Before heading to the women’s intercollegiate golf championships in 1949, Marilynn Smith and her father met with Kansas University athletic director Phog Allen to see if the school could help its star athlete with travel expenses. Allen’s response left an indelible impression.
“He told my daddy, ‘It’s too bad your daughter is not a boy,’” Smith told me during a phone interview in the spring of 2000. “Now, that kind of talk would get an athletic director fired today, but in those days that was the prevailing attitude about women and sports in our country. Phog Allen was hardly alone in his views. He was speaking on behalf of America.”
Most of America, perhaps. But certainly not on behalf of Smith and 12 other intrepid women who formed the Ladies Professional Golfers Association a year later in Wichita, Kan. Those Mothers of Invention weren’t looking to blaze any trails. They merely wanted to make a living walking fairways, just like the men. “We didn’t care that society might not be too keen on the idea of females playing professional sports,” fellow founder Louise Suggs told me that same spring. “There were a handful of us foolish enough to want to give it a try.”
So they embarked on a precarious journey and, thanks to their tenacity and perseverance, the LPGA got off the ground and continues its run more than six decades later. It is the oldest and most successful organization in women’s sports history. And thanks to a compelling new documentary titled “The Founders,” shown last Sunday during the High Falls Film Festival, these courageous women are finally receiving their historical due.
Mixing insightful, poignant and at times humorous interviews with rare archival footage and photographs, the film captures the engaging, disparate personalities of these determined women and the immense societal and financial obstacles they were forced to overcome.
We learn how the forerunner to the LPGA—the Women’s Professional Golf Association—was born out of the pay disparity between men’s and women’s golf. In 1944, Byron Nelson received $10,000 for winning the men’s U.S. Open, while Betty Hicks received just $500 for taking the women’s title. The WPGA tour, which featured a tournament appropriately called the Hardscrabble Invitational, lasted just a few years before folding because of internal squabbling and a failure to secure enough sponsors.
The LPGA came about, in part, because Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the most famous female athlete of the time, and perhaps all time, wanted an opportunity to make a living playing sports. The former Olympic track and field gold medalist was a transcendent figure and was able to parlay her connections with prominent sporting goods companies to procure the seed money to launch the new tour.
“If it wasn’t for the Babe,” said Rhonda Glenn, ESPN’s first female anchor, “the LPGA tour wouldn’t have started for another decade.”
Like baseball legend Babe Ruth, she was a flamboyant, outsized personality who was head and shoulders above the competition. And that was good for drawing attention to the fledgling tour, but she also was known to rub her fellow golfing pioneers the wrong way. One time she walked into the locker room before a tournament and told her peers: “Girls, I need to make more money than you because I am the star.” Her bold pronouncement was not well-received. One of her rivals stood up and said, “Babe, you may be the star, but every star’s got to have a chorus line.”
There was no commissioner, no publicity staff, no booking agent in those days. The founders had to do everything themselves. They would speak at Kiwanis clubs, stage golf clinics, visit local radio stations and plaster posters about upcoming tournaments in storefronts. Sportswriters rarely covered their events, so they even had to phone in their results after the final round. “We didn’t get much press,” Smith said.
Traveling in an era before interstate highways and cellphones was much more challenging. The women would drive caravan-style, three or four to a car. They would communicate by rolling down their windows and displaying different-colored ping-pong paddles. Green signaled a food stop. Red was for gas, and yellow for a bathroom stop.
The LPGA suffered a huge blow in 1956 when Didrikson died of colon cancer at age 42. “It was such a tragedy because she was our drawing card,” said Suggs, who often feuded with her fierce rival. “Because she was there, we were there. She was the star. People came because they knew her and they began to know us because of her.”
There was concern whether the tour would survive without Babe, but it did, thanks to the other founders, who kept plugging on. Their refusal to give up helped golf’s popularity grow.
The film also touches on the plight of Althea Gibson, the first African-American on the tour. Gibson was a former Wimbledon champion who took up golf after retiring from tennis. Some country clubs refused to allow her into the clubhouse. Unlike their PGA brethren, LPGA players took a strong stance and actually boycotted courses that had race restrictions. As the documentary points out, the LPGA was a leader in racial and gender tolerance.
There’s also a poignant moment in which Golf Hall of Famer Karrie Webb talks about winning $190,000 at a tournament and Suggs coming over to congratulate her. “Louise said to me, ‘You know, girl, you just won more money today than I won in my entire career,’” Webb recalled. It is one of the reasons Webb and current pro Stacey Lewis helped fund the documentary.
Today, the LPGA Tour features more than 460 golfers and annually stages 34 tournaments worldwide, with total payouts exceeding $60 million, about 120 times more than the combined purses in 1950. Thanks to the persistence of those founding mothers and the dramatic impact of Title IX legislation enacted in 1972, female athletes are celebrated rather than looked at with disdain. “To think we started with 13 people,” Smith says near the end of the documentary. “Look where we are now. Isn’t that something?”
Best-selling author and nationally recognized journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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