Her enthusiasm for the game spanned 80 years and more. Shirley Spork, a highly respected founder of the LPGA, died Tuesday in Palm Springs, California. She was 94, just two weeks removed from a spry appearance at the Chevron Championship, where she and the rest of the tour’s founders were ushered into the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Spork started golf at age 11 and was still playing well into her 90s. She taught golf until the end, saying just two weeks ago, “I teach who I want, when I want, and enjoy every second of it.” She also traveled to the United Kingdom for the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles, and in the 2021 matches was a fixture on the first tee at Inverness in Ohio, dancing to the music between matches.
So much of what Spork did was different. Though she started off by selling the balls which arrived in the family garden from the golf course adjacent to their home in Redford, Michigan, near Detroit, she used her savings to buy what was the one and only club on offer at the local thrift shop: a putter.
Because there were no junior golf programs in the 1930s, she then divided her time between steering clear of the rough and a golf ranger whose job it was to keep children away. Spork went on to become the national collegiate champion during her days at Eastern Michigan. As a professional, she never won on the LPGA but had a second-place finish in the 1961 LPGA Championship.
Not too much thought went into Spork’s decision to turn professional. She had turned up to play as an amateur in a professional event when the great Babe Zaharias said over breakfast, “Kid, why don’t you turn professional? We need players like you out here.”
When Spork told the Babe that she did not know how to go about it, Zaharias tapped her on the head and said, “Go down there and tell them (the starter) you’re a pro, and then you are a pro. That’s all there is to it!” How some of the modern players who go through the various qualifying ordeals would wish it were still that simple.
Fine golfer though Spork was, her main interest lay in teaching others. Indeed, it was in April of 1953 when she played in the first official LPGA event in the California desert – at the Tamarisk Country Club – that she looked around and decided there and then that this was the part of the world where she would like to teach. And as she contemplated long winters in the desert coupled with summers on the LPGA Tour, she walked into the Tamarisk clubhouse to ask if they were looking for someone like herself. She was promptly ushered into a board meeting where they hired her to start teaching the following winter.
Along with the late Marilynn Smith, Spork was the driving force in developing the LPGA Teaching and Club Pro division in 1959. Meanwhile, her own range of shots were such that in the early days of the LPGA Tour, when the players would all pull their weight in a bid to drum up interest in their circuit, she was celebrated as the tour’s resident trick-shot artist. As befits one who had used her putter for everything in childhood and who would call her book, “From Green to Tee,” it is probably safe to suggest that she could smash the ball through the air with the so-called flatstick.
The degree to which Spork and her peers worked for their tour as much as for their own good was first captured by Spork at the Founders Cup, in 2014. “Because we wanted to promote our group, we all contributed. We didn’t have cell phones, and so, at the end of a tournament, when we were getting ready to travel to the next event, we’d have to stop at a payphone and call Associated Press and Golf World to give them the results.… So we had to blow our horns our whole life. I’m glad that my horn hasn’t worn out yet!”
In that same speech of 2014, she digressed to explain what happened with mail from home: “Someone had to keep the mail in a little box, and if you didn’t play that week, we took the box to the next tournament and then you got your mail. It was like a little circus going down the road.”
Such was Spork’s renown as a teacher that she was the Western educational director for the National Golf Foundation for seven years and taught golf in the 1950s at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Yet in all her years, she never changed her mind about the desert and, for as long as was possible, she was still teaching at Rancho Mirage in California. At the same time, she would play nine holes of golf once a week, and that though she had had two new hips and a matching set of knees.
Spork may not have won on the LPGA Tour, but she had any number of firsts to her name. She was, for example, among the first women to enter the holy of holies that is the Royal & Ancient clubhouse in St. Andrews (for a boardroom meeting in 1984), and she was the first LPGA professional to be a guest speaker at a PGA annual meeting, in 1955.
“I’ve been in just about every phase there is in the golf business, starting early and luckily getting a good education in the process,” she said. “I was able to find a niche in golf.”
When asked at the 2019 Founders Cup what she had noticed about the changing game, she hit on the figure 700 percent to capture how much more popular it had become since she first played. As for a reason why so many more youngsters no longer thought of golf as fuddy-duddy, she put it down to how the modern female professionals looked on TV. Kids today, she said, “want to wear the clothes that are styled for women golfers.”
The trick-shot artist never missed a trick. From first to last, she knew what was happening in a world to which she herself made one telling contribution after another.
Top: Shirley Spork with former LPGA commissioner and current USGA CEO Mike Whan in 2021. Photo: John Mummert, USGA
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