Today, Brenda Van Lengen and I will be over at Alvamar Country Club in Lawrence, Kan., doing “She’s Got Game.” KU is hosting the Marilyn Smith Invitational, and so we’ll talk a little golf, some volleyball and you know we’ll get in hoops, too.
Now, are you wondering who Marilyn Smith is? She’s one of the original founders of the LPGA, a Sunflower State native who went to the University of Kansas back in the days when there was no women’s golf team at the school.
The founders were 13 forward-looking women who got together at the U.S. Women’s Open in Wichita, Kan., in 1950 to start the LPGA. Their contribution to women’s sports should be familiar to everyone who cares about athletics.
Marilyn Smith was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006, and here are a couple of stories I did for The Kansas City Star at that time about this pioneer.
Talk about a “grand slam” few days. Kansas native Marilynn Smith, one the 13 founding members of the LPGA, will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., on Monday night. Friday, her favorite baseball team from childhood won the World Series.
“I wanted to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was a kid,” Smith said, chuckling, in a phone interview Thursday from her Arizona home. “I came back from pitching one day, and my mother said ‘How did you do today?’ And I took my mitt off, threw it against the wall and I said a bad word. She washed my mouth out with Lifebuoy soap.”
Smith said her father then decided maybe she needed to learn better “manners” as a competitor, and took her to Wichita Country Club to learn golf from pro Mike Murra.
“I admit, at first I thought golf was a sissy game,” Smith said. “But Mike helped to instill in me a deep sense of respect and love for the game. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of people counsel and coach me through the years, especially a father and a pro who got me interested in the game and supported me in it.”
Now 77, Smith won the Kansas Amateur title in 1946, ’47 and ’48. She took the National Collegiate championship in 1949 while at the University of Kansas, though there was no women’s golf team there. At age 20, she opted to play professionally, plus represent Spaulding, the sporting goods company. She recalls having one special request when she signed on. Spaulding obliged: she got two new baseball mitts.
The next year, 1950, she and 12 others _ including the late Babe Didrikson Zaharias _ officially started the LPGA at a meeting in Wichita, where the U.S. Women’s Open was held in late September.
With Patty Berg’s death last month, there are now only six LPGA founders still living. Smith said she is still close friends with one, Shirley Spork, and occasionally sees or talks to the others as well.
“There wasn’t ever much pettiness among us. Back then, we all banded together and worked together,” Smith said. “We couldn’t afford air travel. We’d have 1,600-mile driving trips, like from Spokane, Wash., to Waterloo, Iowa. If someone’s car had a breakdown on the way to a tournament, then it was a team effort to get them there.”
And promoting the tour then was as critical a part of the job as playing.
“I remember hitting golf balls at major-league ballparks,” Smith said, “and then saying to the crowd, ‘Folks, we’d love it if you’d come watch us play.’”
From 1954 through 1972, Smith won 21 titles on the LPGA tour. Then she focused on teaching and giving clinics. As her nickname, “Miss Personality,” suggests, the former “glove-tosser” ended up being one of the great ambassadors of golf. She still loves baseball, though, and her exhibit at the hall of fame will include an old mitt.
“Golf has been so good to me,” Smith said. “I’ve been to all 50 states, 36 countries, met five presidents. My idols were Ben Hogan and Stan Musial, and I got to play golf with both of them. What I feel like is this game has been an incredible gift.”