By Ron Sirak
(a recipient of the PGA of America Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Award and the
LPGA Media Excellence Award)
Marilynn Smith, whose role as one of the 13 Founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and pioneering work as a television broadcaster landed her in the World Golf Hall of Fame, died early Tuesday morning at the age of 89 surrounded by her family and friends. She would have turned 90 on April 13 and was last seen in public greeting finishers behind the 18th green at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix on March 24.
In 1950, Smith along with Alice Bauer, Patty Berg, Bettye Danoff, Helen Dettweiler, Marlene Bauer Hagge, Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Betty Jameson, Sally Sessions, Shirley Spork, Louise Suggs and Babe Zaharias founded the LPGA, the oldest women’s professional sports organization in the world. Hagge andSpork are the surviving Founders.
Smith turned pro in 1949 at a time when the major golf equipment companies – Wilson, MacGregor and Spalding chief among them – realized the growth potential for the game among women in post-World War II America and hired prominent female players to promote their products. Smith signed a $5,000 contract with Spalding for 50 to 100 clinics annually and eventually had a signature line of clubs.
Marilynn got the first of her 21 LPGA victories at the 1954 Fort Wayne Open and the last at the 1972 Pabst Ladies Classic. She also took two major championships, the 1963 Titleholders, when she beat the great Mickey Wright by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff, and then successfully defended that title in 1964.
One of the tour’s most effective spokeswomen, Smith was president of the LPGA from 1958 to 1960 andin 1973 became the first woman to work a men’s event as a television broadcaster. She was inducted intothe World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006.
Marilynn attended the University of Kansas, where she won the 1949 national individual intercollegiate championship after capturing the Kansas State Amateur title from 1946-48. It was while at Kansas that she encountered the gender discrimination that shaped her life.
At the time, Kansas did not have a women’s golf team, but Smith wanted to play in the 1949 nationalintercollegiate tournament and needed help with travel expenses. 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 Smith’s managed to scrape together the money to get Marilynn to the tournament, which she won. When Smith would tell the Phog Allen story to today’s players it was not with a sense of anger but rather with the intent of educating young people of how it once was.
That incident also led her to create the Marilynn Smith LPGA Charity Pro-Am which, for the last 10 years, has raised scholarship money to help female golfers with college expenses. “That’s what inspired me to start this event,” Smith said about the Allen incident last year when her tournament provided $5,000 grants to 30 young women.
Marilynn, who was born in Topeka, Kan., 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 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 forthe 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 Marilynn won the Kansas State Amateur three consecutive timesshe was called “The Blonde Bomber” because she blasted the ball 25 yards past everyone else in the field.
As feisty as Marilynn was as a competitor and as fiercely as she advocated for equal treatment for women, it was the size of her heart and the generosity of her spirit that those who knew her best remember most.
“Marilynn has always been a giver,” said Spork, who met Smith at a college tournament in 1947. “She worked so diligently as president of the LPGA, out selling the tour to sponsors. When we traveled, we drove and we’d pull into a gas station and Marilynn would start chatting up a young person there and she’d say, ‘You need new shoes,’ and she’d end up giving away more money than we paid for the gas.”
The affection and high regard current players had for Smith – many of whom got to know her after the Founders Cup was created in 2011 – was evident at that tournament and in their support for her charity event. This year, more than three dozen LPGA professionals, mostly from the Teaching & Club Professional membership, played the fundraiser.
And LPGA players Lydia Ko, So Yeon Ryu, Ariya Jutanugarn, Angela Stanford, Karrie Webb, Pat Bradley, Sandra Gal, Dottie Pepper, Amy Alcott, Brittany Lincicome, Anna Nordqvist, Nancy Lopez and Jan Stephenson made financial contributions to the Marilynn Smith Charity Pro-Am.
Caroline Inglis, now an LPGA member, has first-hand experience with Smith’s hard work for equality.Inglis received a Marilynn Smith grant several years ago while a freshman at the University of Oregon.
“It could not have come at a better time in my life, as my Dad had just been diagnosed with Leukemia,” she said. “The financial support helped my family during a difficult time and allowed me to attend a great university and pursue my dream of becoming a professional golfer.”
Truly, Marilynn Smith never stopped buying shoes for little girls in gas stations. The woman who poured her heart and soul into building the LPGA never stopped giving. Long after her playing days were over, Marilynn continued to open doors for young women with big dreams. Truly, she never stopped acting like a Founder.