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THE TRAILBLAZERS: Adventures of the 50s and 60s

In today's high speed, high tech, “right now world, we seldom take the time to appreciate just how difficult things must have been for the women on the LPGA Tour in the 50s and 60s.  Long before cell phones and pagers – and computers and fax machines, these women were facing and conquering day to day challenges that today, we would find unthinkable.  This is a tribute to those women.

Being a “pioneer” isn't easy.  Blazing a trail that no one has ever before traveled, isn't easy.  But that didn't matter to the LPGA pioneers of the 50s and 60s.  They were just following their heart; building on a dream.

At a time when women were supposed to stay at home and care for the family, these women were packing up the trunks of their cars and setting out for destinations unknown.  The only thing they knew for sure was that tomorrow would most certainly bring new and different challenges. 

The women of the LPGA Tour set out on their cross-country adventure in a caravan of 50-something Ford's and Chevy's.  With road maps in hand, head scarves firmly in place, and golf clubs in tow, they hit the road, often traveling up to 1,000 miles between tournament stops. 

“One time we went from Spokane, Wash., to Waterloo, Iowa, a distance of 1,600 miles,” recalled Marilynn Smith, one of the 13 founders.  “We had a couple of breakdowns along the way – a tire blew or something - and we would help each other with the car situation and make sure everyone was okay.”

Although caravaning was a safer way to travel for the women, it did have its challenges.  Founding Member Shirley Spork recalls:  “We didn't have any way of communicating between cars so one of the ladies invented the idea of using paddles.  We had three paddles; red, yellow and green.  One was for food, one for gas, one for a potty stop.  So you would take your paddle and wave it out the window and everybody knew why you were stopping.”

Communicating  with other cars certainly was not a worry for Peggy Kirk Bell.  She bought an airplane in Wichita, Kan., one year and fellow player Gloria Armstrong, who also was an experienced pilot, taught her how to fly.  Once she was proficient, Bell began flying herself from tournament to tournament, using road maps as navigation and following the highways from up above. 

Once the LPGA caravan pulled into town, the women of the newly created Tour rolled up their sleeves and went to work.  A normal tournament week for these women was anything but normal by today's standards.   Before the tournament began, the players often organized a golf clinic for the public or a pro-am in an effort to raise money. 

“It was almost like passing the hat,” recalls Spork.  Whatever money they raised that day would go toward making a better tournament purse for the week.

Following their pro-ams, many of the players would trade in their spikes and clubs for microphones and musical instruments and act as the entertainment for the evening.  Betty Dodd played the guitar, Babe Zaharias played the harmonica, Marilynn Smith accompanied them on the piano and Spork was lead vocalist.

A committee of 12 players was responsible for setting up the course.  All other duties were divided up among the remaining competitors.  Oftentimes, players had to give up their practice round to mark the course, pound hazard stakes or write out local rules sheets.

Fortunately, the golf courses were not roped off for gallery back then.  So the players were spared that arduous physical task.  “The fans walked right down the fairway with the players,” said Marilynn Smith.  “We really became friendly with a lot of people and I still  have friends that I keep in contact with from those days of walking down the fairways.”

Sometimes being so friendly with the fans got players in trouble.  “I think I spent too much time being a PR person - wanting to say "hi" to the people in the gallery,” remembers Bettye Danoff.  “ I used to get in to trouble because they said I was slow. It wasn't that I played the game especially slowly, but if I saw somebody I knew or if someone in the gallery was speaking to me, I wanted to be friendly.”

The players had no choice but to be their own public relations director and spread the word about the LPGA Tour.  “Very seldom was there ever a newspaper or magazine reporter on site so one of the players was assigned the duty each week of calling Western Union,” said Spork.  “At the end of each tournament she would send the results to Golf World, AP and UPI. Golf World was the only golf weekly publication at the time and that's how we got our news out.”

Once the tournament was over, the women would pack up the paint, the hazard stakes, and the scoreboard and head on down the road.  That's right.  They traveled with their own scoreboard.

“We all felt like we should have a scoreboard or something to show the public,” said Spork, “so somehow we got one and Betty Hicks attached it to the roof of her car and carried it from tournament to tournament.”

Luckily, that scoreboard never fell off of the roof of that car.  But not everything that the women packed from week to week made it to the next tournament.  Spork tells of the time that she promised to take Patty Berg's clubs with her to Chicago for the next tournament.  “Somehow, the back of the station wagon was open and the clubs fell out one by one.  By the time I reached Chicago, all the clubs were gone.  I had to tell Patty that I had lost the set of clubs that she just used to win the previous tournament.”

By the 1960s, several women were traveling in trailers and campers:  Bev Hanson, Mickey Wright, Susie and Dale Berning, Debbie Austin, Kathy Postlewait and JoAnne and Don Carner were among the first.  “We got to be a close campground family,” recalls former player Sharon Miller.  “At one of our cookouts in Rochester, N.Y., we invited a few guests and set up a chipping contest to see who would win the leftovers.  Jerilyn Britz won the beans.”

Miller also remembers a story about a touch football game that was played in Columbus, Ohio, in the early 60s.   It seems that a group of LPGA Tour players had scheduled a touch football game in a parking lot and they invited Patty Berg to play.  “Patty was no spring chicken so we passed the word to take it easy on her,” said Miller.  “She creamed us!  The next day I asked her if she was sore and she said ‘No.'  The rest of us ached all over.”

When Bettye Danoff became the Tour's first grandmother in 1960, Berg decided this was a fact that needed to be promoted.  To that end, Berg, who held pre-tournament clinics with all the players, began introducing Danoff as ‘our first grandmother.'  One week, Danoff decided to have some fun.  She limped on to the practice tee, leaning on a cane, wearing a long black skirt, high-button shoes and a floppy hat.  She had spray painted her hair gray and put some wire rimmed granny glasses on her nose.  A picture of Danoff hitting a 3-wood in her granny garb made the front page of the local newspaper the next day.

These types of stories are typical of how life was for the women on the LPGA Tour in the 50s and 60s.  Of course, the good old days weren't always good.  There were struggles and challenges to overcome.  But through it all, these women never doubted themselves or their cause.  When they are asked to reminisce and remember the early years, they do so with a sparkle in their eyes and a smile on their face.   And so they should.  These women planted a seed, and they have watched it grow into the leading women's sports organization in the world.

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