As we inch closer to the opening tee shots of the golf season’s first major, the Chevron Championship, this is a good time to look at how history’s footprints have left their marks on the current field, and how the golden anniversary of landmark legislation has changed the world of women’s sports for the better.
For starters, think back to 50 years ago. The Chevron Championship had been played exactly once. That contest, hosted by Dinah Shore and played over 54 holes at what is now the tournament course that bears Dinah’s name, was won by Jane Blalock, a 26-year-old New Englander, who was the LPGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year in 1969.
Blalock went to a small, private college in Winter Park, Florida called Rollins. She chose that school, one few in her native Massachusetts had ever heard of, because Rollins had a women’s golf team – a rarity at the time. Peggy Kirk Bell played there. So did Alice Dye and Marlene Streit. The year Blalock won the Chevron, Hollis Stacy was an undergraduate playing at Rollins. Three of those great champions have bas-relief carvings in the World Golf Hall of Fame. The other two should.
Why did such an elite group of champions choose to go to a small, private school on a lake outside Orlando (other than the beautiful Spanish architecture and the fact that Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was an alumnus, of course)? “That’s where we could play golf,” Blalock said about her school.
Other champions made similar decisions. Betsy King, a Pennsylvania girl, went to Furman University, a small Baptist college in Greenville, South Carolina, initially to play basketball. Golf was an afterthought that ended up winning the day. She was followed by Charleston, S.C. native Beth Daniel.
They went where they could play, no matter the size of the school or how far from home. Those were their only options.
That changed in June of 1972 with the passing of Title IX, a provision in the Education Amendments that required colleges and universities that receive federal funding to cease discriminating based on sex. It was drafted as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and contrary to popular opinion (and how things worked out) it had nothing to do with sports. At the time, women’s sports barely registered as existing outside the Olympics and a couple of tennis tournaments. No one could have guessed where the law, signed by President Richard Nixon that summer, would lead.
Today’s LPGA Tour is littered with former college athletes. Our defending champion at the Chevron Championship, Patty Tavatanakit, was one of the most highly recruited junior golfers in the world when she signed to play for UCLA. Another former champion, Stacy Lewis, who was recently named the U.S. Solheim Cup captain, played at the University of Arkansas for five years and remains the only Razorback woman to win the NCAA individual title.
Pernilla Lindberg, who won one of the most dramatic Chevron Championships in 2018 in a playoff that extended over two days, went to Oklahoma State despite hailing from Sweden.
Another Swede, three-time major winner Anna Nordqvist, went to Arizona State, the rival school to the University of Arizona that recruited a shy young girl from Bro, Sweden named Annika Sorenstam.
Women’s college golf is one of the most competitive areas of the game, a goal for thousands of junior girls every year and an opportunity for players from all over the world to come to America and test their skills at the elite amateur level.
Even those who chose not to go to school have benefitted from Title IX. A half century after its passage, we now have daughters of Title IX mothers competing in sports at the highest level. Sophia Popov’s mother, Claudia, was a NCAA swimmer at Stanford. Girls growing up were tacitly given permission to be competitive by the generation before them. The daughters of Title IX moms saw sports as a virtue, not a vice.
When you look down the roster of this year’s first major, look at the number who attended college to play golf. And keep in mind the footprints of those who came before them.
By the way, Betsy King and Beth Daniel inspired Dottie Pepper and a dozen other future LPGA Tour players to attend little Furman University with its 2,700 students. The program remains one of the most respected in the nation.
And Rollins College, with 2,100 students, has 13 national championships along with three members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, making it the most successful women’s golf program in history.