A couple of weeks ago, the most famous Mary Bea Porter-King story had good reason for a retelling.
Ana Paula Valdes, a competitor on the Women’s All Pro Tour, had just finished a practice round at Bella Vista Village in Arkansas when she heard the sound of a golf cart crashing into a tree. Valdes ran to the scene where she saw a motionless woman lying face down in a lake. In a wild few minutes, Valdes swam to the woman and received help to bring her to shore. The former Clemson standout playing in just her fourth professional event had gone from eating lunch to saving a life.
Anyone who heard of the heroic act was reminded of a similar incident in 1988 involving Porter-King. At an event in Phoenix, Arizona, she saved a young boy from drowning, and ever since has become synonymous with that life-saving moment.
It’s downright impossible to top a deeply profound experience like swiping someone away from the clutches of death, but Porter-King’s legacy in junior golf deserves great celebration in our game.
Porter-King, the recipient of the PGA of America First Lady of Golf Award in 2011, has a post-playing-career résumé that includes founding the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association, serving as captain of the U.S. team for the 2019 Junior Solheim Cup, serving on the USGA Executive Committee, and becoming one of the country’s most respected rules experts who has officiated 14 U.S. Opens, 17 U.S. Women’s Opens, 15 U.S. Amateurs and five Masters.
But one particular accomplishment has taken on special meaning in recent times.
As a junior and an amateur, Porter-King played in what was formerly known as the Ladies Trans Mississippi, a premier event meant to attract players west of the Mississippi River. A couple of decades later in the late 1990s, Porter-King joined the tournament committee but then left to focus more on her USGA Executive Committee work.
Four years ago, she came back to help run an event, now referred to as the Ladies National Golf Association Amateur, that had faded into the background.
“I saw that it had lost its gusto,” Porter-King said. “Which saddened me because it was such a premier championship for women. So, I really dedicated myself to improving it and we have some dedicated people working hard to get it back to its national status that it deserves. There aren’t many 90-year-old women’s championships.”
The Ladies National is now returning to prominence. With the support of John Bodenhamer, the senior managing director of championships for the USGA, this year’s tournament is offering two exemptions, ties included, for the U.S. Women’s Amateur. It’s reflective of the event’s cherished history and the work put in by Porter-King to recruit some of the top-ranked women’s amateurs to play. This year’s 54-hole tournament will be played July 27-29 with a stout field at Tennessee Grasslands Golf and Country Club in Gallatin, Tennessee. There were more than 160 entries for 120 spots just four years after about 50 players competed.
“This field will be stronger and higher-ranked than what we’ve had,” Porter-King said. “We decided to exempt the elite players to get them in automatically, so they were rewarded for playing well to get in.”
The efforts for the Ladies National to become an elite women’s amateur event comes at an important time.
When Porter-King was growing up, she remembers the best tournaments — the Western, the North-South, the Doherty — being played mainly in the East. Being on the West coast, she couldn’t afford to travel to those events and only competed in the U.S. Women’s Am, the Girls’ Junior, the Trans-Miss, the Broadmoor and the Silverbell.
The same issue exists today, but it’s arguably worse than it used to be. The addition of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur is vital, although there is still a shortage of places for the top women’s amateurs to play.
“I think that is why a lot of young people do turn pro, because there’s nothing to play in,” Porter-King said. “That was really what drove me to turn pro. I didn’t have the money to play in amateur events and there weren’t that many anyway. I wanted to play golf. Since then, there hasn’t been an initiative to drive more amateur championships.”
Porter-King’s passion for moving the Ladies National forward comes from the perspective of a competitor. She was a four-sport athlete at Arizona State University and has been inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame. She won the LPGA qualifying-school tournament in June 1973 and went on to a 25-year playing career. Her lone tour victory came in 1975 with a three-stroke victory ahead of Donna Caponi in the Golf Inns of America tournament in California.
But her work in junior golf has outweighed her playing accomplishments. That was evident by her selection as the U.S. Junior Solheim Cup team captain, which put her in the same company as JoAnne Carner, Kathy Whitworth, Meg Mallon and Nancy Lopez.
“That was nothing I ever expected,” Porter-King said of the selection. “It came out of the blue and it was such an honor. That whole experience is something I’ll cherish forever.”
That week at Gleneagles added to what those in the women’s amateur game have always known about Porter-King, and that’s how passionate she is about junior golf.
When asked what special meaning comes with helping young kids have the opportunity to play the game at a high level, she becomes understandably emotional.
“You might make me cry,” Porter-King said. “I’ve come full circle in my life and career in golf and I tell people that what golf has given me, I’ll never be able to repay. Part of me just feels that until the day I die, I’ll be driven to give more young people opportunities to play golf. If more people played golf in this world, I don’t think there would be all these problems. The game has been so good to me, giving me friends and teaching me life lessons.
“I just want to see others have that same opportunity.”
Top: Mary Bea Porter-King with Arnold Palmer
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