Golf loses a great pioneer

UnknownWHEN THE SOLHEIM Cup tees off on September 18th let us hope that some of the girls competing spare a thought for a woman without whom there would be no women’s professional golf let alone a Solheim Cup.

On August 6th, Louise Suggs died in Florida aged 91, and for those golfers to whom the name means little or nothing she was one of the finest players, either male or female to have graced the game. She beat both Ben Hogan and Sam Snead playing off men’s tees and was a winner of what, during the 1940s, was considered the women’s grand slam of golf, namely the US and British women’s amateur championships and, after she had turned professional, the US Women’s Open Championship. In all she won 61 Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) events.

Just as significantly, she was one of the driving forces behind the creation and establishment of the women’s professional game. Her father, a former little league baseball pitcher, owned and managed a nine-hole golf course in Atlanta, Georgia, where the young Suggs learnt to play the game and her flinty determination was apparent from an early age- she would practise until her hands bled. Having won pretty much everything as an amateur she turned professional.

Her 14-stroke victory in the 1949 US Women’s Open at Prince George’s Country Club in Maryland is still a record margin of victory to this day.  It was even sweeter that it was over the holder Babe Didrikson Zaharias, whom Suggs loathed, describing her as ‘So cocky, everybody was in awe of her. Your typical bar room brawler. But she couldn’t put anything over on me.’

In 1950, working with 12 other women, including  Zaharias, the LPGA was formed, ironically with the extraordinarily talents of Zaharias attracting the bulk of the sponsors. ‘We figured if we could get some tournaments together, we would at least pick up a little pocket money,’ she said. In spite of all her success, Suggs’s career earnings were less than $200,000, something that irked her for the rest of her life.

She was no stranger to colourful language, owning a dog called Dammit, nor was she afraid to speak as she found. At one LPGA awards dinner she pointed out that modern players , ‘Get mad now if they don’t have the right food in the locker room. We were lucky if we got peanut butter and crackers.’

Nor was she loathe to tough things out with the men as much as she was with the women. Having partnered Ben Hogan in one contest off the men’s tees she returned the better score, much to Hogan’s disgust. The following day Hogan continued to ignore her, prompting her to say, ‘Mr Hogan, I don’t think you are a gentleman. I came here to help you and you can’t even be civil.’ The austere and painfully reserved Hogan relented and they became good friends.

In later years Suggs would recall the courses that the professional woman golfers used to play in the early days of the LPGA, ‘Some had so little grass, and it was in clumps, that we took farm machines, tractors with discs, to inline fairways and rough. Between rounds, we set the pins for the next day, called newspapers with the day’s scores and tried to charm potential sponsors.’

After retiring in 1962 she wrote instructional books and continued to teach well into her 70s and, earlier this year, was one of the seven women to be invited to become honorary members of the R&A. She was not to everyone’s taste- Bob Hope used to address her as Miss Sluggs- but, as Sports Illustrated pointed out in an article in 1961, ‘Fond of her or not everyone respects her absolutely – personally and as a golfer.’

She will be remembered in posterity not only for her massive contribution to women’s golf but also by the award presented to the LPGA Rookie of the year known since 1962 and named after her and which is known today as the Louise Suggs Rolex Trophy. The women’s game has lost one of its giants.

 

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