The LPGA was founded in the year of 1950, and there was little financial incentive to do it. The tour that we know today was not the brainchild or Herculean project of a single individual, but a group of thirteen female golfers who share an unequal degree of fame today. They were all golfers, and good ones, but lived in a time when making the leap to a professional career was a tenuous decision. They were not all born in the same era, and therefore could not participate equally in the modern era of women’s golf. Some won amateur events in the years before the tour, and never won after 1950. That makes no difference – they joined together to make the modern LPGA possible, and they did it with the love of the game as the only recompense.
Alice Bauer never won a tour event, but was a fine amateur. Her little sister, Marian Bauer Hagge, won twenty six times. Opal Hill, born in the nineteenth century, won most of her amateur events in the 30s and 40s, such as her two Western Opens in ’35 and ’36. She was one of the original barnstormers. Sally Sessions won no events, competing with leukemia instead, but there she was, holding up her part of the organization’s infancy.
Shirley Spork was a co-founder of the LPGA and also of its teaching division, yet never won an event. Helen Dettweiler was a fine amateur with no tour wins, becoming one of the tour’s great teachers. Patty Berg, of course, won fifteen majors and sixty events, and her fame rivaled the great Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who some call the greatest female athlete of all time.
Helen Hicks was one of the first women to turn pro, and the first to sign an endorsement, traveling to promote Wilson products. Betty Jameson is not to be found among the tour winners, but donated the trophy to the tour’s leading scorer, and managed to name it for the great amateur, Glenna Collett Vare.
Marilyn Smith was considered “Miss Personality” on the tour, scoring the first double-eagle in tour history and becoming a broadcaster after her playing days. Louise Suggs, a major force on tour, won eleven majors and fifty eight events.
I’ve saved one for last. Bettye Danoff (born Bettye Mims) weighed in at one hundred pounds and stood five feet, two inches. Nicknamed “Mighty Mite” by her colleagues, she had surprising strength off the tee. Between ’45 and ’48, she won four consecutive Texas Dallas Women’s Golf Association Championships, one by beating Babe Didrikson Zaharias. In ’45 and ’46, she won the Texas PGA, women’s division. She toured with three daughters in tow, and found supervision difficult to find, LPGA childcare being years away from availability. When her husband, Dr. Clyde Walter Danoff, died in ’61, she restricted herself to Texas and Oklahoma. To put the tour’s financial profile in perspective, Bettye Danoff scored her first hole-in-one in a ’62 event. Her reward was a case of beer.
One by one, we’ve lost these great players, amateurs and professionals, all great supporters of the game and the new tour. They made all the arrangements while trying to play at the same time, as if golf doesn’t require enough multi-tasking. This year, we lost Bettye Danoff, just days before Christmas.
At the last inquiry, three of the founding thirteen remain – Shirley Spork, Marilyn Smith and Marlene Bauer Hagge. For players and fans who are truly interested in the ancestry of the LPGA and the legacy of its founders, the women who thought it was important enough to make the necessary sacrifices, I encourage you to read up on these people and give them a tip of the hat. All the splendor of modern women’s golf rests upon these thirteen pillars.