The last phone call I received from Marilynn Smith was shortly before the LPGA’s 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She invited me to her 90th birthday bash on April 13 near her home in Goodyear, Ariz. “That’s the Saturday of the Masters,” I explained, and she understood. Marilynn knew all about ordering priorities and putting work first.
Smith’s last public appearance was at that tournament in Phoenix on March 24 when she and two other LPGA founders, Shirley Spork and Marlene Bauer Hagge, sat near the 18th green and greeted players as they finished. “You played great,” Smith would say and then she’d tell a story about the old days when 13 brave women started the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Smith didn’t make it to that 90th birthday bash. She had fallen in her hotel room the week of the Founders Cup and then, earlier this month, again at her home. An infection set in, and early on Tuesday morning at a hospital where she entertained staff with her endless stories, Smith quietly slipped away and joined the 10 founders who died before her.
Now, Spork and Hagge remain to remind today’s players of what it was like back then, back when 13 women made something out of nothing. Like all of the founders I’ve had the pleasure of knowing – Smith, Spork and Louise Suggs chief among them – Marilynn had maternal feelings about the LPGA. It was her baby and she loved it.
Being snubbed by Kansas athletic director Phog Allen was never far from the mind of Marilynn Smith. It stoked a fire that already raged within her.
In 1950, Smith – along with Spork, Hagge, Suggs, Alice Bauer, Patty Berg, Bettye Danoff, Helen Dettweiler, Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Betty Jameson, Sally Sessions and Babe Zaharias – founded the LPGA, which is now the oldest women’s professional sports organization in the world.
Smith turned pro in 1949, signing a $5,000 contract with Spalding to give equipment promotional clinics at clubs. The next year, some of those women who gave clinics for Spalding, MacGregor and Wilson decided they might be able to make a little extra money and founded the LPGA.
Smith captured the first of her 21 LPGA victories at the 1954 Fort Wayne Open and the last at the 1972 Pabst Ladies Classic. She also won two major championships, the 1963 Titleholders, at which she beat the great Mickey Wright by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff, and then a successful defense of that title in 1964.
She was also president of the LPGA from 1958 to 1960, and in 1973 became the first woman to work a men’s tournament as a television broadcaster. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006.
Smith attended the University of Kansas, where she encountered gender discrimination that shaped her life. Kansas did not have a women’s golf team, but Smith wanted to play in the 1949 national intercollegiate tournament and needed help with travel expenses. As Smith told it, when her father asked Phog Allen, the legendary athletic director, for financial assistance, Allen said: “Mr. Smith, it’s too bad your daughter is not a boy.”
Somehow, the family scraped together the money to get Marilynn to the tournament, which she won. That incident also led her to create the Marilynn Smith LPGA Charity Pro-Am which, for the past 10 years, has raised scholarship money to help female golfers with college expenses.
Smith, who was born in Topeka, Kan., and grew up in Wichita, where her father worked in life insurance and both of her parents played golf. But golf was not a game that initially grabbed the interest of the extremely athletic child.
“I thought golf was a sissy sport,” she said. “I ran a boys baseball team and was the pitcher and manager. One day I came home and my mother asked how I’d done. I used a four-letter word and she washed out my mouth with Lifebuoy soap. Mom told my dad, who suggested taking me to Wichita Country Club for the more ladylike sport of golf.”
Smith began playing at 11 and her father said he’d buy her a bicycle when she broke 40 for nine holes, which she managed to do at 14. When she won the Kansas State Amateur three consecutive times she was called “the Blonde Bomber,” because she blasted the ball 25 yards past everyone else in the field.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan likes to tell today’s players to “act like a founder.” What he means by that is to have the same sense of ownership as those 13 pioneers and to constantly work to grow the tour. Truly, that was a spirit Marilynn Smith never lost.
“For the LPGA family, Marilynn was special in every way,” Whan said Tuesday. “She was our founder, our north star and most importantly, our friend. In her life, she broke barriers, shattered stereotypes and made others ‘believe.’ I’ll miss her weekly handwritten cards, her daily calls to the office and her love for every LPGA teacher, player and staff member. Quite simply, Marilynn left this world better than she found it – and set a standard that will guide us forever.”
That snub by Allen at the University of Kansas was never far from the mind of Marilynn Smith. It stoked a fire that already raged within her. Her electric smile, explosive laugh and the passionate way she talked about the LPGA set her apart.
Right to the end, Marilynn Smith never stopped acting like a founder.
Top photo: Courtesy USGA
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