She carries a cane but is loath to use it, opting instead to hold it up as a pointer or swing it as she gives a tip or two, a makeshift club when a wedge or a 9-iron is not handy. At 92, Shirley Spork is one of only two remaining LPGA Founders. There were originally 13, three carloads of women who barnstormed the nation in 1950 with the hopes of eking out a living as the first band of female professional golfers. Spork remains as sharp as ever and still teaches at Tamarisk Country Club, which is located on Frank Sinatra Drive in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
“Frank came out quite a bit,” Spork said late last week in Florida. “He never came to me (for lessons) but he brought Grace Kelly out to get lessons from me when she was in the desert.
“(Princess Grace) was a lovely woman – great kids she had, too – and she really wanted to hit the ball. But she had a lot of other things going on.”
Spork can’t stop teaching. She tried to give me a lesson after spending a day speaking and entertaining. “You can’t get to your right side if you start there,” she said. “Look at all the older swings that are coming back around again. You have to be on your left side so that you can move to your right side on the backswing.”
She can’t help it. It’s who she is.
Born in Detroit two years before the stock market crash, Spork lived just off the 17th fairway of Bonnie Brook Golf Course where her father became the caretaker after losing his job in the Great Depression. Shirley saved enough money from selling golf balls she found in her yard to buy a putter when she was 12, which she used to hit full shots since it was her only club. The local pro finally took her in, outfitting her with enough clubs to play. Just like that, an 80-year love affair with the game began.
“I got involved in golf with the boys in my neighborhood,” Spork said. “There was no junior program, but they let caddies play on Mondays. When I was 14 years old, I was allowed to play with the women public links golfers. Because of that, one public-course golfer was allowed to play in the Michigan Women’s State Championship. I happened to win that honor and win that tournament.
“Because of that (win) I was invited to play in the Titleholders, which was held at Augusta Country Club. That was a big thrill. That’s where I met Patty Berg. Patty was my mentor from that point on. We were built approximately the same and we both had red hair. When the gallery came out and saw a player with red hair, they followed me because they thought I was Patty.
“I said, ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Denahee, I would like for you to announce me as a pro today.’ Her answer was, ‘Does your mother know about this?’ ” – Shirley Spork
“As for turning pro, I had met Marilynn Smith playing in the national intercollegiate tournament at Ohio State University in 1948.” Spork attended Michigan Normal College, now Western Michigan University. “We had a desire to play the game as amateurs. But when we played in the Women’s Western Open in Chicago, Marilynn and I were at breakfast with Babe Zaharias and her husband, George. I was playing as the representative of the state of Michigan and Marilynn was representing Kansas. As we were eating, Babe, who was sitting across the table from me, said, ‘Listen, kids, why don’t you turn pro?’ I said, ‘Gosh, I think I’d like to do that. How do I do it?’ Babe got up, walked around the table, hit me on the head and said, ‘I deem you a pro. Go down on the tee (and tell) the starter to announce you as a pro.’
“So I went to the first tee and that starter was Mrs. Denahee. I said, ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Denahee, I would like for you to announce me as a pro today.’ Her answer was, ‘Does your mother know about this?’ I said, ‘No, but she will tonight.’
“Turning pro and starting a career was quite dramatic for me. I had just signed on to teach at Bowling Green University in Ohio and I had to give up that position to start something that I didn’t know whether or not I was going to (make) a living at it. All the professors said, ‘You’ll go out there and they won’t have retirement benefits or any of those things.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m just going to chance it. And I’m going to make it. Whenever I make a little money, I’ll put it away and invest it myself.’
“Of course, there wasn’t much money to be made. We had 11 tournaments that first year and there was Babe and Patty and Louise Suggs out there. We had the support of some manufacturers that paid us royalties on our clubs. Today there are still some Shirley Spork golf clubs out there. We got about 7 cents a club in royalties. A check would come every month.”
Spork receives a standing ovation every time she shows up at LPGA headquarters. It’s as though Elvis has entered the building. And rightly so. The woman founded what formerly was known as the LPGA Teaching and Club Professional division and now is known simply as LPGA Professionals.
“I went over this morning to the area where the LPGA teachers were giving 10-minute lessons,” Spork said. “They had Ping junior clubs there. So I picked one up and hit it so great that I’m going home and ordering a set. They’re light. I can swing them with some speed. I’m 92, you know.”
Yes, Shirley, we know. And so does the golf world. Last week Spork was inducted into the PGA of America Hall of Fame at the organization’s annual meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla. Like it is with every other interaction of hers, the induction ceremony was a whirlwind. She almost gave NBC Sports broadcaster Jimmy Roberts, who was the master of ceremonies, a golf lesson on stage.
“What drives me to keep going? I don’t want to fossilize,” Spork said. “The beginning of the year I had a mild stroke and I couldn’t get to my left side. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll have to learn to swing left-handed.’ But I went to therapy for a couple of months and worked very hard. I’m getting it back. I can’t play 18 holes and walk anymore. But I can play nine holes. And I enjoy my friends. Score isn’t important. I’m out moving around. As long as I can keep active, I’m happy.”
Then, in the next breath, the thing that really drives her came out.
“I got a wonderful call yesterday,” she said. “One of my seniors, who is a nine-holer, just won her club championship. That is a thrill for me to know that my effort helped her to do that. Of course, I help her with her swing but I also encourage her. Don’t give up. Just go out there and have a good time.”
Shirley Spork holds her award during the LPGA Rolex Players Awards in 2015. Photo: Sam Greenwood, Getty Images
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