My Friend Shirley

I first met LPGA Founder Shirley Spork on September 30, 2018. We were in Phoenix for the Marilynn Smith Charity Pro-Am, where I was honored to be representing the LPGA. While I had been working full-time for a little more than four months, I knew about the courageous women and their legacies that made it possible for me to embark on my chosen career.

Shirley was sitting at a table with Marilynn where they were signing their respective books. I remember watching in admiration as they greeted each guest as if they were an old friend, taking the time to answer questions and ask their own. When I went up and introduced myself, they welcomed me to the LPGA family with open arms.

My next time seeing Shirley was the following March as we were back in Phoenix for the LPGA Founders Cup. I was honored to sit down with her for an interview, which really felt more like an hour-long conversation with my grandmother.

I would ask one question and twenty minutes later, Shirley was telling the tenth layer of a story on the origins of the LPGA.

“I played in the Titleholders, which was at Augusta Country Club, and that’s where I met Patty Berg. She was my mentor from that point on. When we played in tournaments – we were built approximately the same, we both had red hair – so when the gallery came out, they saw a person with red hair, and they followed me thinking I was Patty Berg. When they found out I wasn’t, the gallery went somewhere else. But we didn’t have bibs like the caddies wear today. We had a little number that was 6 inches square, and they tied it with a pin around your back. In the program, you looked for the number and then you knew who the player was. We’ve come a long way from that.”

I always joke that any time I speak with Shirley, I get a new history lesson. She has so many incredible stories about her journey through life, the game, and how the LPGA came to be what it is today.

When Shirley started playing the game, there was no junior golf. Her “how I got into golf” story:

“I was just kind of lucky to move next to the golf course, and the kids in the neighborhood caddied and they were allowed to play for free on Monday. They told me if I had a club, I could play with them. So, my upbringing was playing with older kids and adults. I didn’t have the opportunity to have junior golf.”

That didn’t stop Shirley from paving the way for future generations of golfers. In fact, it perhaps gave her even more drive to grow the game.

In 1950, Shirley was one of 13 women to launch the LPGA, the oldest professional sports organization for women. In 1959, she was instrumental in founding the LPGA Teaching and Club Professionals, now known as LPGA Professionals, along with Marilynn Smith, Betty Hicks and Barbara Rotvig. Through all of Shirley’s accomplishments, what really lies close to her heart is the success of the LPGA Professionals and LPGA*USGA Girls Golf.

“I am very honored to have been able to be a charter member, founder of the teaching division,” Shirley told me in another interview. “Golf has evolved and continues to evolve through our LPGA programs, and golf today is growing leaps and bounds through the LPGA*USGA Girls Golf program. I am so proud of what our organization has done.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Shirley is her outlook on life. Her spirit, tenacity, spunkiness – all things I can only dream of emulating at her age. I always look forward to her Facebook comments that brighten people’s feeds, her emails with YouTube videos and stories that she thinks you would enjoy and just had to share.

A couple of years ago, a group of us went to Top Golf with Shirley, where she was still swinging and coaching at 91 years young. What fun! Now 93, she continues to teach in her backyard putting-and-chipping area.

When I asked Shirley what drives her, she said, “I’m not going to sit home and fossilize. I enjoy my friends. In the game of golf, the score isn’t important, it’s that I’m out there moving around. I just feel that as long as I can keep active, I’m happy. I’ll volunteer my time to see someone else succeed.”

At the LPGA, we have five “family values” that drive our vision and mission. One of my personal favorites has always been Act Like a Founder. To act like a founder means to leave the game better than we found it, always remembering the 13 incredible women who forged the path that got us here. There are signs all around our headquarters reminding us of our founders’ visions, passion, pride, and perseverance.

To be able to meet three of our LPGA founders is something I will forever cherish. And to be able to call one a friend is even more special.

Shirley’s passion for the game is rivaled by her commitment to making things better for the next generation. Our Girls Golf members idolize Shirley – as they should. She told me a story about one of these girls that she met at the LPGA Founders Cup and a special letter that was sent to her.

“Well, it was the most heartwarming thing I could ever receive. This Girls Golf program chose to have teams where they picked a Founder, and then they were to get involved in finding out who they were and what they liked and did. My team – they chose me as their Founder – they had to build a poster. And I collect ducks, so they did a little duck on the poster. They made a ballmarker for their hat with my picture on it.”

“One of the girls, Sara, wrote me a letter about how much she appreciated me and hoped that she could continue in the game like I did. I cherish that letter. I carry it around and show it to people. To think that a little girl would be interested in an old founder. That’s dear to my heart.”

Sometimes I wonder if Shirley realizes what a legend she is. To me, it isn’t surprising that little Sara was so interested in learning more about one of our LPGA Founders. I personally cherish each moment I get to learn from Shirley. She is so humble, yet spirited and quick-witted; opinionated yet supportive – the perfect combinations for a great friend.

This is the impact that Shirley has on people. Relationships that span generations.

Girls Golf – Miami hosted a virtual “pajama party” last summer where they had the chance to watch The Founders film, culminating with a Zoom surprise from Shirley herself. Donning a penguin onesie, I was able to join the Zoom surprise and witness first-hand the inspiration that Shirley provides for these young girls. It’s the same inspiration that encourages me every day to #DriveOn for the future of our game.

As for who Shirley drives on for?

“I Drive On for the fact that we have a terrific junior program, and all these little girls have dreams, just as I, a Founder, had a dream. A dream of being able to play and travel the country and have the camaraderie of a group of people enjoying the pleasure of being outdoors, the scenery, and companionship of others. And as it all happens, we receive encouragement from our mentors, teachers, and the LPGA programs. I continue to hope that more and more ladies and juniors Drive On.”

Thank you, Shirley, for continuously inspiring this girl – and countless others – to #DriveOn.