Two were expected. One caught a lot of people by surprise.
In a ceremony at the White House on Thursday, Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player will be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Those recipients were announced last March but the ceremony was postponed due to COVID-19. Sorenstam, who celebrated her 50th birthday on October 9, has 72 LPGA Tour wins (third all time) and 10 major championships. She is a naturalized American citizen having been born and raised in Sweden. Mr. Player, who turned 85 on November 1, is a native of South Africa who won 24 times on the PGA Tour with nine major championships.
The surprise was a native Texan. The late Babe Didrikson Zaharias, one of the original 13 Founders of the LPGA Tour, will also be presented with the Medal of Freedom on Thursday. Mrs. Zaharias, who passed away from colon cancer at the age of 45 in 1956, will become only the second sports star from the Lone Star State to be so honored. The other is former Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach, who was actually raised in Cincinnati, Ohio but lived in Dallas most of his life.
Zaharias was the superstar who made the LPGA possible. Prior to the signing of the original LPGA charter in 1950, Babe was already recognized as the world’s top female athlete having won two gold medals and one silver medal in track and field at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Her given name was Mildred Ella Didrikson, but after hitting five homeruns in a childhood baseball game, she earned the nickname Babe after George Herman “Babe” Ruth. She was also an accomplished bowler, archer and boxer. After the Olympics she actually formed the Babe Didrikson All-Americans, a basketball team that traveled the country playing exhibitions. She even tried her hand at professional pool.
“In grade school, I read in the encyclopedia who Babe Zaharias was and I thought, wow, she did all those sports, maybe I can do one sport,” said Shirley Spork, one of the two living LPGA Founders. “The reason for Babe (turning pro and forming the LPGA) was Babe wanted competition, just as she had in the ‘32 Olympics where she had done so well. She had nowhere to compete in golf.”
When she found competitive outlets, Zaharias dominated. One of the most revered records in the game is Bryon Nelson’s streak of 11 tournament wins in a row in 1945. But from July 1946 through August 1947, Babe won 17 tournaments in a row including the Trans-Mississippi, the U.S. Women’s Amateur, The Titleholders, the North & South Women’s Amateur and the British Women’s. With no professional tour at that time, Babe competed against the greatest women in the game, which makes her record even more astonishing than Nelson’s.
She won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1948, 1950 and 1954, the final victory coming by 12 shots (a record margin that still stands) as she was recovering from cancer surgery. It was a comeback on par with Ben Hogan’s 1950 U.S. Open victory after a near-fatal car crash, and it earned Zaharias the AP Sportswoman of the Year for the sixth time.
That U.S. Women’s Open would be the last of her 10 major titles. But she would win three more LPGA Tour events – the All American Open, the Tampa Open and the Peach Blossom Open – before back surgery revealed that her cancer had spread.
In addition to her extraordinary accomplishments as a player, Babe also mentored many young players, including Peggy Kirk Bell, who was her best friend on tour, and an impressionable Midwesterner named Shirley Spork.
“When we played in the Women’s Western Open in Chicago, Marilynn (Smith) and I were at breakfast with Babe and her husband George. I was playing as a representative of the state of Michigan as an amateur. Marilynn was from Kansas. As we were eating, Babe said to me, ‘Listen kid, why don’t you turn pro?’ And I said, ‘Well, gosh, I think I’d like to do that. How do I do it?’ Babe walked around the table, hit me on the head and said, ‘I deem you a pro. Now, go down to the tee and tell them you’re a pro.’”
“So, when I got to the tee the starter, Mrs. Dennehy, was the president of the Women’s Western Golf Association. I said, ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Dennehy, I would like you to announce me as a pro today.’
“And her answer was, ‘Does your mother know about this?’ I said, ‘No, but she’ll know tonight when I call her.’
“And that’s how I turned pro.”
President Trump will present Babe’s medal to W.L. Pate, Jr., president of the Babe Zaharias Foundation. “It is a great day for Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the city of Beaumont, Texas, her birthplace of Port Arthur and all of her family, friends and supporters that she is going to be the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Pate told the Port Arthur News. “In my opinion, as the world’s greatest female athlete, and probably the greatest all-around athlete – male or female – of all time, Babe blazed a trail in the world of athletics and culture that reflected immense credit upon her community, her country and herself.
“I and all of our board of directors, are proud to accept this award that will be placed in our museum in Beaumont.”