Somewhere in the late fifties, I received a bag of golf clubs from my aunt, who had moved on to more modern technology. There were clubs from every make, style and century – mashies and niblicks, brassies and spoons – woods with enough loft to replace a sand wedge and gnarled old putters made by Tolkienish wizards. The shafts represented every forest of the continent, but I was fine with all that.
In the middle of the bunch, however, was a new iron signed by Patty Berg. Being the way I was, I asked immediately…”Who is Patty Berg?”
I’ll never forget my mother’s response. Despite not being a frequent golfer, she said it with a little dash of extra zeal. “Sit down, kid.” So, I sat with both of my parents on the lawn of the sunny back yard, where we’d constructed the hardest imaginable par 3 that one hundred feet of space could offer. The atmosphere resembled one of those facts of life talks to come, and I got their best version of the Patty Berg story.
Even then, we weren’t into boy versus girl stuff when it came to golf. We were into golf with a capitol “G,” wherever it lived and breathed. Each one of us had heroes on both tours, and after that day I went on a local pilgrimage to find every magazine available to read up on this Patty Berg person, known as “Dynamite” among her colleagues.
It’s one thing to honor an individual who has summoned all that he or she is into one defining moment, one who takes a sudden and often unexpected stride to the front of the line. To honor the other kind, however, is more difficult, that person who can’t seem to turn around without establishing something of lasting importance, guiding someone toward a state of excellence and enriching a good cause to such a degree that its benefits spill into a hundred others. These are often people who throw tremendous energy into their own achievements, yet somehow set aside a limitless inner space for the good of others. One has to cover a lot of ground out of the spotlight in order to take in their full measure.
Ms. Berg’s all-time record for major wins is certainly impressive, as is her lengthy list of amateur and professional victories. However, the co-founder, highlight player and first president of the L.P.G.A. would be diminished if defined by statistics alone. The existence and continued maturity of womens golf, housed within an official organization, was and is pervaded by her humor and big spirit. She has estimated the number of her clinics at over sixteen thousand. She served as a lieutenant in the Marines, and put more than one caddy through college. The Bob Jones Award, which she received in 1963, is the highest award offered by the USGA, and is given for exemplary sportsmanship.
Over the years, we’ve seen so many examples of LPGA players responding to crises within the membership, many of them medical, that one can’t help but think of Patty Berg’s personal legacy being present as well. She has bequeathed an innately charitable tone within a fiercely competitive industry. When she said, “Don’t think you really win until you live up to that high calling that makes you do your best, no matter what,” I’m not convinced she was speaking only of golf. Great teachers and examples don’t just give golf, tennis or piano lessons. There’s always an overarching life lesson going on silently behind.
I wouldn’t have entirely wrapped my brain around such a statement back in the late fifties, though. Back then, the one that got me was Ms. Berg’s answer to an onlooker who asked her to analyze an errant drive. She smiled and said, “I hit it on the wrong waggle.”