Saying Farewell to a Founder – Marilyn Smith
For the women of another generation who pulled off the creation of women’s professional golf, it was not a walk in the park, or the course. In a world of Jones, Sarazen, Hagen and Snead, there was not much breathing room for anyone else. Even on the municipal level, women were not always made to feel welcome. Ladies Day was for many clubs a concession to eliminate what the testosteronic crowd called slow play, social and “dainty” golf. Many in the mid-century saw women’s golf as a moving tea party in golf attire, that is until the mid-century got a load of how Mickey Wright, Patty Berg and Babe Didrikson hit a golf ball. Day began to dawn, and the female brand of fierce competition began to rise. It was that same ferocity and insistence that inspired the famous players and others to make a real thing out it, an actual tour. Not all of the founding mothers of the LPGA decided to become week-in-and week-out golfers. Some became occasional players and full-time administrators. Some became spokeswomen, promoters and teachers, ushering in a generation of young girls to the game enjoyed by men and boys all over the country. A few, however, did both, and not many of them did “both” as well as Marilyn Smith.
Smith passed away this week at her home in Goodyear, Arizona. I am unsure of whether she went through a period of incapacity in her final days, but I pray optimistically that she was able to see the new wave of female amateurs walking the fairways of Augusta, and not in the gallery. Such a vision must have been a point of joy for her as a founder of women’s golf. It was all a visible sign of her efforts.
The tributes came pouring in from people who don’t say it if they don’t mean it. Julie Inkster observed that we “lost a great one…amazing woman…a true spitfire.” In Smith’s contributions to a tour, education and all the details that go into such an enterprise, she took the time (by the way) to win two majors and a total of 21 events on her new tour. A great one, an amazing woman, and a spitfire is apparently what it took to get the LPGA off the ground. The present LPGA Commissioner referred to Smith as the tour’s “North Star,” and a successful project has got to have one of those as well. He added that Smith “broke barriers, shattered stereotypes, and made others believe.” An inductee into the Hall of Fame Class of 2006, she was also hailed for her “kindness, generous spirit, and beautiful soul.” People don’t just throw words like that carelessly around in the golf business. If one is a founder of such a new tour opening the door for half of the population, endless energy, smarts, talent, and all those human qualities go a long way toward producing a generation of happy participants.
Smith, a native of Topeka, Kansas, began playing at the age of twelve. The type of character that attracts people, baseball was actually her first love. She intended to pitch for St. Louis as the first woman in pro baseball, but that was not to be. A few demonstrations of colorful language and a general tantrum here and there led her father to take her to the golf course to play a more “ladylike” game. She characterized golf as a “sissy game” at first, and then got hooked beyond saving. Her two majors were taken at the Titleholders of ’63 and ’64. In 1949, she became one of the few women associated with major golf corporations, signing with sponsor Spalding. In 1973, she became the first women to work as a commentator in the booth for a men’s tournament. Having been short on funding for playing on the golf team at the University of Kansas, Smith later launched a scholarship fund for 25 players at five thousand each.
As one founder among thirteen, Marilyn Smith and her colleagues now resemble Valkyries more than they do chatty socializing golfers. For anyone who hangs around the LPGA, for which Smith served as President between ’58 and ’60 gone are such foolish and archaic images. She didn’t just help found a tour, but co-founded an entirely new image for the game, and for the women who play it.