When Marilynn Smith was at the University of Kansas in the late 1940s the school did not have a women’s golf team, but she wanted to play in the national intercollegiate tournament. What she needed was help with travel expenses. So her father went to Phog Allen, the legendary athletic director at Kansas, and requested financial aid.
“Mr. Smith,” Allen said, “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 in 1949. It was at the intercollegiate in 1947 that she first met Shirley Spork, who won that year and who, along with Marilynn, was one of the 13 women who founded the LPGA in 1950.
When Marilynn, 89, tells the Phog Allen story now is it not with a sense of anger but rather with the intent of educating young people – men and women – of how it once was. Her mission now is to help young women pursue their college dreams.
“That’s what inspired me to start this event,” Smith said of the Allen incident on Monday at the 10th annual Marilynn Smith LPGA Charity Pro-Am, which raises college scholarship money and distributes it through the LPGA Foundation. Last year, the outing and auction raised $162,000 and provided $5,000 grants to 30 young women.
More than 70 years after first meeting, Smith and Spork remain the closest of friends and Shirley, 92, did the four-hour drive from Palm Springs, Calif., to Goodyear, Ariz., to be at the Oct. 1 outing on Tuscany Fall at Pebble Creek.
“Marilynn has always been a giver,” Spork said. “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 started 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.”
This year, more than three dozen LPGA professionals, mostly from the Teaching & Club Professional membership, played in the event. 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.
Each year the Marilynn Smith LPGA Charity Pro-Am honors a past player. This year’s honoree was Sandra Palmer, who won 19 times, including two major championships, was the LPGA Player of the Year in 1975 and for a decade was in the top 10 on the money list.
“I did OK for the small amount of talent I had,” Palmer said. “If you believe in yourself, you can do it. Here’s my message: You have to have resilience, dedication and teachers and friends who believe in you. After all these years, I’m still that little girl who loves golf.”
Another woman who as a little girl fell in love with golf and whose dreams were helped by the Marilynn Smith Scholarship, is Caroline Inglis, now an LPGA member. Several years ago, while a freshman at the University of Oregon, she was chosen to receive a Smith grant.
“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.”
Through her LPGA Pro-Am each year, Marilynn Smith is still buying shoes for little girls in gas stations. The woman who poured her heart and soul into helping build the LPGA has never stopped giving, she has never stopped acting like a Founder. Through her work, golf continues to grow and doors are opening for young women with big dreams. We can all thank Phog Allen for that.