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LPGA: Changing Professional Sports Read by Michelle Wie West

The Ladies Professional Golf Association was started in 1950 by a group of true Rebel Girls. By standing up for themselves and banding together, they changed the role of women in professional sports forever.

Get to Know Michelle Wie West

Michelle Wie West is a professional golfer from Honolulu, Hawaii. She became the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur championship when she was ten years old. She plays on the LPGA Tour, and read the story of how the LPGA came to be.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Michelle Wie West. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers were Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

It was a Thursday in late January, 1950 and in Tampa, Florida, thirteen young women stood on a wide, green expanse. They were dressed in long skirts, and were  surrounded by magnificent oak trees, soft rolling lawns and handmade signs that they’d placed along the golf course before them. They’d also roped off any areas round tees and greens, written all the contestants’ names on leaderboards, and hauled their clubs to the first tee. A small crowd gathered around them, trying to keep the buzz of excitement at a minimum so everyone playing could concentrate.

Now on the tee….Babe Zaharias!

As one of the athletes stepped up to the opening tee and checked her stance, there was a collective hush over the crowd. This wasn’t just any old game. These women were about to make history at the first ever Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament.

SHOW OPEN

I’m Michelle Sung Wie West, a professional golfer on the LPGA, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a fairy tale podcast about the real life women who inspire us.

On this episode, the founding members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, also known as the LPGA.

SEGMENT 1

Living in America in 1950 was pretty challenging for women. Especially if you had hopes or dreams of creating a life outside the home. World War II had recently ended and women had done so much to keep the country thriving while the men were away. Women were asked to do everything, from factory work to piloting planes to risking it all as medics on the front lines. Still, once the fighting stopped and the soldiers came home, most women and girls were told they belonged back in the kitchen — cooking, cleaning, and raising families.Playing professional sports was definitely not on the list of things women were “supposed” to do.

But that didn’t matter to the thirteen founders of the LPGA. In fact, it only made them more determined.

Each of these women came to the sport of golf from a different place and had unique reasons why they loved this game so much.

Alice and Marlene Bauer were sisters from a little town called Eureka, South Dakota. Alice had won the South Dakota Amateur Golf championship at age 14.

Marlene was already the youngest player in history to make the cut for the US Women’s Open. She’d been playing since she was three years old!

Patty Berg, who later became the first president of the LPGA, was the visionary leading the charge. Charming Marilynn Smith, also known as “Miss Personality,” wanted everyone to feel as hopeful and energized about women’s golf as she did. And Shirley Spork and Helen Dettweiler were most excited about becoming golf instructors and sharing their love of this sport with the world.

Two of the biggest names in this powerful group were Louise Suggs and Babe Zaharias. Louise was nicknamed “Miss Sluggs” because of her incredible arm strength as she swung. She became a World Golf Hall of Fame member and won award after award for both her strength on the course and her leadership skills.

Babe was a force of nature. She started playing sports by playing neighborhood baseball and jumping over hedges in her hometown in Texas. She excelled at just about everything she tried — basketball, baseball, swimming, diving, boxing, the list went on and on. When someone asked if there was anything she didn’t play, she said, “Yeah, dolls.”

After Babe won three medals in the 1932 Olympics for track and field, she decided to dive into golf. And she was amazing. People were in awe of how far she could drive the ball.

But again, leading up to 1950, there were very few ways for women to get a shot at professional sports — particularly in golf. Even if there was an opportunity to play professionally, a female winner was given five hundred dollars in prize money while the male winner was given ten thousand!

This has to change, said Patty, Louise, Betty, and Babe. Some people had tried to organize a women’s league before, but hadn’t been successful. It wasn’t until all thirteen of these women joined forces and devoted themselves full-time to creating community, and competitive tournaments that things really took off.

SEGMENT 2

Which leads us back to that momentous first tee shot — that’s what they say for the first swing in golf— in January of 1950. On the green were Alice and Marlene Bauer, Patty Berg, Bettye Danoff, Helen Dettweiler, Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Betty Jameson, Sally Sessions, Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork, Louise Suggs, and Babe Zaharias. All thirteen women had pulled together to create the inaugural Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament.

Or really, really we could go back to months before that day, when these gutsy women had to do everything to make this tournament happen. While men might have caddies carrying all of the equipment and marketing teams promoting them, the founders of the LPGA had to do everything themselves.

They had to raise funds, which sometimes meant paying out of their own pockets. They had to organize which players would be paired together and the order of tee times. They had to figure out how to register and publicize each event. Then, they had to pack their cars with handmade signs, paint, stakes, rope, books, ledgers; plus suitcases full of clothes, golf clubs, golf shoes, and golf balls. Many women packed charcoal grills, pots and pans because they’d be traveling for so long. Plus an ironing board and iron, a record player, a typewriter, and hair dryers. A few of the players even brought pets or guitars to keep them company on the road.

There were no cell phones or GPS, so these women had to follow each other very carefully. They had a color-coded paddle system to keep everybody together on the road. If someone needed to make a pit stop, they held a paddle out their car window. Another color paddle  meant people were getting hungry and a third color meant they needed to stop for gas. They did this for thousands of miles, traveling across the country, setting up a different event each week! It was exhausting, but also exhilarating.

That first tournament was a hard-earned success. Each of those original thirteen LPGA’ers were incredibly proud. The athletes were strong and focused. And yet, some reporters who covered the tournament continued to talk about what the women looked like or even how athletics were ruining femininity.

But these women were not about to leave their dreams behind because of someone else’s old-fashioned ideas about what women should or shouldn’t do. They were redefining what female strength could look and feel like!

With each swing they got stronger.

SEGMENT 3

In 1956, the LPGA faced a particularly tough time when Babe — one of the most outspoken and recognizable founders — got sick and passed away. Babe had always been loud, fierce, and full of energy. The rest of the group knew that she would want them to keep taking the world by storm. So that’s exactly what they did.

The LPGA Championship that year was very exciting. It was held at the beautiful Forest Lake Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The competition was intense, with Marlene and Patty neck and neck for the win. They had to go into extra holes for a play off until Marlene was crowned the champion. That was just the beginning of her winning streak for the next five decades. Meanwhile, Patty won 15 major championship titles and Louise got a Career Grand Slam.

Besides all the athletic achievements though, these women got stronger as a collective force. Shirley and Helen started the LPGA Teaching Division, where they taught women how to become professional golfers and/or golf coaches. They empowered all of their students to be curious, learning and supporting each other.

Even if it felt like a slow process sometimes, the LPGA kept growing and gaining influence. Their tournaments got bigger, their teaching division expanded, and by 1960, they were able to award their winners $200,000. More importantly, they were setting a new standard for women in sports. The LPGA made sure that women of all races were welcome to play in their tournaments. And if they faced any pushback or discrimination from a clubhouse, they refused to hold the tournament at that facility.

You see, these women didn’t need to fit into someone else’s vision of what strong or feminine meant. They were making their own rules now.

LEGACY

The Ladies Professional Golf Association has come a long way since 1950. They now host tournaments all over the globe, have more than $85 million in prize money, a growing Hall of Fame and some of the finest teachers of the sport on earth.

These women really did revolutionize not only this game, but women’s place in sports. The LPGA is the first sports organization founded by women and still owned by women. They each had dreams and goals for themselves and realized it would only work if they came together, and made this happen with each of their skills.

Every time someone told them they weren’t feminine enough or strong enough, they turned to each other and said, “Oh yeah?”

And then they mapped their own course, made their own signs, and took a swing.

CREDITS:

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. This episode was narrated by ME, Michelle Wie West.

It was produced and directed by Deborah Goldstein, with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media.

It was written and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking and additional consultation by Steve Eubanks, Managing Editor of the LPGA. Our executive producers are Jes Wolfe and Joy Smith.

Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible! Until next time, staaaay rebel!