba. But under the smile her fierce personality burned.

Mae Louise Suggs was born in 1923 and grew up in tiny Lithia Springs, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. Golf was always in her life: Her father managed the town’s course. She modeled her swing after fellow Georgian Bobby Jones, and while countless have tried, perhaps none did it as well. Her move has long been a marvel of the instructional world. Ben Hogan wrote the foreword for her 1953 book, Par Golf for Women, and famously remarked, “If I were to single out one woman in the world today as a model for any other woman aspiring to ideal golf form, it would be Miss Suggs. Her swing combines all the desirable elements of efficiency, timing and coordination. It appears to be completely effortless.” In 2022, Golf magazine published a feature about driving the ball that used her as the ideal, raving that she had one of the “smoothest, most powerful swings ever to grace the tour.”

That talent, combined with a stubborn competitive fire, led her to heights that resonate today. By the 1940s, Suggs’ biggest rival was Babe Zaharias. Zaharias was one of the giants of the day, and a media darling. Suggs later admitted she knew Zaharias’ big personality was what the fledgling LPGA needed to gain a foothold with sponsors, but she couldn’t help resenting the attention Zaharias received. Babe was the favorite in the 1949 U.S. Women’s Open, but Suggs got on a heater and left her in second by 14 shots, a women’s major record that still stands. 

In 1961, Suggs took part in a 72-hole mixed exhibition at the Royal Poinciana Invitational in West Palm Beach, Florida, a par-3 course. She topped a field featuring fellow LPGA star Patty Berg along with Sam Snead, Tommy Armour, Henry Picard and Dow Finsterwald. Snead was visibly upset about finishing behind a woman, and, in an interview with the Associated Press in 2003, Suggs remembered snapping at him, “I don’t know what the hell you’re bitching about. You weren’t even second.”

Just a year later, Suggs’ stubborn streak did her LPGA career in. She was fined $25 (about $250 today) for failing to play in an event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that she’d committed to, despite having a doctor’s note explaining why she shouldn’t play. Suggs could not get over the fine and protested by never playing a full schedule again. “She was at the height of her career and in her prime when she quit,” said Betsy Rawls, a fellow LPGA founder who was president of the organization 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.”

History, be it in a classroom or passed down from elders or in spaces like this, is too often told through the prism of winners and losers, of heroes and villains. Nuance gets steamrolled in the service of a narrative: “The LPGA was created by 13 courageous ladies who overcame the sexism of their era—trailblazers like Louise Suggs. Here she is, everyone!” There are hundreds of images over the decades where Suggs is smiling and waving, the victor with the spoils. Turns out she was faking many of them. The decades-long fight for, and later with, the LPGA hardened her. She told me Bob Hope and Bing Crosby could be “real assholes.” Watching the LPGA’s new torchbearers take her tour in directions she disagreed with tore her apart. 

Suggs eventually returned to the LPGA fold. Its Rookie of the Year award is named for her, and in the last years of her life she was invited to and attended nearly every major LPGA function. I met her when she was in her 80s, and while “softened” wasn’t quite the word, she had leaned into her well-known hard edges. She named her dog Dammit. Her vanity license plate read “TEED OFF.”

We shared a few more bourbons over the years after that first dinner. She couldn’t attend my wedding, but made sure to send a gift. She rarely regaled me with stories of her glory days, but trusted our friendship enough to share a few things. She adored Jones and Hogan. Never liked Snead much anyway. Couldn’t believe how rich and pampered the current LPGA stars were, and thought many of them could be a little more appreciative and respectful of their elders. At a World Golf Hall of Fame event in the early 2010s, I got her a bourbon and Charlie Sifford a Jack Daniel’s. They stayed in their chairs, tipped their glasses toward one another, nodded their heads, savored their sips and barely spoke. Two warriors in the gloaming. A moment of intimacy they allowed me in on that I’ll always treasure.

The last time I saw Louise was at the Tour Championship in Atlanta a few years before she passed. All the miles over all the years were finally adding up, and she was tired. I doubt she knew my marriage was falling apart, but when I sat next to her on a bench outside the clubhouse, she sensed something. “I used to chase Bob Jones around here,” she said. “Been through quite a bit since then, but that’s life. Glad I’m here, though.”