Growing up in a family of golfers in the Washington, D.C., area, Helen Dettweiler graduated from Trinity College with degrees in history and English and headed to Florida to launch a golf career with money her grandmother gave her as a graduation present.
Dettweiler won the first tournament she entered, capturing the 1939 Women’s Western Open as an amateur. Later that year, she joined Wilson Sporting Goods as a staff professional, along with fellow future LPGA Tour co-founders, Opal Hill and Helen Hicks. Patty Berg would follow in 1940.
The D.C. native was instrumental in getting the Women’s Professional Golf Association off the ground in 1947, later serving as the vice president of the LPGA when it was formed in 1950. Dettweiler was one of 13 players who co-founded the new association.
Women’s golf struggled to gain footing in the wake of World War II. During the war years, Dettweiler became a cryptographer, eventually training signal decoders throughout the nation. From 1943-44, she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), who were the first women to fly planes for the U.S. military. Dettweiler was one of 17 women who flew B-17 bombers.
She later became friends with Jackie Cochran, a pioneer American woman aviator, who married the CEO of RKO in Hollywood -- then considered one of the world’s wealthiest men. Dettweiler and Cochran designed a nine-hole golf course on the Cochran ranch in Indio, Calif., that is now Indian Palms Country Club, a 27-hole facility.
Seemingly always in the right place at the right time, Dettweiler played golf with the owner of the Washington Senators Major League Baseball team in Washington, D.C. He arranged for her to work as the “voice of the Senators” for a year as the team’s play-by-play broadcaster.
In 1949, Dettweiler appeared in the Hollywood film, “Pat and Mike” with fellow golf pros Babe Zaharias, Betty Hicks and Beverly Hanson, alongside actors Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.
While she was there for the LPGA’s beginning, Dettweiler left the tour in the early years to teach golf, returning to California to become the head professional at Indian Palms. She also taught for seven years at Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., often teaching golf to the stars of Hollywood, and later at El Dorado Country Club in Indian Wells, Calif., where she instructed President Dwight Eisenhower.
According to one fellow LPGA professional, PGA star Ben Hogan once called Dettweiler “the best teaching pro there ever was.” She was honored for that talent in 1958, as the first LPGA Teacher of the Year.
Detweiler retired from teaching golf and opened an apparel store in Palm Springs, Calif. She died of cancer in 1990, at age 71, after a life of many adventures.
- One of the 13 LPGA founders.
- In 1958, was the first recipient of the LPGA Teacher of the Year Award.
- In 1950, elected the first vice-president of the LPGA during the Wichita organizational meeting; her term began in 1951.
- In 1949, appeared in the film “Pat and Mike” with Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Babe Zaharias.
- In 1946, was the second president of the Women’s Professional Golf Association (WPGA), the LPGA’s predecessor.
- In 1939, won the Western Open as an amateur; joined Wilson Sporting Goods as a representative.
- Became the third female professional to work for a golf club manufacturer (Wilson Sporting Goods Co.), doing exhibitions and clinics all over the country.
- Member of the WASPs in World War II (1943-44)—one of 17 women chosen to fly B-17 bombers (the Flying Fortress).
- Also during WWII, served as a cryptographer, eventually responsible for training decoders all over the country.
- First woman to design and build a golf course (a nine-hole course in Indio, Calif., at the Cochran ranch).
- First female baseball commentator; broadcast coast-to-coast for the Washington Senators.